It’s been five years since the History Channel’s hit series “Ax Men” catapulted a few local loggers into stardom.
From the late-night talk shows to billboards around the country, Jay Browning, Mark and Clay Gustafson and Darrell Holthusen have found fame as poster boys for the television series in years past, from the creators of “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers.”
The show made them money. And it also gave them fame.
But the show, in its fifth season, is anything but gold for the local loggers who are struggling with whether to return.
“The History Channel has a little bit of a problem with me and I have a little bit of a problem with them,” Browning said.
J.M. Browning Logging Company was involved in the first four seasons of the hit show.
Gustafson Logging, which includes brothers Mark, Clay and foreman Holthusen, participated in Season 1.
Season 5, on the air, does not feature either logging team. Instead, it is made up of Big Gun Logging of Vernonia, Rygaard Logging of Port Angeles, Wash., Siderius Logging of Kalispell, Mont., H.H. Horse Logging of Floyd County, Va., Papac Alaska Logging of Craig, Alaska, Shelby “Swamp Man” Stanga of the Louisiana Bayou, and S & S Aqua/Team Buck River of Suwannee River, Fla.
“We’ve gotten more fan mail this year than any other year when we were on the show. We had a lot of fans. And I had to hire two extra girls to answer all the fan mail,” Browning said.
Browning Logging answers every one.
The fans are the reason Browning Logging didn’t throw the towel in earlier. Browning calls the show a positive experience. He may have stopped for now, but nothing is forever.
Still working on it
Producers have been working to get Browning and his son Jesse back on the show, he said, even part time. He hasn’t ruled out going back, but has said the show would need to make some serious changes before he considered signing up again.
“I had to make a choice about whether I wanted to be a professional logging company or to basically stomp my integrity into the ground,” Browning said. “The one thing that I don’t like to see is that the show has taken on a whole different direction of guys fighting and arguing and all of this screaming and yelling, all of this cussing, to me makes us look like we’re a bunch of Neanderthals.
“It makes it look like this profession has never evolved since Day 1. Things change all the time in this industry as far as equipment and efficiency and safety. And logging companies like me, I’ve been in this business for 30 years, we should have 10, 15 fatalities. We don’t have a one.
“We do have a guy who lost a leg, but we’re pretty proud that we don’t have any fatalities. And sometimes I feel that the camera crews or the production people are just waiting for someone to get killed. There always wanting more and more out of us. And we just want to show people some of the interesting jobs we log. Because they’re jobs most people won’t take.
“This show set us back 50 years.”
“In a way I feel kind of bad that we’re not doing (the show) for some of the people, because some of the people really lived for Sunday night to watch the show,” Browning said. “And I worked real hard with my crew to really watch their language and I can do four-letter words with the best of them and it is sometimes in the woods pretty intense. But we wanted it to be a family show because most of the fan mail comes from kids.
“We get, almost every day, colored drawings of the yarder or trucks from kids all over.”
Browning and company are proud of the drawings they get and keep a stash of them displayed at their Knappa truck dispatch office.
Two students from Knappa’s Hilda Lahti Elementary School wrote to Browning when the show began and asked to have breakfast with the star. He treated their whole first grade class to a meal at The Logger restaurant.
“We’ve saved pretty much everything,” Browning said. “The reason we wanted to do the show was to let the people know what is going on in the timberlands. Because some of these are state timber, which belongs to everyone in Oregon. We wanted them to know that the loggers were professional. We go through some schooling and there’s a lot of laws to abide by and there’s an awful lot of planning that goes into planting trees.
“So many people don’t know it, but it’s been a law for a long time to plant trees and they have a year to do it in. We wanted people to know those kinds of things, that there’s more out there to protect than endangered species. There’s the unendangered species. The bears, the cougars, the deer and the elk, and a lot of critters that live out in the woods. And these clear cuts are basically their only way of having feed because these animals cannot live in a full canopy forest.
“We’ve gotten a lot of letters from people saying they really appreciated this show or that show because we were putting logs in a stream or working in a protected wetland and they didn’t know things like that happened in the woods.”
Browning’s biography on the History Channel’s website, under the title “The King of the Mountain” states: “Browning Logging is now and has always been ‘the one to beat.’ Known for hiring the best men, putting them to work on the best equipment and expecting miracles in return, owner Jay Browning has built his million-dollar empire over decades of hard work and personal sacrifice.”
Season four’s description, the last Browning participated in, says, “This season, Browning is out to tackle the jobs its competitors can't or won't. Jesse Browning returns to lead his team through their most harrowing work, hoping to finally prove to his father that he has what it takes to fill his shoes. But with nearly impossible expectations to meet and personal tragedy to overcome, this season will push Jesse to his breaking point.
“If Jesse is up to the challenge, Browning will prove once and for all that they are the indisputable kings of the mountain, but the faster the crew works, the more difficult it is to outrun the dangers that plague this industry.”
“Because we didn’t do the show, that one log site made $400,000 more that summer. Because we weren’t screwing around. But it was kind of interesting, and a lot of what I get is, ‘Oh you’re not doing the show anymore because those people were a pain in the ass?’ No, actually they weren’t. Very seldom did we have any problems with those people. My son had a big problem with the camera. There were typically three or four cameras on us.”
The television show has recorded bright spots of the loggers’ lives. But the cameras were still rolling to record the pain.
Jesse Browning and his father suffered a personal tragedy during that season when Jesse Browning’s stepdaughter, Ashlynn Anderson, was killed by the family dog in his Svensen-area front yard.
A Rottweiler, one of two that belonged to the family, killed the 4-year-old blond they lovingly called “Princess” in February 2010 when Anderson stepped outside to play. Her mother was only seconds away inside the house cleaning up lunch.
The Anderson family, Ryan Anderson and his father Don Wing, have since launched DADD – Dads Against Dangerous Dogs, an organization that helps education children and adults about animal behaviors and dangerous situations that can sometimes come along with them.
The Gustafsons - Mark, Clay and Wade - participated in the first year of the History Channel’s hit show.
Wade has since left the company that the trio’s father started in 1974.
They now have 25 employees and another 25 involved in the process.
“It‘s been a great great career and life,” Mark Gustafson said.
Mark Gustafson says the brothers have no regrets about participating.
But he’s disappointed in the way the show was edited and wished it had focused on honesty rather on drama.
“It was very exciting for me personally to be approached,” Mark Gustafson said. “Who wouldn’t be happy with the opportunity to be on TV, the chance to show people what we do all the time out there.So it was easy to say ‘yes’ to. Ironically, we were talking to two different production companies who were looking at doing a deal on logging at the same time. Original Productions happened to get here first so the other just kind of faded in the background. But as for agreeing to do it, that was a no brainer as far as I was concerned.”
Clay also says he was excited to participate in the show with his brothers, It was a show perceived to demonstrate what actually goes on out in the woods, he said.
But once he saw the show on the air, several months after the crew had finished filming, he was also surprised at how the show shifted from the outdoors to outlandish.
“To show all the stuff that we go through on the day to day basis, we thought that was pretty cool. But as it turned out, it was anything but. As time went on, and after we saw what the series turned out to be, it was a bit of a letdown for us,” Clay Gustafson said. “The first couple of episodes were pretty general, but then after that, it just became a whole other beast.
“They were going more for the drama aspect of what was going on out there, between the crew and the bosses and whatnot. And that was what they were focusing on more than what we thought they were going to focus on, like the industry and the dangers out there. They were focusing more it seemed on dysfunctionalism that can happen out there between people.”
Mark Gustafson added, “To me, because it was a new concept to them, the first episode or two was kind of generic and once they started seeing characters and how they could move the program to what they wanted to show, then it became in my eyes worse and worse and less and less educational and less positive because of the direction they wanted to take. And so much of it was pure fabrication through editing. Some of it was just outright false information because they thought it was cool to spin things a certain way. When we watched it, we were just kind of going, ‘That didn’t happen,’ or ‘That didn’t happen that way.’”
Clay Gustafson also said he didn’t like the way some of his crew members were portrayed, hardworking members of the crew who were pigeonholed into being “the screw up” or “the angry guy” even if they only acted that way 10 percent of the time.
“Blame it on our naivety,” Clay Gustafson explained of it being a television show and expecting drama on the screen. “We thought they were going to show things like it happened out there. But that didn’t turn out to be so.”
“I never dreamed that they would have come up with what they did. For one thing, it’s going to be on the History Channel,” Mark Gustafson said. “It’s like if someone took all the snippets of the worst things that ever happened to you in your life and the dumbest things you ever did or said and putting them all together and saying this is (your) life. Because people want to watch that.
“Been there. Done that.”
Still, neither regrets participating. They wouldn’t do the show again, but they wouldn’t take it back either. The show helped their business and opened doors they never thought possible. They also didn’t rule out participating in a different program that had a more educational outlook, like the show on the Discovery Channel’s Swamp Loggers of a similar style.
“That’s what I had hoped ‘Ax Men’ would be,” Mark Gustafson said.
They were initially contacted for season two of “Ax Men” but when the Gustafsons brought up issues about the contract and changes they would like to see, they weren’t contacted again.
“It was a lot of fun to do the show. The camera crew and the sound guys out there were great,” Clay Gustafson said. “Out there everyday, they are working right along side us. They were in the trenches with us. It was exciting and it was fun.”
Mark Gustafson said he was proud of the professionalism of his company that was filmed. He didn’t have to tell crew members to watch their language or act a certain way, they just did it and they made him proud to own Gustafson Logging. He also said if he was too boring to be added back to the show, he’s OK with that, too.
“I think for our industry in general, it did provide a lot of people some insight into how dangerous it is, what hard work it is, those are good things,” he said.
“We started our website, were selling merchandise and were contacted from people all across the U.S. and then overseas in Scandinavia and all across Europe, we started being contacted from all across the world. Very complimentary. That was positive.
“It opened a lot of doors that we never would have been considered for otherwise.”
The Gustafsons were once contacted for assistance in a clearing job for a powerline in jungles of Brazil and offered a job in Tennessee. They’ve also been featured on magazine covers and spoken to groups at their alma mater, Oregon State University.
Not only has Gustafson Logging left its mark on the world through the television opportunity. Mark Gustafson’s son, Chad, 34, is in line to take over the family business, keeping it alive.
“That’s pretty unique in our industry right now. There aren’t many next generations coming up,” he said with pride.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.