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"Stump Extractor." Patent no. 43371, filed by George Hayden Francis and John Thomas Edwards, 1893. Showing cylinders with and without cables

 

Patent no. 43371. Filing year 1893.

"Stump Extractor," George Hayden Francis and John T. Edwards.

Tree stumps are a major obstacle for anyone who has to clear land. For pioneer homesteaders 150 years ago, with few resources and fewer technological means, removing stumps could be a time-consuming and demoralizing task. This was especially true in British Columbia, where the enormous root systems of trees like the Douglas fir, western cedar, and Sitka spruce hug the land tenaciously. As Hamilton Laing, a self-declared west coast "stump-wrangler," wrote in Maclean's Magazine in 1934, "The genius who can´┐Ż find some quick and cheap way of turning stump land into stumpless land, can have about anything from the West that his heart could call for."

John Edwards and George Francis of Kamloops, B.C., may have had a sense of this commercial potential when they devised their "new and useful improvements in pulling stumps and trees," above. Edwards, a stockraiser, and Francis, a miner, patented their invention in 1893. It consisted of a pair of mortars open at one end and filled with explosive powder. A solid plunger with an enlarged, flattened head was loaded into the end of each mortar. Notches were cut into each side of a stump, and a mortar and plunger were wedged into each notch on an angle. The mortars were detonated simultaneously via electric wires, ejecting the plungers that, at least in theory, "lift(ed) the stump bodily from the ground."

It was a dramatic concept that may have been more dangerous than effective. The hazards of working with explosives aside, a deflected plunger would have carried the force of a cannon-blast. Setting the device up would have been difficult, since differences in the timing of the detonations or in the angles of the mortars could have resulted in their forces working against each other. A variation proposed by Francis and Edwards, in which the fired plunger was attached to tree roots using cables, almost certainly did not work, given the operator's lack of control over the forces involved. Still, it was an imaginative approach that reflects the aggressiveness and frustration that stumps brought out in land-clearers.

Most 19th-century homesteaders had few alternatives but the cheapest and easiest method, which was to burn the stumps. Farmers built bonfires over the stumps and exposed the roots to ensure that they also burned. The trees' highly combustible pitch, which collects in their bases, helped maintain the blaze. This method, though, was very slow; Victoria writer Jack Hodgins, who grew up in rural Vancouver Island, remembers seeing smoke "drifting from the roots of stumps for weeks."

Explosives were faster, but more dangerous. Well into the 20th century "stumping powder" (low-grade dynamite) was used to blow a stump apart, so that the fragments could be removed more easily. Someone wishing to remove a stump tunneled under it, inserted enough powder to break it apart (preferably without damaging the arable soil), lit a fuse and got out of the way. If the detonation didn't come, it was best to avoid the area for a day or so, as many a stump-wrangler lost life or limb to a belated blast.

Machinery was eventually developed that could pull up stumps, but this was an expensive proposition for most landowners. In the end, many people gave up and learned to live with the wooden protrusions; vegetable gardens planted around stumps became a common sight in British Columbia and other stump-ridden parts of the country.

References

Thanks to the following people for their assistance with this profile: Jack Hodgins, writer; Jean Webber, historian, Okanagan Historical Society; Naomi and Don Randall, Quesnel Historical Society.

Laing, Hamilton M., "Stump-Wrangling," Maclean's Magazine, October 1, 1934, p. 14.