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Minnesota logger preserves 100 years of industry, family history in book

The book details a changing industry and the Latvala family's journey through it.

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Bob Latvala, 94, wrote a book featuring photos from his family's more than 100-year history in northern Minnesota's logging industry. Latvala of Grand Rapids talks about the book Thursday, July 1, 2021, at his home. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
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GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — Bob Latvala grew up with lumberjacks.

Some of his favorite memories involve waking up at 4 a.m. in the winter, feeding the horses, heading out into the woods at 6 a.m. and felling trees near Nashwauk, Minn.

Charlie, Bob’s father who immigrated to the U.S. from Finland at age 12, had a logging camp with 30-35 lumberjacks staying there at a time. Bob followed his father into the industry and then his sons joined him, too. Combined, the three generations have spent more than 100 years in the logging and lumber industries.

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Loggers from the Latvala camp pose for a photo in front of logs that will be used as supports in underground mines on the Iron Range in 1935. (Photo courtesy of Dave DiCarlo)

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With the help of his daughter and son-in-law, Bob, now 94 and a resident of Majestic Pines Senior Living in Grand Rapids, Minn., compiled stories and photos from his family's century-long history in the northwoods in a 2014 book “Latvalas — A Century of Logging and Lumber.”

The book

Nancy DiCarlo, Bob’s daughter, said the book was a way to keep the family history alive.

“We helped to capture the stories, not just the photos,” Nancy said.

David DiCarlo, Nancy’s husband, said after Bob selected some photos for the book, he scanned them in and showed them on the television screen to narrow them down further.

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Dave DiCarlo and Nancy DiCarlo stand with Bob Latvala, 94, on Thursday, July 1, 2021, who wrote a book featuring photos from his family's more than 100-year history in northern Minnesota's logging industry. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Bob had a story for each photo.

“Every time a picture came up, the memories just came gushing back … he was reliving close to 100 years of logging history,” Dave said.

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That went on for “days in a row until he couldn’t talk,” Dave said.

Paging through the book, readers begin with old black-and-white photos of Charlie’s logging camp, then progress into color photos of the family using modern equipment at Latvala Lumber Co. The book serves as a timeline, showing the changes in technology and logging practices over more than a century.

“We did everything by hand,” Bob said. “We didn’t have loaders or anything.”

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Bob Latvala and friend Calvin Stinar hand load pulp wood for transportation in 1945. (Photo courtesy of Dave DiCarlo)

Only a few cords of logs per day could be stripped of bark by hand (often by children as their father handled the chainsaw), but they eventually got a machine that could do 100 cords per day.

It also highlights the sometimes-odd contraptions used over the years. In the early 1900s, his father used a Lombard — essentially a steam-powered locomotive on skid-style tracks and skis used to pull logs to landings at railroads and sawmills.

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In the early 1900s, Bob Latvala's father, Charlie Latvala, used a Lombard — a steam-powered engine on skid-style tracks and skis used to pull logs to landings at railroads and sawmills. (Photo courtesy of Dave DiCarlo)

Throughout the book, photos of horses and oxen pulling sleighs loaded full of logs are slowly replaced by machinery designed to make things easier. Tracked crawlers appear in the 1930s and trucks in the 1940s.

Bob said horses were still used after World War II, but by the 1950s were largely retired.

New technology made everything easier, Bob said.

It also replaced the camps of several dozen pancake-eating, flannel-wearing lumberjacks (Bob said those aren’t stereotypes — lumberjacks at his father’s camp would stuff themselves with pancakes in the morning, then shove leftovers into their flannel shirt pockets to bribe their horses).

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The Latvala sawmill operating in 1982. (Photo courtesy of Dave DiCarlo)

The Latvalas' businesses changed with the times too.

When Charlie retired in 1951, Bob and his brother, Richard, took over the logging business, renaming it Latvala Brothers Forest Products, and later added a wood chipper to supply paper mills and a sawmill to cut lumber to customers' specifications.

Leaving a legacy

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Bob Latvala and son David Latvala scale, or measure, a load of logs in 1982. (Photo courtesy of Dave DiCarlo)

Just as Bob followed his father into logging, Bob’s sons, Jim and David, followed their father. The two owned Latvala Lumber in Nashwauk and Grand Rapids. It remained in the family until May, when it was sold.

Since the early 1990s to 2021, the family recorded over 100 years in Northeastern Minnesota’s logging and lumber industries. But they want the history to live on.

Bob, Nancy and Dave all hope the book preserves stories and photos for future generations to appreciate.

Bob said he wants the book to be “something for the youth and family to remember." Nancy described it as “a little bit of a family legacy.”

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Bob Latvala and a baby bear in 1985 after a grapple driver discovered a den with hibernating bears. The mother bear was tranquilized by animal specialists and was removed along with her cub. The bears, and two orphaned cubs then adopted by the mother bear, were returned to the den. (Photo courtesy of Dave DiCarlo)

For Nancy, compiling the book brought her “great joy” and seeing her father smile as he told her stories and “knowing that the stories themselves aren’t just going to get lost,” she said.

For Bob, it was a culmination of a life of hard work in a challenging industry.

“It’s been tough work, hard work,” Bob said. “But I’m glad we went that way.”

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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