The Kocjancic family is considered one of the founding families of the logging industry in PA. Eighty-year-old John Kocjancic Sr. gives an inside view of what it was like to grow up in his family’s logging camp.
McKean County, PA–Telling an old story is essential to remembering the importance of history and honoring the legacy that remains. The Kocjancic family was one of the founding families of the early logging industry in Pennsylvania. Eighty-year-old John Kocjancic, Sr. is the last remaining survivor of four brothers who were born and reared at their family’s camp in the North Central and North Western mountainous areas of the state. According to John Sr. their logging operation was the last camp to close in the late 1940s.
Joe Catalone, a friend and sales representative for L.C. Whitford Company, a 90-year-old family-run materials and equipment supplier headquartered in Wellsville, NY, has known this family for 25 years and stated that Kocjancics are a very modest family and “they don’t like to draw attention to themselves.”
“They are one of the founding families in this area for the logging industry,” he stated. “Their family was raised in the logging camp and they set high standards among the industry. They had camps across a six-county area and their influence is still felt throughout the region.”
Originally John’s maternal grandparents, the Komidars, were in the logging business. His grandparents, immigrants from Austria and Sylvania, were hired as contractors by Clauson Chemical Company to set up and run the 20-25 men camps. During that time three to four chemical companies existed in each county within PA with the sole purpose of turning saw logs into charcoal for the WWII efforts. Clauson utilized the whole tree and focused mainly on small high grade timber. Each chemical company owned tracks of land and the camps migrated to the different properties once the sites were expired. Most of the “chemical woods” were cut with cross-cut blades at 48-, 50- and 52-inch lengths. The saw logs were split and piled in the woods, loaded on a dray (or a sled) tied to horses and taken to the main haul road where trucks took it away. The chemical company supplied the horses and the hauler tractors separately from the logging facilities.
When John Sr.’s father, Joseph Kocjancic, an Austrian immigrant, married Rose Komidar, he entered into the family business and the newly wed couple took on a logging camp of their own as contractors with Clausen. They first set up camp in the early 1920s. The Kocjancic’s camp was a “large” facility that included a dining hall on the bottom level, a showering facility, and sleeping quarters for each man. The camp even had running water from a gravity flow of spring water and kerosene lamps provided light by night.
“Our family’s camp wasn’t large like those in New York or in Canada where they had 100 to 150 men at a time,” John Sr. was quick to qualify. “We typically had only 12 or 15 men, so it wasn’t a big operation or anything like that.”
Most of the loggers were Swedish, Irish, and Italian and many had relatives who were coalminers or loggers in the woods. Many of the workers never married nor had families of their own. The camp provided them with food, shelter, job security, and camaraderie in this foreign land. Most migrated month to month depending on work availability. According to John Sr., some of these men were life-long workers on his parents’ camps while others moved between both logging and coal mining. He remembers the faces of many of these men, yet he possesses no photographs of them.
“Taking photos back in that day just wasn’t something any of us thought of,” stated John Sr. “We were too busy doing the work and being involved with the day-to-day operations of the camp.”
John Sr. and his three brothers, Edward, Rudy, and Joe, worked and played hard in the logging camp. But when John Sr. was just six years old, tragedy struck. His father and uncle were in a car accident. Joseph had just reunited with his brother from Austria. Traveling back to PA, his car was struck. John’s Sr.’s uncle survived without a scratch. But his father died 48 hours later, leaving his mother to carry on with the responsibilities raising the young boys, ages eleven down to four, and keeping the camp.
The Kocjancic family is about as involved in logging as a family can be. It would not be surprising if the family name were to appear in a dictionary associated with the word logging. Joe, who worked as a sawyer in a mill, owned and operated his own saw shop. All of his children were girls. Like Joey, Rudy had a business as a contractor to skid and haul logs. He had three girls and a son who cuts, skids, and hauls as a contractor. Edward had three sons, Mike who runs a chipping operation, Ed Jr. who owns a forestry consulting firm, and Jeff who is a logging contractor.
“You have to understand that our camp wasn’t just a camp, it was like a home,” remembered John Sr. “It was where mother cooked for the men and our family, and kept the quarters. It was where we boys had been born. My mother had to carry on for us all. We were very fortunate to have a mother who was as strong as she was. She raised us boys…Mother made sure we went to school and went to church and that we learned to work really hard.”
As the boys grew in strength and stature, they also grew in favor with those who participated in competitions.
“I don’t know if John would tell you this or not, but he and his brother, Edward, were world champions in cross-cutting and chopping competitions,” stated family friend, Joe Catalone.
“We enjoyed the competition,” John Sr. chuckled. “We were recognized wherever we went. We had a lot of fun.”
John and Edward never actually went out West or internationally to compete. They represented the North East Region of the United States. However, they were considered world champions in two-man cross-cutting and in chopping. According to John Sr., a 20- to 22-inch pine in Connecticut was the largest tree that he and Edward ever cut.
“We did pretty good on all of them (the competitions), but it’s just because we were born and reared in the woods,” John remarked. “We did it all the time. We never had to practice to compete. We just showed up. There was not one of us boys who couldn’t pull the cross-cut saw very well; even mother could pull the saw.”
According to John Sr. there was lots of work in the woods because of the cross-cut blades. “In Elk County in the 1930’s there were at least a half dozen camps at one time, but when the power saws came out after 1945, there was a big change in the industry,” he remarked. “Many of the camps closed down.”
John Sr.’s brothers served separately in WWII, Korea and in Vietnam and returned to help him and their mother with running the camp. The camp remained open even without boarding loggers long after all the others closed down in the late 1940s.
“We were very fortunate to have a mother who was strong. And the strength that she had to carry on after dad died was incredible…she taught us to work hard,” John Sr. stated.
John Sr. and each of his brothers have carried on the Kocjancic legacy. Edward went on from winning championships to becoming a forestry consultant in the region for many years. He passed away four years ago. John Sr. and the remaining relatives of the Kocjancics are now on their third generation of loggers and are about to embark on a fourth. John Sr. and his wife, Jeanette, have three sons and four daughters. Of seven boys among the four Kocjancic families, only one hasn’t pursued the industry, John Sr.’s son, Jimmy.
“Jimmy became the family’s trauma doctor,” said cousin, Mike Kocjancic, who is also Edward’s son. “He was pulled away to medical school so that he could take care of us all.”
But John Sr.’s two other sons, John, and Joey, have followed suit with the family’s passion. Each one has progressed on the journey towards modernization. They’ve abandoned the cross-cut blades and axes. John, who is 16 years older than Joey, said he is an “old school” hand logger. He’s been in the business full-time since 1979, for nearly 30 years. He continues to run his old Stihl 46 chainsaw, his 2 John Deere cable skidders, 540D and 540 B, and his 450H John Deere Dozer.
John cuts equal amounts of pulpwood and logs. He aims for two to three loads or 40 to 60 tons per day between the two types. He has steady work with an Ohio-based hardwood sawmill, Industrial Timber and Lumber Company (ITL). ITL hires 15 to 18 crews to cut timber. Most of their work is in Elk County, PA. John’s pulpwood is chipped for paper and the diameter of his cuts varies quite a bit depending on the piece of land. The base diameter for his logs is generally 13 or 14 inches. Anything smaller he cuts is pulpwood. He deals mainly with hardwood. A portion of John’s production also helps supply his cousin, Mike, with round wood for Mike’s concentration yard.
Mike, owner of New Growth Resources, spoke highly of his cousin. “John is the epitome of a professional logger. He supplies some of the nicest quality round wood that’s delivered into my facility in Kane, PA.”
John’s a firm believer in knowing the basics of the logging industry. He has two sons who are eager to join in the family’s business. John Paar, his 24-year-old, has been working with him for two years now and his fifteen-year-old Frank is “ready to go.” John believes that “just because you have a machine doesn’t mean you really know the process of tree cutting.” So he’s making sure his boys know the process well before moving them onto mechanization.
“It’s (moving into mechanization) is not too far down the road for John Paar,” stated his dad. “He’s getting ansy to do different and he doesn’t want to listen to the boss anymore.”
John admitted that he’s done logging the old way for a long time and that it’s hard to do things differently; however, he did purchase Joey’s Bell so that John Paar could get started toward the future.
“I think the Bell will help him get ready for mechanization and it will be a nice transition for him,” John stated. “I’m looking for my kids to go into cut-to-length/mechanization. That is the way forward for this industry. They are the next generation.”