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How Mendocino County Went To Pot
Memories of Life in Mendocino Redwood Country in the Last Half of the 1900s
By Dennis Tavares
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2014 Dennis Tavares
All rights reserved.
THE 1950s IN THE FOREST INDUSTRY
PRELUDE TO EMPIRES
In the 1950s, there were a large number of sawmill closures and new startups. The net result of all the changes, which were driven by high demand for lumber generally and housing in particular, was that, as had been predicted, production increased constantly and dramatically compared to the 1940s. Average annual log use rose from 297 million board feet in the 1940s to 823 million board feet in the 1950s. Over eight billion board feet of timber, an astounding quantity, was cut in the decade (see appendix table 2 summary). About five billion of this was probably redwood. Assuming an original virgin redwood forest of 500,000 acres in the county containing about 30 billion board feet of redwood, then the five billion cut means that approximately one sixth of the virgin forest was logged in just the one decade of the 1940s. This large increase in log use occurred even though the total number of sawmills operating decreased. The new sawmills used more efficient bandsaws rather than the old circular saws of the 1940s. The machinery layout and productivity of all the sawmills was better. Over one billion board feet, 1,034 million board feet of logs to be exact, were cut from Mendocino County forestland in the single year of 1955 ( see appendix table 2 ). This is a mind boggling amount of logging that hasn't been equaled since, certainly not during the anti-logging demonstrations of later years. If the no-cut people had been as numerous in 1955, they really would have been concerned; but the world was a different place then. The large amount of industrial activity associated with this large harvest had a big effect on rural Mendocino Count. Prosperity had arrived big time.
The 1950s in Mendocino redwood country began with 44 sawmills operating. Subsequently, 28 new sawmills were started and 33 sawmills were closed. This left 39 sawmills operating by the beginning of 1960 (see appendix table 1 summary). The closures were mostly due to complete depletion of the individual timber supply for each mill. The newly built mills were generally also tied to small tracts of timber ( see appendix table 1 ), thus this pattern of cutout would be repeated in the future.. There was still no thought of expansive tree farms and large sustained yield operations. In most cases the employees of the closed mills simply moved over to jobs at the new mills because skilled manpower was scarce in the relatively pioneer economy of the coast.
The 14 new coastal sawmills included McGuire and Sons at Little North Fork Ten Mile River and Aborigine Lumber south of Fort Bragg. Mendo Coast Lumber north of Fort Bragg also started but would not last out the decade. Anderson Valley startups were Hollifield Lumber and Independent Redwood at Boonville. Golden Lumber also began in Anderson Valley, but it too would not last out the decade. The Philo startups included Philbrook and Sons, B & D Lumber, and Mac Young Lumber. South coast startups included Elk Cove Lumber at Elk, Spacek Brothers at Malo Creek, Arasmith Lumber at Point Arena, and Holm Timber Industries and Gualala Redwood both at Gualala. In this same time period there were 13 coastal mill closures including pioneers Rockport Redwood and Casper Lumber, Mendo Coast Lumber near Fort Bragg, and Crest Redwood at Comptche. Anderson Valley closures included Hulbert and Muffly Lumber in Yorkville, Craig Lumber and Golden Lumber in the main valley, and Al Boldt Lumber at Boonville. Closed at Philo were Anderson Valley Lumber and B & D Lumber. Maycrest Lumber near Navarro River mouth was shut down, as were Partners Lumber at Elk and Arasmith Lumber at Point Arena.
All along the inland redwood strip there were 14 sawmill startups in the 1950s. The north inland start-ups were Coombs Lumber at Piercy, Pacific Coast Company and Page and Gates near Leggett, Harwood Products at Branscomb, both P H & E Lumber and Stone Canyon Lumber at Laytonville, and Trimble Lumber at Covelo. Willits area startups included Firco, Daniels & Ross, and Mendo Wood Products at Ridgewood Ranch. Ukiah area startups included Hollow Tree Lumber, Masonite, Stoll Lumber, and Durable Plywood. In this same time period there were 20 mill closures. North inland closures were Page & Gates Lumber, Poke Easy Lumber, Vernie Jack Lumber, Sturges Lumber, Miller Watson, and Branscomb Lumber. Laytonville closures were Ben Mast Lumber, Delta Lumber and Ford & Sherburn. Frank Crawford and Lafurgey & Company both closed at Longvale. Closed at Willits were Mckenzie Downs, Industrial Plywood, Blosser Lumber, Tomki Lumber, Southwick Lumber, Fomo Corporation, and Daniels and Ross. Stoll Lumber closed at Ukiah and Russian River Mill closed at Potter Valley. All these mill closed were for a variety of reasons (see appendix table 1).
One of the very successful businessmen of this period was Frank Crawford, who built a sawmill empire throughout northern California. Frank had enough income from his mills to buy and close competitor sawmills. This attempt to control prices was a common practice for successful businessmen in the lumber industry in early years. In 1951, he bought and quickly dismantled the inactive old Sacramento Box Company sawmill south of Coveloin Round Valley, which was very near Mendocino National Forest. This removed that mill's possible competition for future timber sales on that national forest. Then, in 1953, he built a modern sawmill in the northeast corner of Round Valley, right next to the Mendocino National Forest boundary. This effectively eliminated future competition for timber sales because other bidders farther from the national forest would be greatly disadvantaged based on longer truck hauls and higher trucking costs. In 1956, he bought Harold Casteel's sawmill in Ukiah. In 1959, he bought Ukiah Pine in Potter Valley northeast of Ukiah. This set of mills kept Crawford's foresters, Chuck Ciancio, Al Reuger, and Pete Bernard very busy gathering enough logs to keep the mills supplied. They were later joined by the Knauf brothers, Tope and Wayne. Meanwhile, the Harwood family built a sawmill on their near Branscomb. This began a long saga of struggle, as the Harwoods tried every possible technology over the years to stay in the lumber business.
In 1951, Pacific Coast Company, whose history goes way back to the 1800s and coastal California steamship operations, purchased Casteel's Willits operations. The company was reinventing itself and modernizing, and it saw opportunity on the north coast of California. The then CEO, William Gardner, who was a prominent east coast politician, sought partnering with old money on the west coast. He needed people who knew their way around in the west coast forest industry. Pacific Coast stock was sold over the counter and traded on the New York Stock Exchange. So by various means, some of the company's equity came to be held by northern Californians including a significant ownership by Union Lumber Company.
In 1952, a new group set up to produce lumber at Fort Bragg. Aborigine Lumber Company, or "the Washington Okies" as they called themselves, had been operating several remanufacturing plants at Longview, Washington on the Columbia River. Competition against their little business was fierce there, so they searched to find a better place to make lumber. Their quest led them to Fort Bragg where there was an abundance of privately owned young growth timber. They started out on the Mendocino coast using portable sawmills in the woods. But they were chased out by California Division of Forestry fire officials because of the slash piles and fire danger they left in the woods. Learning from their mistakes, they built a permanent sawmill facility south of Fort Bragg in 1955 where they sawed logs from private timberland and peeler cores purchased from Union Lumber Company's green veneer plant. They quickly prospered because there was practically no buyer competition for logs from small owners and ranches. In 1957, they bought the Mendo Coast Lumber mill on Airport Road from Kelly B. McGuire and Arthur J. Gray. And they also bought timberland to ensure their log supply.They were an innovative bunch who were always trying new things. They even shipped a barge load of studs from Fort Bragg harbor to southern California.
In the 1950s, there were many rearrangements of timber ownership as mill owners sought to tie up supplies of the resource. The booming log market led many land owners, particularly absentee owners anxious to cash in, to accommodate the timber hungry mill owners. In 1950, Bob Crofoot purchased 12,000 acres of old growth in Greenwood Creek to supply his mill in Ukiah. In the inland redwoods, Coombs Lumber finished building its sawmill at Piercy and began manufacture in 1950. And Harold Casteel, who was looking for a supply of timber for his Willits sawmill, bought the cutting rights to the Sage Land and lumber Co. holdings running east from the coast dividing ridge to west of Highway 101, and from Cummings north to Piercy. He then contracted with Williams Brothers Logging and Shuster Logging, who started cutting the timber for delivery to Willits.
In 1956, Simpson Timber Company, a Washington State firm, bought almost all the Sage timberlands in Del Humboldt, and Mendocino counties. Simpson was seeking entry into California's forest industry, which was an informally but nonetheless tight knit group. Simpson immediately was accused of monopoly of a resource, and was under fire from the government. In an attempt to cool the firestorm, Simpson sold off the big 13,000 acre Usal Creek Block to Union Lumber. Pacific Coast Company bought Wolf Creek Timber Company which was located at one of the northernmost coast doghole anchorages at Jackass Creek north of Robert Dollar's Usal landing area and sawmill.
The Ralph Rounds Rockport Redwood Co. mill, which was to close in 1957, had incubated three men who would go on to seek their fortunes elsewhere, and who would become influential in the west coast forest industry. Fred Holmes and Harry Merlo you have already met. The other was Bernie Agrons, who was Rockport's forester. I first met Bernie at a Society of American Foresters meeting at the old Piedmont Hotel in Fort Bragg in the early 1960s. He told me he had been shooting sea lions and seals who were preventing spawning coho salmon from entering Cottoneva Creek at Rockport. He obviously believed in the old European model of a forester as both timber and game manager. In the 1950s, his role of fish protector was actually to protect the food supply for the Rockport mill hands. Fred Holmes told me the mill people used to take a lot of salmon, and they hid their fishing poles under the mill. The game warden from Fort Bragg tried to catch them, but couldn't. Bernie stayed on at Rockport after the mill closed to look after the timberlands for the Rounds family. He finally had all the salmon to himself.
To the south, Masonite proceeded to develop branch roads off of its mainline road from Ukiah. Eventually it would build another 120 miles of spur logging road to access all its timberland. It now had an able manager, Wally Wohlenberg, and a modern forestry department. Foresters Roy Wagner, Walker Tilley, and Jack Sweeley would develop Masonite's forest into a model sustained yield operation. These Masonite managers quickly woke up to the value they had in their forest and decided it was a mistake to chip old growth redwood logs. They helped finance and build chippers for woodwaste for many sawmills. Now this wood could go to Masonite instead of to a tepee burner at the sawmill. Thus, they began to sell their redwood and Douglas fir logs to various sawmills. And they bought back low priced chips from those mills. This was a much more beneficial arrangement for everybody. In addition, the sky became clearer everywhere as smoke from many tepee burners disappeared.
Russell Johnson took on leadership of the owners of Union Lumber Company in looking to the conservation of their timberlands and business. The owners could foresee the end of old growth logging, and knew that a major overhaul of the company's operations was needed if they wanted to go forward. They made the bold strategic decision to keep on operating into the uncertain future. Russell made several changes in the plant's manufacturing machinery and wood use. First he installed a large hydraulic debarker that could the bark off a big log in three minutes. This saved the cost of peeling the bark off logs by hand in the woods. It used water from the Pudding Creek reservoir which was pumped to very high pressure. Exiting through small orifices in the debarker nozzle, and directed at the log bark, it easily peeled the stringy redwood bark or the chunky Douglas fir bark right off a log. It was a form of water cannon. The bark was then ground up and sent to storage in the large fuel house. In 1955, a green veneer peeling plant was built to use the old growth Douglas fir. The veneer fetched a better price overall for the wood than converting it to lumber. One reason was that there was no sawdust waste in making the veneer. The veneer was sold to various plywood layup plants in northern California. In 1959, a small log sash gangsaw was built to saw the smaller diameter logs under 14 inch diameter more economically. This saw featured multiple sawblades held in a frame that was moved up and down by an electric motor. By the end of the 1950s, Union Lumber had grown to be one of the three largest redwood sawmills, producing about 180 million board feet of lumber annually.
Otis Johnson, before retiring as head of Union Lumber, had hired a PhD wood technology expert, Nick Poletika, to establish full utilization and product expansion programs at Fort Bragg. Russell Johnson, when he became president of Union Lumber, continued to back Poletika's efforts, which he hoped would increase the utilization and profitability on the raw material coming into the plant. The idea was to capture value added dollars. Bart Eklund and Warren Goble helped Poletika lead Union Lumber into the manufacture of laminated beams, vacation home kits for sale to do-it-yourselfers, fencing products, and bark products. Additionally, a Doweloc plant that utilized hardwoods was constructed. Hardwood utilization had long been the Holy Grail in the quest for sustainable forests, and Union was justifiably proud of its new hardwood plant. A bark plant was also built to convert redwood and fir bark to various products. The redwood bark went into an oil well drilling compound and fruit packing pads. Both redwood and fir bark went into garden mulch. Committees of employees were set up to brainstorm for new ideas, and it was decided that a plywood layup plant would recover more profit from the douglas fir green veneer being produced at Fort Bragg. Also important was that the old timber and land department, then headed by an old-time timber cruiser named Elbert Montgomery, was to be recast as a modern forest management group. And in 1951, Union Lumber formally joined the redwood region tree farm program.
In 1950, Fred Holmes purchased 22 acres at the north end of Fort Bragg, and started to build up a significant remanufacturing operation there. The operation could grade, sort, and resaw a customer's lumber. Over time, Fred would ship the product of some 96 different sawmill owners including many portable mill operators. Union Lumber liked the business Fred brought to its railroad. The business grew so fast that in 1952 he had to hire Carl Force to help him organize things and keep track of shipments. Carl eventually became vice president of the business. Fred's business activities and contacts would, during the 1950s, bring him into interaction with many different kinds of people. This suited his personality because he was the most egalitarian of the big four movers and shakers. He liked working with people more than doing solitary analytical work. He had developed the ability to judge men, and he was willing to go anywhere and do any-thing legal to make a dollar.
Fred told me of the time when a truckload of lumber overturned onto Bobby Beacon's property at Elk on the coast highway. Bobby brought out his rifle and claimed salvage rights on the lumber. The load had been destined for Fred Holmes' yard in Fort Bragg. When Fred learned about this, he told his Fort Bragg crew to get their hunting rifles, and the posse headed south. Fred told Bobby Beacon that he should count rifles before he proceeded any further. Bobby could see that many was more than one, and he relinquished his claim. Fred was the epitome of an old time free enterpriser and an anti-bureaucrat. Fred would go to lunch, and come back with a whole new business deal taking shape. He was determined and rigid of mind about only three things; he was going to make a ton of money; he was going to do it wearing work clothes; and he was going to hunt all the big game animals in the world. He was pretty much successful at all three goals.
Excerpted from How Mendocino County Went To Pot by Dennis Tavares. Copyright © 2014 Dennis Tavares. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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