John Parmeter, Tramp Logger, by Mary Matzek
What a story, Wobbly when being a Wobbly was a penitentiary offense ! Some man ! Full disclosure: Editor went to school with his daughter, Jeannie
John Parmeter Tramp Logger
By Mary Matzek
“I was always known as a tramp, a tramp logger,” explains John Parmeter. “The wife and I have lived in 48 different homes but every place we lived we always came home to Poverty Hill in Wilseyville. There’s no place we like better”, he says.
John loves the woods and he was born to be a logger. His dad was a logging superintendent, his mother cooked in a logging camp and he grew up in the woods. He started work at age 14, putting in 10 hour days for 11 cents an hour. He learned quickly that working the woods was a dangerous job and the loggers were a hardworking lot, tough and deserving of respect. When a man puts his life on the line he wants a boss who know what he’s doing and one who is fair. That’s the way John felt when he started working but that often wasn’t the way it was. Consequently, he joined the “Wobblies.”
“I joined the IWW, International Workmen of the World, until it became a penitentiary offense to carry a card. But they were smart men. I learned more about how one working man should treat another from them than any other outfit I’ve been with. I learned a lot from them, even though the loggers and other trades raised hell. They blew up camps and there was violence. It wasn’t right and I wasn’t part of that but they taught me things that stayed with me all my life. At the meetings they would tell you, a crew works with the foreman, not for the foreman. They told us, don’t stand around and bitch. If you are working, tramp it if you aren’t happy. If you are the boss, fire the man if you can’t get along with him and give him an opportunity to start fresh. Treat every man the way you’d like to be treated and get the job done.
“In the short times the Wobblies operated they forced a lot of changes. No logging camp in 1918-1920 had more than one shower, some had none. You came with your own bedroll and the company furnished a cabin. You had to go to the barn and fill your own mattress with hay. The toilet was apt to be a couple of 2 x 4’s strung across a couple of trees, maybe a two holer. No laundries. The bedbugs were terrible and the food was awful. All they asked was decent working conditions. If a man doesn’t eat good and can’t sleep you don’t have a good crew. They made them fumigate the cabins; give us windows that opened and decent forks. That was one of the major complaints. It seems like a small thing but all the camps had these three tined forks with black wooden handles. You couldn’t pick up a thing with ’em. To a man they hated those forks and we requested decent ones. We used to take them out in our pockets and pitch them in the woods thinking they’d come up with something better. Once at McCloud we had to take a board off the window to open it and when we got the board off we could see the wall beneath the window was stuffed full of those lousy forks.
“Another thing they taught me was, try never to stay in one camp for over six weeks. They wanted you to learn new ways to splice or a different way to do something. I’d change camps a half dozen times a year. If a log got stuck on a donkey stand, I’d know how to take care of it. It was something I had seen solved somewhere else. I learned something new in every camp I went to and brought that experience with me to each job. It proved to be valuable advice.”
Those early days were rough in the camps and John learned every job there is to do in the logging business over the 53 years he worked in the woods.
“’My first job was greasing skids. I carried a bucket and broom and every four feet I greased a skid. This camp was using mules to pull the logs out and the skids were made of pine a foot in diameter.”(Skids are the logs set cross ways to make a road on which to slide or skid the logs out of the woods and to the landing site.) Later, when hydraulic donkeys came in, they set the skids lengthways and made them out of poles. The skids keep the log from digging into the dirt as it’s dragged by the mules or oxen or hydraulic donkey.
“I worked every summer in the woods while I was in high school. When I graduated in 1922, I advanced right along to whistle punk. In 1925 I was a second climber making 65 cents an hour. I worked at McCloud that same year for 75 cents an hour. The climber was respected, the top man in camp. You could even wear a white shirt to work. The climber rigs the trees. Climbs up, sets the cable, hoists the jack and tightens it down.
“We would climb 100 feet or less but when we were working with the ledgerwood skidder we climbed 120, 150 and 180 feet in the air. A good climber could rig two to three trees a day. This process is used when you have to raise a tree instead of falling it.
“Then I moved up a step and got a hook tending job when the hook tender got caught sleeping in the barn. It paid $1.25 an hour and for a while there I was the highest paid logger in the state. I worked in twenty different camps from south of Soquel in the Redwoods and as far north as Cedar Willy, Washington. Some of the men I worked with were the best, like Frank Nave the Super at Hilt, California Fruit Growers. He taught me how to be a good supervisor. Another man I learned much from was Ben Inks. He was one of the best rigging men that ever lived. He taught me everything. There was Howard Blagen, at Wilseyville, he was the best manager and a man who could work with anybody. You just couldn’t find finer men.
“These guys that call themselves loggers today give me a pain in the butt. Nobody would rustle me for a job wearing cowboy boots and drinking cokes. A good logger drinks beer.
“Over the years, I lived in tents, cabins and beautiful houses. When it was time to move on, Queen would pack up and we’d go. (John married his wife, Queen, in 1927) When I was in White Wolf Canyon at Tioga Pass, I’d only get home once in three weeks. My wife was expecting and I heard I had a son when a friend wrote me a letter and said, “You won the bet!” He had bet me earlier we wouldn’t have a boy.
“I came to Calaveras County in 1932 when logging was just beginning to fade out. I left the logging business for ten years and worked highway construction in Reno for five years and for Claud Wood out of Lodi for five years. I didn’t plan it but it was probably the best thing I did. That experience served me well in the logging business. When I came back to the woods in 1941, the railroad logging had converted to truck logging and the best logger had to be a road builder so I was a pretty useable man.
“When logging was at its lowest ebb, I was working construction or anything I could get. I was on a miserable, cold job in Truckee for Isabell Construction Company when friends visited me from my old outfit. We went sage hen hunting and I got a little drunk. They got me to promise I’d come back. The next morning I told the boss what happened but I wasn’t walking out on him and I expected to keep my promise. So I worked from 7:00 to 11:00 in Nevada for Isabell and drove into California and worked the rest of the afternoon for Claud. That was 1941. I was pushing to be back in the woods and out of the road building and the damn fog.
“In 1942 I went as a logging super to Associated Lumber and Box and stayed nine years straight in the county. We bought the property here on Poverty Hill in 1948 and built our house. Then American Forest Products bought a new area in Trinity County and they needed me to open up that country. They had a big road job there. They had bids to build a road into the Rubican River drainage and the bid was 1.5 million dollars. My rep told the company that Parmeter can build it cheaper. Because of my experience road building, I was acquainted with the good cat skinners from Millers and a good stake setter. I had an awfully good engineer from the Forest Service, too, and we got the job done way under the bid. And that’s how the logging business was from then on; building roads to get to the deep timber. Sometimes the timber was almost inaccessible, but if the demand was there, we found a way to get it out and that meant road building and back to tramping. I was usually the first one sent in on a job to open up a new timber area. I spent 28 years as a super for American Forest Products.”
John never forgot what he learned from the Wobblies, even as a boss.
“When I went into Trinity, Clare Barnett from Angels Camp was a good cook and I moved her with me. I could whistle up any lumberjack from Klamath Falls down because they knew I had a good cookhouse; the same in Placer County. Irene Townsend cooked for me and she was one tough cookie too. A lumberjack come in drunk, she could toss him out. She didn’t take any guff from the men. There was a good cook at Boston Flat, too, Eddie Schaad. One night the cook got drunk and I went to get Effie to help us cook breakfast. She said she’d come for three days and she stayed for seven years,” he laughs.
John remembered how important the little things could be to a man.
“You know, if I let a guy go home early on Friday because he lived a long way from the job, he’d work twice as hard for me on Monday.”
John worked the woods from mules to modern machinery. It was a challenge from the first. Greaser, hook tender, climber, camp boss, super to stockholder in the company. He worked 28 years straight and never lost a day on the job and of his 53 years working he never spent a day inside.
John retired in 1970 at age 67 but in 1976, at age 74, John put on his climbing gear once more.
“I’m probably the only climber ever topped a tree in downtown Reno,” he says.
“It was a Christmas tree. They got this lodgepole pine for a Christmas tree and sunk it about six feet in the ground and then, come February, they needed someone to take it down. So there I was, trimming off the lower branches one by one, getting ready to climb up and top it when some old gentleman with a cane came up to me. He waved that cane and ranted and railed against me for cutting that tree. I was standing chest deep in branches trying to explain to him that it was a dead tree, but he wasn’t listening.”
“I love the woods. I hate to leave home. Plenty of wood, above the fog and below the snow. Where could you beat it?”