October 21, 2015
When visitors to the Logging Museum first enter the building they are welcomed by a large picture of two men standing side by side and smiling at the visitor. The taller man is someone well-known to most everyone in the region – Doc Linebaugh – who was in charge of the logging operation that fed timber to the Blagen Lumber Company’s mill in White Pines. The other man is less well-known but an equally important part of the history of the logging industry in northern California. His name is Lawrence Wilsey and he was my father.
Wilsey came to White Pines in 1941 when the Blagen Lumber Company was bought out by American Forest Products Corporation. AFPC was a large corporation headquartered in San Francisco that owned a number of lumber manufacturing plants in California, including Associated Lumber and Box Co, Stockton Box Co, Goff Machinery Co and others. The corporation was headed by Walter Johnson, a successful investor and businessman who lived in San Francisco and was known for his efforts to preserve the pavilion left over from the Pan-Pacific Exposition that was held in San Francisco in the late 1800’s. Johnson was also instrumental in financing the start-up of the Friden Calculator Co. These early-day calculators or computers were used extensively in the lumber industry and by the US government during WW2 because of their speed and ability to handle large amounts of data.
Wilsey was hired by AFPC to oversee the operations of the newly acquired sawmill in White Pines, along with the sawmill in Sandy Gulch and the drying yard and box factory at Toyon (near San Andreas). His office (which overlooked the mill pond and the mill at White Pines) was in the building now owned by the Moose Lodge, but he spent much of his time traveling between the three operations that were his responsibility. When the community of Sandy Gulch grew to the size where it could support a post office it was renamed Wilseyville because there was already a Sandy Gulch post office somewhere else in the US. This practice of naming mill towns after company managers apparently was company policy as there is also a Johnsondale farther south in the Sierra Nevadas, named after Walter Johnson.
When Wilsey first moved to the area in 1941 he rented a room in the Big Trees Hotel, which was being run by Al Pecchenino and Barney Bernasconi. He lived there until the hotel was closed down during WW2 because of the gasoline shortage. The historic hotel later burned down while CYA youths were being housed there. He then moved to a rental apartment in Angels Camp and lived there until he retired.
My father was chosen by AFPC to oversee the operations in Calaveras County because he was a seasoned mill operator who had been involved in all aspects of the lumber industry ever since he was a teenager. He was born in 1895 on the family farm outside of Redding, CA, one of 10 children born to Eugene Wilsey and Nellie Potter.
The Wilsey (originally Wiltzi) ancestors came from the town of Wiltz in Dutch Luxembourg and emigrated to New Amsterdam in the US in the 1600’s. Later generations migrated to New Jersey and then Indiana, before coming out to California in 1850 with a wagon train that included Kit Carson as its guide.
My father, his father and uncles all had experience in various aspects of the lumber industry in northern California. When the US entered World War I in 1917 my father was 22 years old. He got swept up in the spirit of the times and volunteered for service in the US Army, joining a special Forest Engineer unit (Company E, Twentieth Engineers). His unit soon shipped to France in 1918 and was responsible for harvesting lumber, running saw mills and making any wooden items necessary for the war effort in France. He survived the war and returned to California in 1919.
Before going off to war my father worked in the mills near Klamath Falls and Pelican Bay in southern Oregon. As a single man he stayed at a boarding house run by my Grandmother, Lilly DeMuth. Lilly had an attractive 18-year-old daughter named Viola who also lived in the boarding house and helped to cook for and serve the young men who lived there. By the time my father joined the army, he and Viola were engaged to be married and they corresponded regularly during his time overseas. When he returned from France it wasn’t long before they were married and moved to the Klamath River near Yreka in northern California. There they bought a gas station and store which soon went broke.
My father then returned to the lumber business and held various manual labor jobs in and around Montague, California. He wanted to attend college and earn a degree in engineering, but it was never possible for him to do so because of his family obligations. Despite the lack of formal engineering background he did design several sawmills and box factories during his time with AFPC. While living in Montague my oldest brother Lawrence was born. After a failed attempt to operate his own box factory with a partner in Montague my father took a job as yard foreman at Stockton Box Company in Stockton. He remained in that job for 3 years, during which time my brother Vernon and I were born. (At that time there was a state mental institution located on California St. in Stockton and next to that was the nursing home where my brother and I were born in 1926 and 1928, respectively).
My father must have done a pretty good job as yard foreman for Stockton Box (he was 33 years old at the time), as the higher ups at American Forest Products promoted him and made him manager of the Associated Lumber and Box Co. sawmill, box factory and logging operation in Dorris, California in 1928 – the year I was born. In addition to managing the operations in Dorris my father oversaw mill operations for AFPC at several other locations in that part of California, including New Bieber.
Most of the workers in the Dorris operation were Italian immigrants. They were hard-working men with large families who liked to make their own wine. My father helped them during the depression years by ordering a carload of grapes from the vineyards in central California and re-selling the grapes at cost to the workers. He also made short-term loans to the men, using company money and holding items like shotguns as collateral. When they had to make cut-backs during the depression he tried to make it as painless for the workers as possible by making sure each family group had someone still employed and no one went hungry. The company never had any labor problems while he was in charge and the workers voted down union membership as long as he was there. During the depths of the depression the Dorris operation was the only unit of AFPC that made a profit ($500).
In 1933, when I was 5 years old, my parents separated and our mother took us three boys to live in southern California (Pasadena) where she thought we would get a better education than in Dorris (population 800). We moved back to northern California (Lodi) in 1941 when our father took over the White Pines/Sandy Gulch operations so we could be closer to him. After a 15 year separation my parents were finally divorced and my father married a childhood friend of his and our mother’s, Mable Waldrip. Mable was a 3rd grade teacher in Modesto when my father married her. She worked in the post office in Angels Camp for several years after they were married and got to know just about everybody who lived there.
My oldest brother, Laurie, and I both worked summers for the forest service and for AFPC when we were going to high school. I spent several summers working at the Toyon yard, stacking green lumber and loading boxcars. It almost killed me, but it was a valuable experience as it convinced me that a good education was a valuable thing.
Our mother’s decision to take us to Pasadena paid off in the long run, although it was difficult for us to live apart from our father. My older brother Laurie ended up earning a doctor’s degree in Economics at Cornell University and I earned a doctor’s degree in Educational Administration from Stanford University. Our other brother, Vernon, completed a business degree in Stockton and was successful as an insurance agent and land developer in the Fresno area, developing large tracts of land for the Gallo brothers.
Laurie was a highly successful management consultant with clients throughout the US, England and Brazil. He retired to Pebble Beach and still lives there at age 92. I became a public school administrator and served as superintendent of schools in Santa Cruz and Carmel, California, as well as a professor at the Universities of Illinois and Northern Colorado. I now live in Carmel Valley near my two children and grandchildren and my brother.
After retiring from AFPC at age 60 our father moved to Santa Rosa for two years, where he built the only house he ever owned. After two years there he and Mable sold the house and moved to Yuma, Arizona, where they had some interests in the citrus industry. He died of a heart attack in Yuma at the age of 62 and is buried in Redding near his relatives and next to his second wife, Mable. He was a devoted father and a highly successful lumberman who was always proud of what he did for a living. He is missed by his family and all who knew him and worked for him in the lumber industry.
The next time you go to the Logging Museum in White Pines take a closer look at the picture of two men that greets you. My father is the one on the right!