SNLM editor’s note: OK, so I know that Lassen County isn’t within the Sierra Nevada area designated by us as our area of interest. But this history was given to us by one of the original founders of the museum, and I found it to be of interest. More importantly, I think it will be of interest to others looking for California logging history.
People and Their Stories
By Steve Camacho & Jan Harston
The Lassen Lumber and Box Company was incorporated in 1918. The officers and principal stockholders were R.D. Baker, Charles McGowan, A.G. Breitweiser and George N. Glass.
It has an interesting history and part of “The Lassen’s” story was captured during an interview with Mr. Frank Riley who resides in Chico, California, and through written correspondence with J. Walter Rodgers.
The mill began in 1918 as a small circular mill. Lumber was purchased from all the small mills around Susanville. During the time the small mill operated, there was continual construction to expand their operations. After a few years in operation they managed to build their own power plant with woodburning boilers and turbines to produce their own power. After about two years they were running their own band mill 24 hours per day. The day crew worked the box factory and at night lumber was cut to ship out. A planer mill was added in 1928, which gave them a 30 inch machine, two moulding machines, three rip-saws and two resaws. The yard was enlarged, a lumber shed built and eight dry kilns constructed.
Horses moved the lumber on small tracks, and were used continually until the operation was sold. The tracks were only 27 inches wide and belonged to the mill not the Southern Pacific Railroad. You could load 3500 foot of lumber only 4 foot wide to haul through the yards. There was enough lumber to be moved that it kept three or four horses working, with one man each to drive the horse. The mill owned about 80 horses at one time, used at the mill site and in the woods. A barn was erected to maintain them and during the winter months it was quite a job to feed and care for them.
Most of the lumber came from the Westwood area. Men from “the Lassen”, as the mill was commonly called, operated the privately owned line between Lasco and the mill. Lasco was a logging camp where men were transported and housed in dormitories, and did the falling, bucking and limbing. The Southern Pacific crew then handled logging cars from Lasco to Susanville. The S.P. crews operated a “Logger” train out of Susanville six days a week. They handled the steel frame forty-foot cards for the Fruit Growers service, Westwood Junction and on to Lasco with the short cars for Lassen. At one time they would drop off loads at Bunnel, eight miles from a small circular mill operated by Joe McAllister. This operation was phased out before the end of rail logging and the beginning of “gyppo” loggers using trucking operations direct from the woods to the Susanville mills. The old locomotives, there were three in operation, were sold to the Red River Lumber Company in Westwood. Camille “Frizzie, the logging boss, found out that they could gyppo cheaper,” and another phase began in the logging industry.
Frank Riley was born in Canby, Oregon, and moved to Cedarville with his parents when he was young. He was raised on a farm and when he came to Lassen County right after WW1, he had never seen a lumber mill before. He began pulling chain, then got a contract loading in the box factory. Eventually he would work almost every job in the mill. He graded lumber on the rough chain, worked the green chain, worked planers, etc. Charlie McGowan was the first Manager and Art Lund was the yard foreman. “Times got pretty hard there for a while, and the Lassen was down about 1 year, right around 1939.” When it started up again, Frank came in and took over the planing mill. Breitwieser died and Bridgeford became Manager. Rodgers put Riley in charge of shipping under Bridgeford. Three or four years later when Bridgeford died, Fred Abbay came to the mill. “The old stockholders died off, Baker and Glass sold out their stock. When we came in, Bridgeford, Abbay, and I put up some money, too. I would up as Vice President, Superintendent over the whole operation.”
The sales office was headquartered in San Francisco. Many of the orders came from the east, Pittsburg, New York, and many of the orders came from Los Angeles. The box factory could make anything that was ordered. “Ray Watts was in charge for awhile; Herb Stevens was foreman, Jim Clark was there—they were all good men.” Boxes were made for melons, vegetables, “anything they wanted, we would make.” During WW11 they were not able to keep up with the orders, and another machine was added. The box factory added their own printing press. The wheel was inked to stamp the lumber as it moved through the press. The individual companies supplied the mill with their own brands and ink. The sawmill ran 10 hour shifts at first and they would produce 10,000 board feet per hour. In 1941-1943 they were at their top production at 220,000 board feet per day, about 40 million per year. During the early days they ran pine, in later years the Forest Service required that they take the fir with the pine. They had to bid against Collins Pine for the Forest Service timber.
The mill employed two professional saw filers. Art Terry worked as a filer and kept the saws in the planing mill sharpened. Most of the men working on new construction projects were working for the mill, “… some were outside guys who were mill builders. Bill Blackmire was the head engineer.” They wanted to get water to supply the company houses with drinking water. They drilled three wells, but got hot water wells each time. One of these wells provided the swimming pool (Roosevelt) with water. They eventually pumped the hot water into the mill pond, which kept the pond from freezing over during the winter months. The pond held from 4-5 million board feet of lumber. Seven to ten million board feet were decked. “The first rains would choke them off (the lumberjacks in the woods), so the mill ran off the deck until the first of January. The mill would be closed for two months, which gave us a chance to repair and get it ready to go again.”
The company had a payroll of approximately $100,000 per month. On the average they employed about 250 men in the box mill, the planer and the yard.
Carpenters were hired to build houses for the mill workers and their families in the 1920’s. The rent was $25.00 per month, which included water and electricity. Water was purchased from the city since they were unable to drill for water successfully. Most people bought blocks of wood from the mill for heat, the cost of $5 per load. When people began using oil, these blocks were “shot into the ‘hog’ to produce power for the mill.”
The original company operated the plant until 1950 when it was liquidated and acquired by a group headed by Fred Abbay, H. Burnaby, John Rust and J. Walter Rodgers. Two years later they sold out to the Fruit Growers Supply Co., a subsidiary of the Sunkist organization from Los Angeles.