By David Davis
Dixie James, of Valley Springs, Calaveras County, is in many ways typical of the sharp-memoried “old timers” who are helping us to reconstruct the early history of White Pines. She is one of the few people remaining in the area who lived in one of the original tents that were set up in 1939, where White Pines Lake now sits. Her husband then was Roy Larson, who was a setter in the mill, meaning he “set” each log in the correct position in the steam-run log carriage that pushed logs against the main saw.
For a short time, Dixie and Roy lived with their two children in a large tent south of the mill. She says that she and Roy were lucky because they actually had two tents that were fastened together. In those first days the mill’s generator had not been hooked up yet, and the only light at night was from kerosene lamps and hurricane lanterns. The Larsons brought their own cookstove from Calpine, where the entire White Pines operation originated, and this stove kept the family warm until finally, in November of 1939, the cold and the snow made it necessary for all tent dwellers to move to some cabins in Arnold.
The next spring, however, the Larsons and most other families who had left their tents for the winter began to build small houses. The mill not only provided free lumber, it also allowed them to occupy, rent free, property owned by the mill.
What some people do not realize is that there was a second, smaller Blagen sawmill at Toyon, between San Andreas and Valley Springs. By 1941 Roy was offered a job as sawyer there, which was “one step higher,” with better pay. Toyon was also the location of two other facilities that were essential to the entire Blagen operation: the extensive drying stacks and a veneer plant that made veneer box-tops.
During World War II, Dixie and approximately 20 other women worked in the veneer plant sorting pieces of wood according to quality and grade. Before the 1940’s it was rare for women to hold industrial jobs. Dixie’s factory job was part of an effort to aid U. S. Armed Forces, and the plant’s production coincides with the war’s dates: it began production in 1941 and closed down in 1946. (The U. S. entered the War in December of 1941, and the War ended in 1945.) The Blagen Mill was later given a special Army and Navy award for its contribution towards winning the war.