The Frank Blagen Jr Story
Frank Blagen, Jr. was the son of Frank Blagen, Sr., the founder of the Blagen Mill in White Pines. Frank Jr. was the youngest of the Blagen children. In the 1990s, when Frank Jr. was in his seventies, he wrote his autobiography. Covering the entire span of his long life, he devotes just a dozen pages of the book to the move of the sawmill from Calpine to White Pines. At the time the move was being planned, Frank Jr was in his late teens, a senior in high school in San Rafael, soon to begin his freshman year at UC Berkeley.
[Page 42] [In early 1937, Frank Jr., a senior in high school, earned his pilot’s license. He wanted to become a commercial pilot.] Around the time I graduated from high school, I tried to talk my dad into letting me enroll in the Boeing School of Aviation, which operated out of the Oakland airport at that time. This was before any of the present-day airlines were even formed and air travel was considered pretty ‘far out’. My father was looking into a large tract of timber in Calaveras County with plans of moving the sawmill there and he said I should go on to college to prepare for work in the lumber business.
[Page 44] It was about this time [Fall 1937] that my father started to deal seriously on the timber in Calaveras as well as Amador Counties. The tract was known as the ‘Ruggles’ tract after the fellow who had put it together during the 1920s. He had a forester that worked for him by the name of Frank Solenski Jr. By this point in time Ruggles had died and the timber holdings had gone into the hands of the receivers due to the depression.
A point needs to be made of the fact that while this was an excellent stand of timber, it wasn’t the only timber available as the country still had far more timber for sale than the mills of that day required. Also, in the late thirties log trucking was just beginning to develop as a means of transportation while most of the mills still hauled logs by railroad or, as in the northwest, by water. The Ruggles timber had until that time been more or less inaccessible unless someone had the resources to put in a railroad. The two nearest railheads were the Amador Central that served Jackson in Amador County and the Southern Pacific, which came as far as the cement plant in San Andreas.
I made several trips to Angels Camp with my dad where we would stay in the Bassinet Hotel. Frank Solenski would meet us there and then we would go out and tour the timber that was accessible by road or trail at that point in time. I was very impressed by both the size and height of the timber as it far exceeded anything that grew on the east side of the Sierras around Calpine.
[Page 45] To the best of my memory dad went east in the later part of 1937 to try and work out [Page 46] a deal on the Ruggles timber with the Detroit Trust and the Michigan Trust who were the receivers or bond holders on the timber. The Calaveras Land and Timber Co. was the vehicle formed to handle the interests of the timber owners and a contract was finally negotiated. There was only a nominal down payment, if any, because the deal was essentially a ‘cutting contract’, which meant that the logs would be scaled as they entered the sawmill and from that scaling measurement payment would be made to Calaveras Land and Trust. Since it was a long-term contract the prices for the different species were tied to the lumber market through use of what was called “The Western Pine Index”. This was an index based on the shipments of the mills in the Western Pine Association (later Western Wood Products).
As I remember the numbers, the price was $2.50 per thousand board feet for Ponderosa Pine, $3 for Sugar Pine, and $1 for Fir and Cedar to be logged at the mill’s option. The contract covered all of the timber in the tracts, both in Calaveras and Amador Counties, provided certain harvesting conditions were met. One of these conditions was that at least forty million feet of timber had to be paid for as a minimum each year.
American Forest Products Corporation, later, in renegotiating the terms of the contract, got this minimum lowered, but in so doing lost the Amador tract, which opened the door for Winton to put in a mill at Martel. Today, the particulars of this arrangement sound just too good to be true, but it has to be pointed out that conditions were totally different in the 1930s. In fact, while the depression is often referenced as the years of 1932 and 1933, there were more people out of work in 1938 than in 1933 and it was only when the country started the build-up through lend-lease to the British early in WWII that the economy really picked up. So, while the price of timber was only two to three dollars per thousand board feet, the Western Pine Index was around $25 or $27. Also money was very tight (gold was $32 per ounce) so the entities who were trying to hang on to the timber were desperate for cash just to keep the property taxes paid. And, as I referenced earlier, even though this was a fine stand of timber it was not very accessible under the techniques in use at that time and, further, there was still a lot of timber available in the west as it wasn’t until the early fifties that timber began to become scarce.
I wasn’t doing all that well at Cal and after the fall semester of 1937 I stayed out of school and spent a good portion of my time working on contour maps in dad’s office in the Monadnock Building on Market Street in San Francisco. This was in January of 1938. Dolores and I had by this time been going together for almost a year. I was eighteen and she was nineteen and there was no doubt that we intended to spend the rest of our life together. In those days, you got married and then lived together instead of vice-versa as is often done today.
On one of our trips to Calpine in late January, Dolores and I slipped out to a small town south of Reno and got married. We decided to keep it a secret for a while because I knew my mother would object and, besides, I didn’t have any real means with which to support us. We returned to San Rafael and Dolores continued working at her father’s department store and I worked most of the time in dad’s office helping to figure out, through what maps were available, where the mill ought to be built.
Solenski kept telling dad that the only place for a mill site was ‘Dunbar Meadows’, which was a couple of miles beyond Arnold on the Ebbetts Pass highway. At that time, Arnold was nothing more than a wide place in the road. I doubt if there were more than a dozen people living there.
As I said earlier, trucking as a mode of transportation was just in its infancy in the late thirties. The largest percentage of our lumber customers were in the eastern part of the country so that meant that we would still have to secure a place on a railroad from which to ship the finished product. With the mill in one location and the shipping point in another, costs would necessarily increase due to the double operation.
From the maps we developed in the Monadnock office, it was clear that a location near San Andreas was about the only alternative if we were going to be on a railroad. Dad made some overtures through the bank in San Andreas as he felt that if we didn’t put the mill there we would probably locate the shipping facility there as a minimum. As it turned out, the ‘town dads’ got together and jacked the price of any available land up to the point that we finally settled on a place called ‘Toyon’ for a shipping point as there was already a siding there on the Southern Pacific. Toyon was about midway between San Andreas and Valley Springs.
By now, it was in the spring of 1938 and property had to be purchased and then roads, water system and a town site had to be laid out. My brother Howard was relieved of his duties as sales [Page 47] manager in Calpine and that function was handled by Edwin (Toad) McIntosh, who was already working in the office in Calpine. Since Howard was a civil engineer he was put in charge of laying out the mill site, the water system, and the access road as well as the town site.
A lot of this activity took place during the summer of 1938 and we usually stayed at the Bassinet Hotel in Angels Camp. Art Stewart helped Howard with the surveying and I was also involved a good portion of the time. Due to the water quality on San Antonio Creek, as well as some problems with water rights, it was decided to use Big Trees Creek for both the town and mill water supply. A small reservoir was laid out on Big Trees Creek and then a pipeline laid out to service the operation. The roads were laid out and preparations were made for moving the machinery during the fall and winter months of 1938 and early 1939.
At my father’s request I returned to UC for the fall semester in 1938. I didn’t particularly want to go as I wanted to continue in employment so that Dolores and I could set up housekeeping and live as man and wife. But I kept putting off telling my folks that I was married and wanted to quit school for good, because they both thought it of primary importance that I have a college education.
Late in the year of 1938, however, fate stepped in and brought the decision to a head. Dolores and I found out that we were going to be parents in the spring of 1939. Due to this circumstance, school was no longer an option for me. My dad offered to finance my way on through school as he had done for Howard after his marriage, but I didn’t want to do that. After a short vacation trip, Dolores and I went up to Calpine in early 1939 and I spent a couple of weeks there while I learned how to handle the payroll preparation. It had been decided that I would be timekeeper and payroll clerk during the moving and early construction of the new mill to be built in ‘White Pines’. (My mother came up with the name.)
We then rented a summer cabin that Mr. Bassinet had in Arnold and that was the first house that Dolores and I occupied. There wasn’t much going on at the time as there had been a heavy snowfall and the mill site was more or less isolated. The access road that was built wasn’t completed until spring. Some equipment had been moved from Calpine to the new site and there were a few deliveries during the late winter but activity didn’t pick up until late Spring of 39. I was on the monthly payroll (all of my other work had been upon an hourly basis) though, and my salary, as noted earlier, was $125 per month. Back then there were no deductions so my check would be for the full amount.
We lived in that Bassinet cabin for about three months and I will always remember how hard it was to keep the place warm. Since it was built as a summer cabin there wasn’t any type of insulation and the only source of heat was a big stone fireplace. I can still remember sitting in front of that fireplace in the evening in some camp chairs that were there. Our faces could feel the heat from the fire and yet our backs would feel the coldness. Jimmy Pierce was in Arnold then, too, and he often joined us in the evenings.
One thing that could have been a tragedy stands out in my memory. The front of the cabin had a door that opened out onto a small porch, which had a shed-type roof that was connected to the main roof. There was a lot of snow on the roof and one time as we were leaving, just as Dolores walked out from under the roof, a large amount of snow slid down knocking her flat. She was several months pregnant and, of course, we were very concerned for her welfare. As it turned out, though, the more or less soft snow knocking her down into more snow didn’t result in any serious injury.
Another thing that happened about this time concerned Jimmy Pierce and some other fellows who worked for ‘Doc’ Linebaugh. The only trucks that Doc owned at that time were four or five old International single drives, which weren’t adequate for the needs of the White Pines operation. Doc bought six new ‘chain drive’ Mack trucks for use there at the new operation. By taking delivery at the plant in Allentown, Pennsylvania, he was able to save on the freight for western delivery. Jimmy Pierce, Jack Dolley, and four others made the trip east to drive the trucks back west.
Angels Camp has the big ‘Frog Jump’ celebration every summer and there is usually a beard-growing contest as part of the festivities. All of these young fellows who went to bring back the trucks were growing beards for the Frog Jump celebration. As they drove the trucks back west, they were usually met at the end of the day by the local Mack Truck distributor in whatever city they were in at the time. Often the local press would get some pictures of these ‘timber beasts’ and, all in all, it was quite an experience for [Page 48] those involved.
Around April of 1939 we moved out of the Bassinet cabin and Dolores went back to her mother’s house in San Rafael to await the ‘blessed event’. In the meantime, I was starting the construction of a small one-bedroom house there in the townsite of White Pines. Harry Campbell, who I mentioned earlier, was just finishing up a house that my brother Howard had built nearby. The lots in the White Pines subdivision sold for $200 each. With the purchase of a lot, I was able to get financing through Charles Crespi who managed the Bank of America in Angels Camp. As best as I can recall, I think the amount of the loan was $1600.
With the liquidation of the lumber inventory proceeding in Calpine at this time, there were a lot of ‘stickers’ available. These stickers were White Fir 2x4s that had been used to separate the lumber as it was stacked to air dry. As these stacks or piles of lumber were taken down, there was a large accumulation of these stickers. Once surfaced, they could be used for framing material.
I bought a half truckload of ‘cull’ stickers (cull from the fact that they were below what was called #3 grade at that time, which later became utility grade). Those cull stickers would now be called economy grade. I only paid a few dollars per thousand board feet, but by sorting through the material, I was able to trim out material to use for the studs and other framing needs. I did have to buy a few pieces of better grade for the plates and for the floor joists and rafters.
In the early part of the construction of our house, I would get on to the building of it as soon as I could after work and then continue to work until dark. We were working a five-day week at the mill site so I did have all day Saturday and Sunday. About the third or fourth week, I hired a couple of young fellows to help me.
At this time, I was working during the day as timekeeper. I kept a time book and checked each man off once in the morning and once in the afternoon. We had gone from a semi-monthly payroll in Calpine to a weekly payroll in White Pines. We paid every Wednesday for the prior week. This meant that on Monday I had to reconcile the payroll and figure the amount of each check. Once everything balanced, then I would write the checks for Howard or some other officer of the company to sign.
The equipment used then was pretty primitive by today’s standards. I had the use of an old Burroughs adding machine and a hand-cranked Monroe calculator. A saving grace, though, was the fact that there weren’t any deductions then. Also, there were only a few different rates of pay on the construction crew so that once you calculated the pay for a certain classification, it was the same for all the others in that group.
Usually the payroll would be done by the end of the day on Monday, but occasionally, it would run into Tuesday. Then all that was left was to have the checks signed. I would pass out the checks to the foremen on Wednesday who would give them, in turn, to their crew members. There was one girl, Beulah, who worked in the office then and she would give me a hand occasionally.
As the day drew near for our first child to be born I was allowed to take some time off so as to be with Dolores. Our first born, Anthony Michael Blagen, arrived on the scene at the Ross Hospital on May 18, 1939. Dolores stayed with her family and I returned to work in White Pines and to get our house ready to move in.
We had a few pieces of furniture that came from Calpine and, in early June, we were able to set up housekeeping for the first time in our own house. We had a wood stove both to cook on and with coils in it to heat our water. So, if you hadn’t had a fire in the stove for some time then there was no hot water.
There was no electricity in the town as there wasn’t any public power at that time. The town was to receive electricity from the mill once it got into operation. Howard had been able to get the use of the Kohler light plant that had been in the back of the Calpine office and it was situated between our two houses. I was able to get a hold of enough wire to run a line from this small generator over to our house so we could also have some electricity until the mill came on line.
This was many years before disposable diapers so that meant a lot of hand washing, particularly with a new baby. We had laundry trays on our back porch with a ‘Tray Way’ washer and, once this was hooked up, Dolores was able to do the wash there. For those who haven’t heard of a Tray Way washer, it was a unit that mounted on the laundry trays. It had an agitator that worked back and forth in one of the trays. Then there was a wringer that was mounted between the trays so that the clothes could be put through the wringer and into the rinse, then back through the wringer and out to dry on the clothesline.
We were the second people to move into their house [Page 49] in White Pines, Howard and Ruth being the first, and the town site was still in the construction phase so there was a lot of dust as it would be a year or more before any of the roads were surfaced.
I had put up a clothesline from the back porch out to a tree next to the road that ran along the side of our lot. I came home at noon one day, not too long after we were settled in the house, and Dolores was clearly upset. She told me to look out back of the house, which I did. The clothesline pulley that I had hooked up to the tree in back of the house had broken loose and here was a line full of freshly washed diapers laying on the dusty red ground. Needless to say, that was not one of my better days, but I did get the line back up to stay and Dolores washed the soil out of the diapers.
With the aforementioned Kohler light plant, Dolores and Ruth had to work out an ironing schedule. This by reason of the fact that the small generator could not handle two irons at the same time. If both Ruth and Dolores turned their irons on at the same time, the lights would dim and practically go out all together. A schedule was soon worked out so that the problem didn’t continue.
Back to the construction of the mill. Early on, my dad located an old steam shovel. This was one that actually ran on steam. A fellow that worked for us had some previous steam shovel operating experience. His name was Mosbaugh, first name ‘Aught’ (spelling?). This was one of the first machines used at the site and I have a few old movies that show this shovel in operation with the steam exhausting as it worked. It was necessary to cut a channel for San Antonio Creek along one side of the meadow. Then the shovel was used to retrieve gravel from deposits there in the meadow. This gravel was the base for the concrete used for mill construction. Another of my duties at this time was to do the purchasing of supplies for the work underway. I can still remember that cement from Calaveras Cement in San Andreas cost 55 cents per 100-pound sack, f.o.b. cement plant.
Dad had retained a fellow by the name of Charles Sewell to draw the construction plans for the new mill. Sewell had just finished handling the same duty for a new mill built at Feather falls. A fellow by the name of Bert Martin was the construction superintendent and he was sent there by Sewell.
At this point in time, we didn’t have any forklifts or cranes of any kind such as would be the norm today. All hoisting of timbers into place was done with a moveable pole with guy wires and a hand winch on the pole leading up through a block on the top of the pole.
Before construction got underway, a deal was made with a fellow by the name of Hammock, who had a small portable mill. Some lumber for construction was shipped down from Calpine, but all of the timbers and heavy beams, etc, were cut at the mill site by the portable mill. Doc had a tractor with a logging arch [that he used mostly to] skid Douglas Fir logs to the Hammock mill. The excavation for the concrete piers for the main supporting posts in the mill were all dug by hand.
A few things relative to the planning and execution of the new mill being constructed should be understood because my father has been criticized by some as being too extravagant in the planning and setup for the new operation.
First, the plant in Calpine was a ‘line shaft’ mill run by a single steam engine. To those of you that may not understand this description, I will try to explain. Back in the early 1900s when the Calpine plant was built, the usual mode of power was a big steam engine powered by steam from boilers fired by wood waste. This big steam engine drove a ‘line shaft’, which was a shaft that ran the length of the mill, by means of a large leather belt. There were pulleys along the line shaft that drove the mill machinery such as the head saw, resaw, edger and trimmer. This meant there were a huge number of bearings to be maintained by an oiler, who was a man who did nothing but disburse oil as needed. When it came time to change saws, the big steam engine would have the steam supply shut off and, as the machinery was coasting to a stop, the sawyer would continue sawing logs until the equipment came to a stop. Then the saw would be changed. Once the sawing equipment was again ready for use, steam would be turned back into the engine and slowly the machinery would start up. Once everything was up to speed, the mill would resume operation.
While this type of operation was practical before, say, 1920, by 1939 it was clearly too inefficient, particularly for a new plant. This fact meant that the new mill would be powered by individual electric motors. This, in turn, meant that some sort of generating equipment had to be provided as well as the bollers to provide the steam to drive the turbines.
Another factor in the planning had to do with the method of drying lumber [Page 50] and the transport of same from the mill to the shipping point. In Calpine we used ‘Hilky’ stackers to stack large piles of lumber for air drying. The stickers that I mentioned earlier were used to separate the layers of boards in the pile so that air could circulate and dry the material. This type of drying operation was becoming inefficient and also contributed to some deterioration due to ‘checks’ or cracks that would form on the surface of the boards.
Then the transport of lumber from plant to shipping point meant that lumber ‘units’, which were individual bunk loads of boards, had to be compatible with sizes needed to load the trucks. The carriers that were used in Calpine were old units that had been shipped down from Grays Harbor in the 1920s and were ‘narrow gauge’, which meant that the loads they could straddle were too narrow for the new operation.
To sum up, these factors meant that at the new operation we would need new lumber carriers, forklifts, electric motors, turbogenerators, dry kilns, and many pieces of supporting equipment.
My father did most of the selecting of this equipment and, except for the lumber carriers and forklifts, he purchased used equipment at the best prices that could be negotiated. Probably, the most crucial purchase was the generating equipment. There was no ‘utility power’ available without a large upfront payment to PG&E to cover the construction of several miles of power line. And, of course, there would then be the considerable cost of purchased power as an operating expense.
My father had been involved in the modernization of the Grays Harbor Lumber Company in the early part of this century, and they installed one of the first steam-powered turbogenerators ever used in a sawmill operation. In fact, that mill was one of the first electric powered sawmills in the world. A new turbogenerator would, of course, have been the ultimate source of power along with a new steam boiler to provide the steam at the proper pressure and temperature. Such an expense was clearly out of the question as the cost would have been as great as the entire sawmill project turned out to be.
This then meant that the best alternative was to try and find some used equipment, which would operate from the steam produced by the old boilers from Calpine. Since the steam from the existing boilers wasn’t superheated, which is the proper form of steam for a condensing turbine, and since there was little excess electric power to drive additional pumps, the selection of an efficient steam turbine was narrowed to one designed for use with an ‘atmospheric condenser’. To create the cooling effect in the condensers that was needed to turn the turbines most efficiently required a large source of water such as a pond or river. Two turbogenerators were finally located which would fit these criteria.
Some who have looked into the history of White Pines wondered what the wooden flume was for that came from above the mill on San Antonio Creek on down to the mill. This flume provided the water to the turbine condensers. The installation of these [Page 51] generators and the electrical distribution system itself was done by, and at the direction of, a fellow from an electrical supply company in San Francisco with whom my dad had dealt over many years. His last name was Barker. Barker had been to Calpine for certain electrical needs several different times. He often spent evenings at our home.
Along with the generators, electrical bus bars had to be installed to the main switch panel and then the switches themselves. These main switches were second-hand and were of the ‘oil pot’ type, with the contacts in an enclosure filled with a special oil to prevent arcing when disconnected. The voltage used was 440, three-phase.
After the main portion of the mill had been constructed along with the powerhouse, the boilers were fired up and the larger turbine was started and brought up to speed. Quite a group of visitors were on hand for the occasion and it came to an anticlimax when, as the main oil switches were being closed, one of them blew up. Evidently there was some contamination in the oil tank in which the switch operated. It wasn’t a real serious accident, but it was quite a let down for those assembled to watch the startup of the mill. To the best of my memory, it took the rest of the day and evening to repair the damage and the actual cutting of the first log occurred the next day on the 16th of October 1939. The mill was in operation but far from complete. I will return to this point in time farther on in this narrative.
During the construction of the mill in 1939, my cousin, Jack Blackburn, was in charge of things in Calpine, including the liquidation of the lumber inventory along with the town site property, company houses, etc. Jack was then in his mid-thirties and, with his penurious tendencies that he got from his mother, often made poor business judgments. He was a vice president of the company by reason of the fact that his mother Emma owned about a third of the Davies Johnson Lumber Company. (The name was changed to Blagen Lumber Company during the move to White Pines.)
Relations between my father and Jack were never very smooth. This was inevitable because of their totally different personalities. My father was one of those rare individuals who I would define as a ‘visionary’. He wasn’t the best administrator mainly because he wasn’t stern or strict enough in his dealing with subordinates. On the other hand, almost without exception, everyone who worked for him was devoted and totally loyal to him. Jack on the other hand could count his supporters on the fingers of one hand.
The company had banked with the Crocker Bank in San Francisco for many years. While it was touch and go for a while in 1932 and 1933, the company continued operation showing a profit year in and year out. Probably one of the worst decisions made during the move was to wait until further financing was needed before negotiating a loan or line of credit with the bank. The company did have verbal assurance that, due to its credit history, if and when financing was need, it would be available. It is ironic that this chain of events happened because my father once told me how his father (N. J. Blagen) had always said to try and never borrow from a bank, but if it became necessary for a particular venture to borrow, then be sure to invest the bank’s money first. I think this is some of the best financial advice ever offered by anyone.
As I said, relations between Blackburn and my father were never really smooth, but when Jack sold a lot of the ‘box’ type lumber from Calpine to a box factory operation in the Sacramento area and took what were then called ‘trade acceptances’ instead of cash for payment, that was the final straw. While I don’t know the actual chain of events during the weeks after this episode, the result was that Jack had a sort of nervous breakdown and his actions bordered on the bizarre from that time forward.
This situation probably had a lot to do with the bank severely limiting the amount of credit they would extend. Naturally, if two of the principal owners of a company were at odds, it wouldn’t look good from the bank’s point of view. Even though the new mill operation was complete to the point that it could operate, there was still much to be done. The resaw had to be installed, the conveyor waste system and burner had to be completed, the dry kilns completed and probably the most crucial need was additional boiler capacity.
The only way you could borrow against lumber inventory in those days was to ‘warehouse’ it. This meant that as the [Page 52] lumber was stacked it was tallied and posted with a notice stating that it was under the control of ‘Laurence Warehouse Inc’. Of course, lumber prices were much lower in 1939, but, even so, all that could be borrowed against this inventory was $16 per thousand board feet. Under the best of circumstances, it cost at least that much to buy and log the timber, process it through the mill, and then stack it.
With the many years of experience that I have now accumulated, it is my considred opinion that we could have ‘toughed it out’ financially and, after not more than a year or two at the most, had the operation in a firm financial condition. Of course, at the time, I was little more than a clerk and wasn’t part of the decision making loop.
The strain was showing on my father, who had experienced some minor problems with alcohol, and with the bickering within the Blagen family (Emma and Jack) the alcohol dependency became more severe. I now think that he may have wondered whether it was worth the struggle financially to continue the project without additional financing due to the real possibility of being forced into bankruptcy.
At any rate, other means of raising money were pursued. Although there were other people, such as the Wilson family from Oregon, who were interested, due to the fact that the Davies Johnson operation had dealt with American Box Corp. over the years on a very close relationship, my dad worked out a deal with Walter Johnson, the president of A.B.C.
The Blagen Lumber Company was a stock company and had been authorized to sell up to 500,000 shares of common stock with a par value of one dollar per share. 300,000 shares had been sold (all amongst the Blagen family – Emma, Florence, Celeste, dad and some others). The deal made with Walter Johnson was that 100,000 shares would be sold to American Box for $125,000. This would give A.B.C a one-fourth interest in the operation at a very reasonable price. A.B.C. stalled for weeks and months, but all the while assuring that a deal would soon be consummated. By then, the financial situation for Blagen Lumber Company was becoming desperate. Finally, Walter Johnson told my father that the board of directors of A.B.C. wouldn’t proceed with the purchase unless they got control of the company. If this had been their position at the start of negotiations, I don’t think that dad and his sisters would have accepted the deal.
Be that as it may, with the dissension among the stockholders, particularly the Blackburns, my father must have felt that he had no other choice but to accept these severe terms. While I don’t remember the date of the transfer of control to A.B.C., I do remember that it was in the spring of 1940. I will return to this point in the narrative later on, as there are several things that transpired during 1939 and early 1940 that need to be mentioned.
In connection with my ‘purchasing’ duties, I hired the use of a small tractor and ‘carry-all’ owned by a fellow named Horace Cooper. The purpose of this was to prepare the lumber drying areas and perform other earth moving requirements. There were pockets of gravel along portions of the meadow area and we would use these to surface the roadways with the carry-all. Cooper needed the work so quoted us a very attractive price of $4 per hour, which covered the manning and operation of the equipment.
Once the mill started we hauled the surplus waste that wasn’t used for boiler fuel out to the lower parts of the meadow. This was leveled off somewhat at an elevation of six to as much as ten or twelve feet, depending on the terrain, and then covered with a couple of feet of dirt hauled by the carry-all. In this way, we were able to reclaim for use the soft marshy areas.
Since I had always been interested in any kind of machinery, it wasn’t unusual that, when I had an opportunity, I would get on Cooper’s tractor (an Allis-Chalmers model SO) and operate it for a time. Horace and I became quite good friends and would often have a beer together after work with Jim Pierce and, perhaps, one or two others.
[Page 54] Another thing happened during the winter of 39 and 40. I think it was in the spring, perhaps in May, that we got a very heavy rainstorm that went on for several days. This caused some of the snow in the upper elevations to melt and the combination turned San Antonio Creek into a raging torrent. Early in the morning, just as it was starting to break day, the people in the powerhouse blew the mill whistle several times. I jumped out of bed and threw some clothes on and headed for the mill. By the time I got there several others had also arrived. The problem was that the millpond was ready to wash away and that would have flooded the shop and powerhouse and caused all sorts of damage.
The millpond had been constructed right in the middle of the old creek bed. A diversion ditch had been constructed to route the flow of the creek around the pond. With all the water from the storm, the diversion ditch was inadequate to handle the flow, and the creek had entered the log pond raising it right to the top of its levees. The pond had a spillway that was supposed to control the height of the pond water, but debris had collected there and was not allowing the excess water to escape the pond.
Those of us that were there got some pike poles and started feverishly removing the trash from in front of the spillway and, at the same time, removing boards from the spillway structure itself that was constructed in such a way that these boards controlled the water height. The water actually reached the top of the pond banks before we finally got the spillway open enough to handle the amount of water entering the pond from the flooding creek. Then, slowly, the level of the pond started to drop. By this time the diversion ditch itself was a good-sized river from the erosion caused by the high volume of water running through it. While this could have been a real disaster, we were lucky enough to keep ahead of the rising water. There was one benefit, too, and this was that the diversion ditch was now several times its original size.
So far, I haven’t mentioned much about Toyon, the railroad shipping point. As the mill construction progressed to where it would soon be in limited production, work was being done to accommodate the loading of lumber into box cars. The first shipments would be ‘milled in transit’: stopped off at some point, surfaced and then reloaded, and then shipped on to the customer. Also, work was under way on the installation of the planer, which was one of the last items to leave Calpine because the inventory that was liquidated there had to be surfaced before the planer left.
I mentioned earlier that until this time the company did not own any forklifts. That may seem odd by today’s standards, but in 1939 they were just starting to produce these machines with pneumatic tires. Before that time most all forklifts were smaller units used in warehouses and such and had solid rubber tires, which weren’t suitable for gravel or unpaved surfaces. Anyway, the company purchased several ‘Ross’ lift trucks along with the new Ross lumber carriers. (Ross was later taken over by Clark Equipment Co.)
The new machines arrived by flat car in Valley Springs and I remember several of us helping to unload the machines and then driving them to Toyon. (Toyon had a railroad spur, but no dock with an unloading ramp.) I had never driven a lift truck before and, since the moveable or steering wheels are in back of where you sit, it was hard to get the hang of steering these units. We finally solved the problem by running them backwards, so to speak, and then they responded to the steering wheel much as an ordinary vehicle.
Toad McIntosh, my brother-in-law, was selected to supervise the operation at Toyon and he and my sister Marilyn built a nice modest home there a short distance from the operation. One thing that stands out in my memory about that area was how hot it was in the summer. Air conditioning for individual homes wasn’t an option then and the heat was a problem, especially in the evening.
The Toyon site was also the main drying yard for lumber from the White Pines mill. It was one of the first unitized drying yards. Instead of the big square piles we used for drying in Calpine, the lumber was stacked in forklift-sized units with stickers between the courses to let the air through. These units were stacked four high on top of low foundations in rows. With this type of [Page 55] system the units could go directly to the planer without having to be unstacked as with square piles. There was a collection belt for the stickers to fall on to as the units were fed, course by course, into the planer. I didn’t spend much time around the Toyon operation, but did get there each Friday in the early stages of the operation to pick up the time for the weekly payroll.
In late spring of 1940, the financial situation of the company had grown even more precarious and that was when Walter Johnson advised my father, who was counting on selling a quarter interest in the venture for the agreed $125,000, that the A.B.C. board would only come up with the money if they got control or 52 percent ownership. To this day I don’t know if that was Walter’s strategy from the start, or if, in fact, he did have direction from the board of directors.
In any event, as I related earlier, with all the difficulties facing him, my father, with the consent of the other stockholders, agreed to the deal. All the Blagen stockholders had to tender their shares and then they got back 48 percent of what they had tendered. I will return to this point in White Pines shortly, but I want to relate a turn of events that happened subsequent to this deal that had a large bearing on the profitability of the Blagen Lumber Company.
After the takeover, the Stockton Box Company couldn’t get my father, as well as yours truly, out of the area soon enough. This left my folks in more or less of a financial bind. They had the new house in San Rafael to keep up (the water bill alone for that place was more than most people paid for rent). Also, the boat was docked at the Marin Yacht club and this was an ongoing expense. And, of course, my father’s salary as president of the company was stopped with no sort of severance payment. The folks sold the house and boat for distress prices and moved up to a place above Antioch near the town of Oakley. It was an old house nicknamed ‘The Mansion’. Some wealthy horse breeder had built it some years before and it had fallen into disrepair. The fellow that owned it was a friend of dad and said that he was welcome to stay there if he would fix the place up and make it habitable. I will have more on this later, too.
Now to the point of all this. Since my dad didn’t have any salary, and since his Blagen stock [Page 56] wasn’t going to be paying any dividends for some time, he was in need of some sort of income. Dad approached Walter Johnson about the prospects of trading his Blagen Lumber Company stock for A.B.C. stock. Walter agreed to this switch and here is the interesting thing. Dad got the stock he wanted in A.B.C., but guess who wound up with dad’s Blagen Lumber stock. That’s right, good old Walter Johnson bought the stock himself rather than have it go into the A.B.C. treasury. As I pointed out earlier, this turn of events probably had a large impact on the value of the Blagen stock subsequent to the takeover by A.B.C. because Walter wouldn’t want the operation milked by sweetheart deals with Stockton Box or other A.B.C. affiliates.
Back to the fateful day in June 1940. I think the takeover went into effect on June 15th. The $125,000 of capital invested in the operation paid off the current obligations but left little or no operating capital, so A.B.C. worked out a deal with one of its subsidiaries, the Stockton Box Company, to lease the operation for a period of time. (Stockton Box used a considerable amount of lumber but didn’t have a mill of its own at that time.) Charlie Gray was the honcho at Stockton Box, so this put him in charge of the Blagen operation. The box factory foreman from Calpine was a friend of Charlie’s and his name was Frank Barr. Charlie Gray made the main decisions but lived in Stockton, and so Frank Barr was his man on the scene.
For whatever reason (and it’s still not clear in my mind why) Charlie Gray and Frank Barr treated all the Blagen family with nothing but scorn. Dad had a small living area in one end of the new office building at the mill and they practically threw him out of there and even hassled him over removing some of his personal possessions. I was laid off immediately as the payroll was to be handled in Stockton, and Howard was sent to work in lumber sales for Tarter Webster & Johnson in Stockton. (T.W.J. was the sales company for A.B.C.). Toad McIntosh, my sister’s husband, was kept on for a short period at Toyon, but soon Charlie got around to firing him, too.
This was indeed a day of reckoning for me. I was twenty years old and had never worked anywhere other than the family business. Here I was with a wife and son along with house payments, car payments, and payments on a refrigerator and sewing machine that we had purchased.
After a day or two as the shock wore off, I realized that Logason (the mill yard foreman who had worked for dad for years) needed a tallyman. I knew how to tally lumber so I asked Logason for the job. He put me to work in the yard for 62 and a half cents per hour ($25 for a forty hour week). This lasted only a few days when Logason came to me with tears in his eyes and said that he had to let me go or else he would lose his job. This was early in the afternoon and I was to be able to finish out the day. I told Logason to just make my time out up to noon and I would go to the office and get my check, which I did.
The office was about four or five hundred feet up the road from the mill proper. As I came out of the office, I spotted Charlie Gray and Frank Barr down near the sawmill. I was in a rage with all that had happened to my father as well as myself, and I took off at a fast gait toward Gray and Barr with the intention of at least telling them off, and, if they gave me the least bit of guff, I would go after my pound of flesh. Fortunately, about half way toward them I finally cooled down to where I could think rationally and realized that I would only make matters worse if I started a ruckus with these two bozos, so I turned around and headed home.
In the next couple of days I asked Doc Linebaugh if I could go to work for him. He clearly wanted to give me a job but was frank enough to admit that it would only put him in bad with Gray if he put me to work.
In another day or so, I learned that the fellow who had been operating Horace Cooper’s tractor and carry-all had quit. I got hold of Horace and asked him for the job, and without hesitation he said sure. I was paid 75 cents per hour for all the hours that the unit was in operation. In other words, I greased and maintained the equipment on my own time.
The carry-all was working nine hours per day, five days per week. I was always mechanically inclined and since I had run this machine several hours during the previous months, I could do as good a job as anyone. For this reason it was hard for Gray or Barr to get rid of me unless I screwed up and I was determined not to give them a reason to insist on my discharge.
This situation lasted about five or six weeks and then I guess it got too much for Charlie Gray and he finally told Horace he wanted me gone. Horace didn’t agree and Charlie told him either get rid of Frankie (as I was called in those days) or he would terminate the rental of the carry-all. This was what Horace wanted to hear as he already had another machine of his, a Cat D8, working on a highway job down out of San Rafael and he could rent the tractor and carry-all I was on to the same contractor.
The end of the week was near and Friday evening Horace had a truck there and I loaded the tractor and we attached the carry-all to the back of the truck and away went the machine. I had asked Doc Linebaugh for the use of one of his ton-and-a-half flatbed service trucks to move our furniture to San Rafael and he agreed. Jimmy Pierce and a couple of other fellows helped us load our stuff on the truck and we left White Pines that Saturday for San Rafael. I don’t remember too much about that trip except that Dolores and I, along with Tony, stopped for a bit of dinner in Lodi. One more thing had become apparent by this time and that was that Tony was going to have, as it turned out, a sister. Dolores and I were able to rent a nice little house on Scenic Avenue in San Rafael. I went to work on Horace’s tractor on Monday.
With this move in 1940, 21-year-old Frank Blagen and family left Calaveras County. He went on to a long, successful career in the lumber and transportation industries in northern California and Oregon. Today, in 2007, Frank is nearly ninety and living in retirement in Willow Creek, California.