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Voyageur's Best Features of 2004

Sun behind cloud

Sky Pilots
Spiritual history of the area began with ministers
by Dennis Meyer  | February 3, 2004

"Surrounded by those who hated them, guarded by those who loved them, the shanty-man preachers went their stormy way. They waded through snow, they forded flooded streams, they toured the camps on snowshoes, skis, foot, and by dog sled and canoe, and in their wake they spread salvation and brought light and life to men. There is an impressive list of homes reunited and families made happy by the return of a prodigal husband and father, and the parents who got their sons back cleansed in spirit and decent in conduct constitute so great a company no man can number them. The preaching of the Cross may be foolishness to those who perish, but to such as hear it and heed it, the message brings new life and true happiness. And all of these men had one theme, ‘Jesus Saves!’” (page 216, The Last of the Giants).

Here, in a short paragraph, we find a description of a group of men, who for almost a century held the revered title of “Sky Pilots”. It is possible, even today, to find that term used in other parts of the country, but its origin was undoubtedly birthed in the rugged logging camps of this area in the late 19th century. Many names from the past, names of which most of us have never heard, were prefaced with the title ‘Sky Pilot’. Fred Davis, Jack McCall, Matt Daly, Pete Peterson, John McGinnis, and Dick Farrell were all a part of this prodigious company, but three others stood head and shoulders above the rest. Frank Higgins, John Sornberger, and Elwyn (Al) Channer are those three.

Their lives and testimony are the standard by which the pilots were measured. Their personal stories are fascinating and bring a whole new perspective to the spiritual history of this area. It would be impossible to write stories about the churches without including the work of these men.

The story begins in Duluth in the 1870’s. It was then and there that a young Frank Higgins had moved from Ontario to fulfill his dream of becoming a minister of the gospel. There he came under the care of the Presbytery of Duluth as a student-candidate for future ordination.

While pursuing his studies he filled the need as a temporary supply for a vacant pulpit in New Duluth. Later he did the same for a vacant pulpit in Barnum.

The congregation at Barnum had a number of lumber barons on its rolls. One was a man named Martin Cain who was operating a logging camp on the Willow River. One day Higgins accompanied him to the camp. There at the camp Cain introduced him as his pastor and invited the men to come and hear him preach some Sunday.

Higgins was a powerfully built man. He reportedly had 235 pounds on a 5’8” frame. He once was described in these words, “He was an ax-handle and a half across the shoulders, and two ax-handles across the hips.” He looked much more to be a logger than a pastor. So the men challenged him to preach to them right there. He did, and so began a pattern that was followed many times. He loved to go to the camp and the men loved to have him there to preach.

It is reported that at one of those meetings a lumberjack asked him what his greatest ambition was. His reply was to “pilot men to the skies”. At that point the men put the title of sky pilot on him.

From this same conversation Higgins learned that there were 30,000 men who worked in the logging camps of Northern Minnesota who never had opportunities to hear the gospel. From that day on Higgins spent the rest of his life, approximately 20 years, going deep into the woods to bring a message of hope to logging camps.

In this day of modern logging we might not think of that as being much of a mission field. In the early days of logging it was not a place where preachers went. It took people made from a different bolt of cloth to enter into the camps.

By necessity loggers had to be a rough and rugged lot. Logging was extremely dangerous. The prime time for logging was in the winter months, when the ground was frozen and loggers had ready access to the lumber crop.

In the spring the logs would be taken down the swollen streams to the nearest mill. There the men would be paid, and for a vast majority of them it was where they lost their pay. Whiskey peddlers and brothels took most of it. It was not uncommon for saloons to serve knockout drops in the drinks. The lumberjacks would wake up in the morning with massive headaches and empty pockets. Then they would return to camp and start the whole cycle over again.

It was to this environment that Higgins was drawn. However, the Presbyterian Mission Board did not see this mission field as a priority and at first did not fund it. Higgins persevered, and after many years he was ordained by the Presbytery of Duluth and paid as an evangelist to all the lumberjacks of America.

Fortunately, Cain and the other Barnum lumber barons supported the work. Wherever their camps were, Higgins was welcomed.

Shortly thereafter, Higgins learned that the church in Bemidji was in need of a pastor. He was able to convince the Presbytery to install him there as supply pastor. This was where he wanted to be. It was in the midst of the larger logging camps.

He continued the pattern there that he had started in Barnum. He preached at the church on Sundays and spent the rest of the week trudging through the woods, carrying a knapsack loaded with “a few necessities and a great load of Bibles, song books, reading material and small comforts for the men”. Day after day, mile after mile this was his work, spending only Sundays in Bemidji.

Months passed. One Sunday he found himself so deep in the woods that he was not able to get back to Bemidji. He was confident that his elders would be able to conduct the service.

When he did get back he was confronted by the senior elder who relayed that they had not had a service that Sunday. He presented Higgins with a choice: to take care of the parish or the men in the woods. Higgins’ response was, “A thousand men could take this church. The men in the woods have only me.” From that day on his work was strictly with the lumberjacks.

Eventually, the twenty years in the woods led to his death. Higgins had been feeling poorly, and when he sought treatment he was diagnosed with sarcoma, or cancer. Surgery was performed, but eventually he lost the battle with the disease.

It did not mean the end of the work. Prior to his death the mantle was passed on to another. John Sornberger was his name. It would be difficult to find a more colorful figure in all the history of northern Minnesota. It took a special type of man, with special training, to carry the weight of that mantle. Sornberger was just that man. Higgins and God found him in a camp near Big Fork.

Sornberger, alias Jack McWilliams, was a desperate, lonely man. Wanted by every lawman in northern Minnesota, he had come to the camp in Big Fork to keep from being arrested. The logging camps were a refuge to many such men. It was said that if a lawman were to show up at a camp a third of the men could be seen scrambling into the woods.

It had not always been that way for Sornberger. Like Higgins, he was born into a strong Christian family in Canada. His mother died when he was seven. His father moved to northern Minnesota and sent John to live with an uncle in New York.

At age 12, he came to live in Minnesota. As his father worked in the woods it was determind that John would go to live in a foster home. This too, was with a strong Christian family in Itasca County. He lived with them for three years until he moved to “the family homestead in the Aitkin woods” which he oversaw, as his father was a foreman of a lumber camp near St. Cloud. There is some evidence that this was the family homestead located in the Jacobson area.

When it came time for him to go off to school, he went to St. Cloud to study law. It went very well for him until he ran out of money. At that point he went to work for the logging camp of which his father was the foreman. Soon thereafter, his father left to go north and John was cut loose from his last anchor.

Then his life took a decided turn for the worse. First, he found that he was much better at card games of chance then the rest of the men in the camp. Very soon, he found himself to be a relatively wealthy man. He moved to Delano, which at the time must have had a reputation as a place for gamblers. He soon lost all his winnings to the “professionals” and went to work at a saloon.

Soon thereafter, he found work as a camp cook and returned to the northwoods in the Grand Rapids area.

Through the years he had developed a reputation as a good fighter. It proved to be an ability that he used to his advantage all of his life. In his early years of manhood it became a source of income. First, he found it to be an advantage around the logging camps and saloons that the loggers frequented. It was not uncommon for loggers to brawl in the saloons. To the victors went the spoils, and Sornberger was always the victor. Eventually, this led to his next big adventure, professional boxing.

It had not taken long for someone to figure out that they could make money off of Sornberger’s abilities. When that happened Sornberger moved to St. Paul and boxed using the name Jack McWilliams. His abilities made thousands for himself and his promoters. He made much and spent as much. It was a lifestyle that lasted for almost eight years. During that time he won 127 bouts. He was crowned champion in two weight classes, lightweight and middleweight. “Then he came to the end of the primrose path, and met the two adversaries who defeated him: John Barleycorn and the champion of Australia...”

He returned to the woods and then off to North Dakota where another chapter of his life opened. He went to work as the cook of a threshing team. These men were not a whole lot different then the loggers whom he had grown up with. When work was finished it was off to the saloon. There he made a quick thousand dollars by robbing the saloon owner at gunpoint. It began a life of crime that swept along present-day Highway 2 for a number of years.

Sornberger was able to justify his life of crime. He saw how the saloon owners and whiskey peddlers stole from the loggers and threshers, so to steal from them was not stealing at all. Being an expert marksman, he always carried a gun. It was not an unusual thing to exchange gunfire with the law or those he robbed. In one of those exchanges in Grand Rapids he had his leg broken when he was shot by the sheriff.

He still managed to escape and ended up collapsed at his father’s cabin near Jacobson. The reunion was not a happy one, and his father threw him out of the house. He ended up holing-up in a root cellar near by. Though the law came to look for him for several weeks they never discovered his place of hiding. At the same time a friend was able to care for him and bring a sympathetic doctor to care for his leg. When he healed he made his way to Big Fork, (which at the time had a reputation of being the most lawless in Minnesota), to work at a camp and hide out from the law.

There his life took a decided turn. Higgins came to preach and Sornberger listened. The message happened to be on the prodigal son. Sornberger, whose father had thrown him out, wanted to come home. He heard a message he needed to hear and gave his life to the Lord.

Convicted that he needed to make things right with the law he wanted to turn himself in. Surprisingly, Higgins had a different plan.

For the next six months Sornberger went from camp to camp, deeper and deeper into the north woods, to tell of his conversion. This was big news. The notorious outlaw, Jack McWilliams, was preaching the gospel. Then one day he received a message from his friend Higgins that he needed Sornberger’s help with an urgent problem, and he was to come to St. Paul. Higgins had arranged a meeting with Minnesota’s Governor Johnson. The meeting led to a full pardon for Sornberger. From that point on he was free to preach anywhere he liked.

Sornberger became famous all over the United States, but his heart was in the northern woods. He traveled in this area a great deal. He was responsible for the birthing of the Community Church in Jacobson and also the Round Lake Presbyterian Church north of McGregor. Many locals can trace their Christian roots to a Sornberger meeting. A great spiritual awakening in Aitkin is credited to Sornberger.

Sornberger was arguably the most famous of the Sky Pilots. His methods helped add to his notoriety. He never lost his willingness to fight. It brought him ready access to many camps. But, it was his message that had the lasting effect.

The last of the Sky Pilots was Al Channer. He was not as colorful as Higgins and Sornberger, however, he is the Pilot who many in the area would have had personal contact with. His ministry ended in the 1950’s.

He was cut from the same bolt of cloth as Higgins and Sornberger. He was a big man and a tough man. A fist fight was not a rare thing, but something that was sure to happen in the course of everyday life.

He did not come into the ministry as a direct result of a meeting led by Higgins or Sornberger, but did join with them after he had started to preach in the logging camps and remote towns of northern Minnesota. It was Higgins himself who bestowed the title of ‘Sky Pilot’ upon him.

This article first appeared in the February 3, 2004 issue of the Voyageur Press.