The Howard Blagen Story
01 Jul 2007
Howard Woodworth Blagen (1913-1993)
Any attempt to record your own life history can well be evidence of excessive ego, but I will duck such admission by blaming my middle-aged children, who have prodded me into making this effort.
I was born on August 1, 1913, in what was then the lumber production capital of the world, Hoquiam, Washington. My father had met Helen Woodworth, my mother to be, in Spokane, Washington, in the Summer of 1912, where he was a telephone company employee and she was living with two older brothers and a twin sister. After a whirlwind courtship, they were married in my mother’s home town of Hamburg, Michigan, and I arrived on the scene some ten months later.
My boyhood home was a bungalow, built by my father on the sawmill property of the Grays Harbor Lumber co., founded by my grandfather, N. J. Blagen, in 1906. My 23-years-old father had rejoined the family lumber business after an earlier altercation with his stern father and Hoquiam was my home for the next ten years. During my boyhood, Grays Harbor was a thriving beehive of log and lumber manufacturing activity and I have vivid memories of long train loads of lumber for rail shipment, as well as numerous schooners loading lumber cargo at the ample mill docks.
In 1916 my sister, Marilyn, was born, and three years later, in 1919, my brother Frank Jr., arrived. One very early recollection etched in my memory was the 1918 World War I armistice celebration where my parents and I were caught up in a really wild parade to neighboring Aberdeen. The Grays Harbor community was at its production peak during those years and I spent much time roaming freely around the family sawmill, which set production records that are unequaled to this day for a single band headrig operation. Much production was in the form of “Jap Ties,” large timbers, two to three feet square by 40 feet long. These went to Japan as ocean cargo and there the timbers were reduced to local specifications in Japanese sawmills. The Blagen mill was very progressive by way of constant modernizing, such as converting from steam to electric power in 1916, and horse-drawn lumber buggies to straddle carriers by 1920. With a surplus of electric power generated, the excess was sold to the local communities.
Some of my early memories include happy summer visits to a family beach house at Tokeland, on nearby Willapa Harbor, where the Dungeness crabbing was fabulous. Also a trip to Paradise Inn on Mt. Rainier, with the car top down, when I was five years old was like entering a wonderland. Another trip, better remembered at age eight, in 1921, was a combination sea and land trip from Seattle, south to Tijuana, Mexico. With my parents and my father’s Aunt Katie, we boarded the steamer Admiral Dewey, along with our Chandler automobile, and disembarked at San Francisco, where we completed our journey by land. The ocean leg was fascinating, as was the drive south on Highway 101 through Santa Barbara, southern California cities, and lastly, Tijuana, where we simply turned around without stopping due to the primitive and destitute conditions prevailing. A special highlight for me was the Hollywood bus tour pointing out movie star homes of the silent film era, i.e. Tom Mix, Doug Fairbanks, Sr., and Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, et al., my childhood heroes.
The return trip north through the Central Valley of California and into Oregon was hot and uneventful, but I remember the narrow, unpaved road over the Siskiyous. Also, my mother admonishing my father for driving 60 mph!
About my father’s maiden aunt, Katie Erickson, she was a great lady, loved by all the Blagen children. I believe she lived with the family during the time when her sister, my grandmother Hannah, concentrated her love on Emma, the oldest, and the other five children considered Katie as more a mother to them. This according to my aunt, Celeste Blagen, my father’s sister and youngest of the six children.
By about 1922, mill earnings prompted expansion plans and several large timber deals were considered. Finally, in 1923, a California firm was purchased, the Davies-Johnson Lumber Co., at Calpine, in Sierra County. This was a near bankrupt pine operation with extensive timber holdings, plus a sawmill, box factory and a completely-owned company town of some 300 to 400 population. It followed in 1924 that my father jumped at the chance to move to Calpine and partially relieve himself of the close dominance of his father and older brothers in Washington. This move constituted a radical change in lifestyle for our family, from booming, rainy Grays Harbor to an entirely different lumber camp, with a comparatively primitive environment. Mail was delivered by train three times per week on a local branch of the Western Pacific and the unsurfaced roads were often impassable for weeks during winter.
For me, an eleven-year-old boy, Calpine was a veritable paradise after wet Washington, and I spent much time in the saddle at local ranches, plus plenty of other outdoor life, hunting, fishing, etc. I soon developed a primary ambition to become a cowboy and dressed the part with high heel boots, chaps and sombrero. I went on frequent cattle drives, riding my black mare, Gipsey, and will relate one dark and chilly incident. The Devine Ranch near Calpine organized a cattle drive in mid-winter to rail head near Beckwith, some 16 miles distant. Leaving the ranch at daylight, we got the herd to the railroad holding corrals by mid-afternoon. As we began the return ride home, it began snowing with near blizzard conditions and, with darkness setting in, we were still several miles from home, Calpine. My three cow-poke buddies and I soon became completely disoriented and utterly lost direction-wise. We could only give our horses their head, and what a wonderful surprise to find we were finally entering Calpine about 10 pm. That’s when I learned that given free rein a horse will almost always get you back to the barn, even under the most adverse conditions.
I forgot to mention that on my first day at Calpine Elementary School as the new kid in camp I had to fight another fifth grade boy and while I came out okay, he lost by almost biting his tongue in half from an uppercut. This was Allen Devine and later we became close friends.
Another couple of incidents around that time primarily involved my “holy terror” baby brother, Frank, who was allowed almost unlimited freedom of action at a much younger age than myself. For example, my father taught Frank how to drive by age 8 and he hot-rodded around Calpine in a souped up Model T “Bug” making the dust fly. Frank’s well-known rejoinder to any challenge, was “My dad is boss of this camp and if you mess with me, he’ll have your dad fired!” Consequently, in an apparent effort to get the message across that Frank should be slowed down, at daylight one morning the infamous bug was found to be straddling the peak of the cookhouse roof, over 30 feet in the air, obviously the work of some unidentified and nocturnal, but concerned individuals. Photos of that incident are somewhere among the family archives.
Another very scary incident for me was also centered around little brother Frank. This was in 1928 when I first started courting Ruth and Frank was eight years old. I invited Ruth on a picnic hike to Lincoln Valley, then accessible by foot only, and some two or three miles south of Yuba Pass Summit, on what is now Highway 49. I didn’t know Ruth very well, but she accepted and offered to fix a back-pack lunch. Overcome with brotherly generosity, I let brother Frank join us and we drove to the summit takeoff point in an old Chevrolet touring car that had to be cranked to start the engine. After hiking very nearly to our picnic spot destination through pretty wild timbered country, we found Frank had evidently dropped behind and, when he didn’t answer our calls, panic reigned. After scouring the area without success, I asked Ruth to stay put while I ran back to the highway for search party help. I was shocked to find our vehicle gone, presumably stolen, so I dashed out to the highway to hitch a ride down to Sattley, where I phoned my father, who advised that Frank was just driving up to our Calpine home. How he cranked that engine and drove the mountain road back at age eight I’ll never understand!
Calpine was snowed in for weeks at a time during winter, but plenty of outdoor sports prevailed in the form of ice skating on the mill pond, as well as tobogganing and skiing down the log chute on the edge of town. The one room school house for all eight elementary grades was radically different from Hoquiam, with separate rooms for each grade class.
Upon 8th grade graduation at Calpine in 1927, the nearest high school at Sierraville, 10 miles distant, was an alternative not favored by my parents, and consequently I was placed in a Berkeley boarding home. My sister, three years younger, was placed in an exclusive Berkeley boarding school for girls, “Anna Head’s.”
I should back up here and mention that during the years 1924, 1925, and 1926, a highlight of my youth was traveling round trip from San Francisco to Hoquiam by lumber schooner to visit the relatives. The first trip was when my parents saw me aboard the 90-foot steam schooner, “SVEA,” and it so happens that a plank from that ship’s transom with this name is presently on display in the San Francisco Maritime Museum. This was great adventure for me and I was allowed the run of the ship on these then modestly equipped vessels, not even having two-way radio. Also, during the years 1926 and 1927 I worked as a hay hand during the season, driving a two-horse hay rake on the local 15,000 acre Humphrey Ranch, two miles from Calpine.
Back to Berkeley in 1927 A most traumatic period of adjustment followed transfer to the distant schools for my sister and I at ages 11 and 14, the effects of which we both feel to this day. For the first year or two our travel home was by train, and I still recall our prematurely early arrival at the Western Pacific depot in Oakland for a long wait. Homesickness compelled our taking no chances to miss the train!
While that first year away from home to city schools in a radically different environment was difficult, we gradually adjusted. In my second high school year, 10th grade, I joined a local fraternity and the resulting friendships, some lasting to this day, did much to overcome my lingering homesickness.
During my first summer vacation from Berkeley in 1928 I had occasion to meet my future wife, Ruth Warren, who was visiting my regular Calpine girlfriend, Alice Sweetman. To say that I was immediately “smitten” with Ruth is putting it mildly, but she had another steady boyfriend, Joe Wells, and they both had homes in the Stockton vicinity. At age 16, in 1928, Ruth had graduated from Stockton High School where Joe was a basketball star. As a suitor I did give Joe some competition that summer, got to know Ruth quite well, and we met and kept in touch off and on for the next few years.
Summer vacation time at Calpine during 1929, 1930, and 1931 proved a formative period during which, with tutoring help from my father coupled with home study, I learned the rudiments of timber cruising, land mapping and logging railroad location surveying. This activity was so fascinating for me that I decided on an engineering career. Following 1931 high school graduation, I entered Sacramento Junior College, where some of my Berkeley fraternity brothers also enrolled, and we all lived in the local Omega Alpha Kappa fraternity house in Sacramento. The J. C. school of civil engineering was excellent, but too much social activity did not enhance my grades. Such extracurricular subjects as rowing on the varsity crew, serving as president of the college engineering society, as well as my fraternity, plus attention to various coeds was antischolastic and I barely got by grade-wise.
One of the great shocks of my life came when I learned in early 1933 that Ruth and Joe were married in Mexico. They moved to Calpine where Joe worked as a truck driver and I saw little of Ruth that summer. However, by about September she obtained a Mexican divorce from Joe and, when we met again on a weekend in Reno, we decided to get married and the knot was tied on October 21, 1933.
This, of course, was a shock to my parents, but I prevailed upon my generous father to see me through my engineering education at Polytechnic College of Engineering in downtown Oakland. We rented a small apartment on Lake Merritt, and while Ruth worked at a department store, I really bore down on my studies and burned much midnight oil. Polytechnic was a good engineering school, all business with no social activity, and in two years I made up for much previously lost education time.
Upon finishing college in the Spring of 1935, we moved back to Calpine where my first work assignment was to cruise and map, prior to purchase, the last remaining block of “Staiger” timber, totaling some 35 million board feet located near Sierraville. Later on that fall I worked as assistant to sales manager, Greg Kilburn, and learned the basics of lumber marketing, as well as box shook manufacture and distribution. Kilburn was a competent sales manger, but periodically drank and gambled himself into trouble. It followed in early 1936, while on an eastern sales trip, that he fell off the wagon and borrowed money from customers. This all culminated in his discharge by my cousin, John Blackburn, then serving as Calpine resident manager. A search was immediately started to find a replacement, but finally, after my pleading, I was given the job on a trial basis at age 22. After much effort and some mistakes, I finally proved I could handle the job, which I much enjoyed, and the next three years were productive and happy. In the Fall of 1937, with Ruth as company, we made a 10,000 mile sales trip by auto through the Eastern United States and Canada, returning through the south and calling in person on a great number of customers.
A near tragic Calpine incident, that ended happily, might bear relating. In early 1938 we became snowed in solid with six feet of snow. The thrice weekly Western Pacific train service was the only way out of town. Among other things, we ran out of milk for our two-year-old daughter, Pat. Her lively, but pregnant mother, along with a young girl, Lucy Cattuzzo (later Stewart), decided to ski to the Pasquetti ranch dairy, two miles out in the Sierra Valley, to retrieve the necessary nourishment by back pack. The weather was clear and cold and the girls had no trouble reaching the ranch. However, upon returning, disaster struck about one-half mile from Calpine. Ruth was about three months pregnant with then unborn Nels, and evidently from the strenuous exertion she very nearly had a miscarriage. Lucy skied ahead for help and I don’t remember how we got Ruth back to the railroad depot on the town outskirts, but luckily the train was in that day and about to leave. After the Calpine nurse gave Ruth some shots, we boarded the caboose for a miserable and agonizing trip to the Portola Hospital’s waiting ambulance. That was a lucky day, perhaps mostly for Nels, and I suspect that this incident contributed to his very speedy arrival on August 17 when I drove Ruth from Calpine to St. Mary’s Hospital in Reno, arriving just five minutes ahead of the stork!
With completion of cutting the aforementioned Staiger timber in 1938, the Davies-Johnson Lumber Co. was out of pine timber and we had to move the operation to a new stand or quit. Through my father’s diligent efforts, we executed a very promising timber cutting contract with the Calaveras Land and Timber Co., headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for a fine timber stand at a new location in Calaveras County. Thus began a momentous and very turbulent period in my life as we planned and implemented the move of the entire town and sawmill to Dunbar Meadows near Arnold. In the late Summer of 1938, along with Ruth and our logging contractor, “Doc” Linebaugh, we made an initial tour of the timber, potential mill, and townsite and came away very impressed. Later that fall I surveyed and made a topographic map of the Dunbar Meadows area and by early 1939 I had completed a new, modest home for my family on Big Trees Creek. We then moved my family from Calpine to what was later named “White Pines” by my mother. A temporary tent town was simultaneously established to house employees as the nearest housing, and it was minimal, was at Murphys and Angels Camp.
While Ruth and I were both excited about being a part of the “big move,” Calpine to White Pines, my regret was leaving a well-established sales activity and the consequent reduction of contact with a host of valued customers and friends. Many of these interesting people continued to maintain contact and, of course, I hoped for ever increased sales resumption later from the new mill production. Ponderosa pine, from Calpine, had a national reputation for extremely soft texture and one specialized account was an organ factory at St. Hyacinth, Quebec, that placed much value on our shipments. In fact, several years later, at Wilseyville, the St. Hyacinth buyer called at my office looking for a comparable source elsewhere. He knew my name, but we only were acquainted through previous correspondence, as letters and telegrams were about the only communication medium of that day. When we met at Wilseyville, his first reaction was that I was the wrong man and his Calpine dealings had to have been with an older man, “probably my father.” But following my insistence that I was the “guy,” he finally asked to see my signature, which he evidently remembered from old correspondence, and although shaking his head, he was finally convinced. I guess I looked pretty young in those days and my nick name for Ruth was “Lady of the House,” as that was who tradesmen, and other strangers calling at our home when I answered the door, would invariably ask for!
Another memorable customer was Ed McKuen, who owned McKuen Moulding Co. in Sacramento. He used high-quality and relatively expensive “moulding,” and only after much solicitation did he finally give me an order for a trial shipment from White Pines. McKuen, old enough to be my father, was a seemingly hard-nosed and cantankerous type who scared many salesmen, including me, and he really shook me up over this initial shipment. This was at a time when business was very hard to come by, so my heart really sank when McKuen called me and in no uncertain terms told me to come and get the shipment, the quality of which was unacceptable. With settlement negotiations at an impasse and his threat to hang up, I did a very risky thing by simply first expressing my regret and then telling him to go ahead and work up the shipment, keeping track of the yield in finished mouldings, and then to simply send us a check for whatever he determined the shipment to be worth. His softened reaction was, “Do you really mean that?” And, after my further assurances, he agreed to my suggestion. After a few sleepless nights, McKuen phoned to tell me that he had been mistaken and that the shipment had averaged out well. Further, he advised he was sending a check in full to cover and wanted to know when we could make additional shipments of similar stock! This is when I learned that “risk and reward” go together, and Ed McKuen and I became close friends with he and Mrs. McKuen dining with us later on at our north Stockton home. In fact, it was McKuen who later cautioned me against accepting the Wilseyville management job on the premise that while he thought I was a good salesman, I simply wasn’t tough or mean enough to be a forceful manager – and I’m still wondering if he may have been right!
The first construction work was building the access road from Arnold to the new town and mill-site area, completed in early 1939. Next came the sawmill, powerhouse and appurtenant facilities which proceeded post-haste. My responsibilities involved the engineering work required, along with handling a 90-man construction payroll and expediting delivery of the necessary supplies. A 10-by-12-foot cabin served as temporary office and with the help of one girl, and at times Ruth too, we got the job done, but the hours were long and stressful until the Calpine staff later moved to the new office (still standing) in late 1939. Also, early that year I laid out the new townsite lots and streets and impatient employees started building their new homes sometimes as fast as we could drive the lot location survey stakes!
Some comments at this point about my personal family. To begin with, whatever degree of success I have attained, much can be attributed to my helpmate wife, Ruth, who more than held up her end and seldom complained, even when the going was roughest. She loved to cook and entertain, which contributed much to my sales and other work activity. Our first child, Patricia Helen, was born in Reno on 3/07/36, with number two, Nels Jensen, also born in Reno on 8/17/38, and lastly, Valerie, born in Stockton on 3/13/41. The most difficult and formative period of my life was probably between 1933 and 1950 and Ruth was always there, pitching hard. Her sudden demise in October, 1952, was the most terrible shock of my life.
Now, back to Dunbar Meadows in late 1939. While my father had landed a bonanza of a timber contract, he became carried away with modernizing the new mill and at considerable expense. Another very adverse factor was his relationship with the company vice president, John Blackburn, his nephew, whose mother, Emma, had made her son’s position as company vice president a condition of her substantial cash infusion in the Davies-Johnson Lumber Co. back in 1932. Blackburn’s inexperience in the lumber business, coupled with his ultra conservative spending habits, could only clash with my father’s optimistic plans for what in reality was a golden opportunity. With Blackburn’s constant carping and negative attitude, I believe our bank of long standing, Crocker in San Francisco, became alarmed at this internal squabbling to the point where previously promised financing, to become available when production began, was not forthcoming. This very adverse development, when we were attempting to begin initial production in October, 1939, left us in a very precarious position. Much construction work was uncompleted and by year end we were in dire financial straits, in default on our timber contract, and unable to meet further payroll and debt obligations.
This left us under intense pressure to salvage what we could of this very substantial and costly venture by seeking a partner, or partners, with the needed capital. Perhaps my wife, Ruth, was at her best during this most difficult period as our little White Pines home was the only suitable facility available for hosting visiting investor prospects and she did herself proud with all, including Walter Johnson and wife, on a stormy winter night. This was the meeting that I am sure furthered my subsequent employment prospects with American Forest Products Co. Again, I can only reemphasize our difficulties, with Blackburn suffering a nervous breakdown, and the pressures were really telling on my father. About this time a previously stated move to change the corporation name to Blagen Lumber Co. became effective. In any event, after several “almost deals” with potential prospects, we finally struck a deal with American Forest Products, Inc., to purchase corporate control for a “measly” $125,000 – although quite a sum at that time. Walter Johnson’s long standing and equal-authority associate, Bert Webster, of affiliate Stockton Box Co., had suddenly died a few months before the 6/15/40 takeover of Blagen Lumber Co., and Charles Gray, recently hired by Johnson as a traveling auditor, was given Webster’s responsibilities at Stockton Box, to the amazement and consternation of A.F.P.C. personnel. Stockton Box was the A.F.P.C. entity assigned to run Blagen Lumber and Gray was the man in charge. Charles Gray, while mentally very sharp and exceedingly ambitious, was, in my opinion, a classic paranoid. Blagen Lumber, with a previous Calpine record of success, operated steadily through the great depression and never missed a dividend to dependent stockholders. Obviously this record reflected a competent crew of long standing and loyal employees and deserved recognition. Gray, however, immediately cleaned house by almost indiscriminately firing many of these faithful people.
Near the end of 1940, many employees had built homes within the White Pines subdivision and it was an attractive community. Our previous policy at Calpine had always been to maintain existing pine trees for aesthetic purposes, which makes Calpine an attractive town to this day. A similar policy was initially followed at White Pines to the satisfaction of the resident employees, but evidently not acceptable to the new management. On the doubtful premise that increased air circulation would accelerate the drying time for green lumber in the yard, Gray gave the order to clear virtually all native tree growth within the townsite, thus changing the area from a park-like setting to a comparatively scorched earth town site.
To add further turmoil, a man was placed in local charge who bore old grudges and generally made things miserable for many employees. In fact, employee morale fell so seriously that by early 1941, Walter Johnson withdrew Gray from Blagen Lumber responsibility and placed his Dorris operation manager, Lawrence Wilsey, in charge. Wilsey was a quiet-manner, outwardly relaxed, and fair-minded manager, and under his leadership conditions rapidly improved.
In retrospect, I believe that Gray had a preconceived opinion that most old Blagen employees were grossly incompetent, which he drastically demonstrated. All other supervisory people were summarily dismissed and I felt that my voluntary resignation would be welcomed by Gray. Virtually broke and having a dependent family, I hung in there and was instructed to move to the Stockton office immediately under Gray’s close supervision – in fact, we shared the same office. Perhaps to best illustrate the atmosphere that then prevailed, every letter and communication I issued in effecting the sale of Blagen Lumber production had to be personally read and approved by Gray before release. While this degree of evident distrust and inferred incompetency gradually lessened over the next two years, I would only add that this was the unhappiest period of my life.
My first break for the better came about one year later, in late 1941, when it was decided to build a sawmill in the south Sierra to operate national forest timber. I was invited to locate a suitable mill site in the North Fork vicinity, northeast of Fresno. Subsequently, I selected two alternate sites, one near the Mammoth Road in the timber and other near North Fork.
After showing the sites to an inspection team, including Johnson and Gray, the North Fork site was selected and I was instructed to map and generally engineer the facility. A sidelight of some satisfaction to me was the negotiation to purchase this mill-site property. Through prior discussion with the owner I had learned that the lowest acceptable price was $50 per acre. When I related this advance information to Charles Gray, prior to his serious negotiation, he scoffed at the price and assured me that he could buy it for less. It followed that after a long meeting with the owner, to which I was not invited, the deal was finally closed at $50 per acre!
My purpose here is to relate my life sequences as candidly and accurately as possible and I regret expressing obviously bitter feelings. Regardless of my personal problems, I would hasten to add that Charles Gray also had admirable qualities such as setting an unequaled example of devotion to hard work, much ambition and active church and lodge activity. I guess we just didn’t click and while I considered changing jobs when conditions were most difficult, the economic risk to my family – two small children and a third on the way – outweighed possible advantages elsewhere. Also, I always somehow felt that Walter Johnson was in my corner.
I spent much time at North Fork during construction and, as the mill neared completion in 1942, a surprising offer from Gray to stay on as resident manger was declined. During the North Fork construction stage I had also carried on my sales activities in the California Valley, and with my comfortably settled family we enjoyed our country home on the northern outskirts of Stockton.
My next real break was the turning point of my career – when I was asked to do similar planning and engineering work at what later became Wilseyville, and under Lawrence Wilsey’s supervision. While still based in Stockton, and continuing some sales activity, I began surveying the Wilseyville mill site in late 1942, and by early 1943, with construction underway, Wilsey asked me to stay on as manager when production started. I jumped at the chance, sold our Stockton home, and moved my family to a rental home in Mokelumne Hill in late Spring of 1943. This was at the height of the war effort, with manpower very scarce and virtually everything needed for construction could be purchased only on government priority. While times were challenging, I reveled in the opportunity to engineer and lay out a new operation and town, with a virtual free hand, and Mr. Wilsey was always in my corner offering sound advice and encouragement. The first operating year, 1944, was very difficult, with unskilled manpower and low output. The key man setting sawmill production is the sawyer and we went through several. Finally, in late 1944, I prevailed on Wilsey to let me offer the sawing job to my father-in-law, Harry Warren, then working at Omo Ranch and whom I had reason to know was rated best in the business. Up to that time our top production had been 70,000 feet per shift, but on Harry Warren’s first day on the job the cut was 97,000 feet! As Wilsey said to me later, “Harry saved both our necks.”
I should have mentioned earlier that Ruth had a way with her when it came to acquiring desirable and comfortable homes. First, at Stockton, where she began the dickering for our Oakridge home in early 1941. She was late into her third pregnancy and I objected strongly because of our still prevailing financial limitations, but she single-handedly closed the deal for this $3,500 home with a $150 down payment. Two years later we sold at a nice profit, upon moving to Mokelumne Hill, as aforementioned. Not satisfied with our Mokelumne Hill rental home, Ruth began another house hunt which culminated in the 1944 purchase of our Railroad Flat property for $6,000 – total – with a $500 down payment. Twenty nine acres with a modern three bedroom, three bath home with a good well and five kilowatt light plant (no PG&E then) made this some deal. Ruth deserves full credit for this, our last home together, notwithstanding having to contend with a reluctant and overly conservative husband.
A potentially very serious problem, threatening the future of the entire Wilseyville operation, developed about 1945. A party named Bert Howe owned a ramshackle summer cabin on a few acres immediately downstream from our mill-site property. When he complained to me that drainage from our log pond, etc., was polluting his seasonally dry well, I offered to compromise the problem by piping water from our excellent pressure system to his property, which appeared to settle the matter. However, his greed overcame his judgement and subsequently he brought suit against us for polluting his well. At the legal hearing the Superior Court Judge decided to have all parties visit the property to examine the problem first hand. The trial ended up with the court enjoining us from allowing further drainage to enter Howe’s land, creating for us an impossible dilemma. However, by some previous surveying, I had determined that a potential solution could be to bypass Howe’s land by digging a half-mile canal and cut through a ridge, thereby diverting all of our drainage on to government land, over which we later obtained the necessary permit. With the court order against us, Howe demanded a very exorbitant settlement sum and told me that his price would increase by $1,000 per day until we paid him off. We immediately mustered all available earthmoving equipment, drag lines, bulldozers, and the diversion job proceeded 24 hours per day for about 10 days to completion. At this point the court found us in contempt of the enjoining order but only fined us $50. I took much satisfaction in promptly discontinuing our previously granted water service to Howe and that effectively ended the problem.
By about 1950 my star was rising fast, as while White Pines had long been top profit maker in the A.F.P.C. organization, exceeding $1,000,000 per year, Wilseyville rang the bell with consistently even higher earnings throughout the 1950’s. Much credit was due, of course, to a fine crew of employees who pulled together. The tragic aspect here is that just when things finally started peaking out for my family, Ruth’s health started to fail and she passed away on 10/19/52.
Another “family factor” having much to do with Wilseyville success, was the cookhouse reputation, remembered by some to this day, and due to the diligent efforts of my mother-in-law, Florence Warren. In those days the quality of the food was as critical as the rate of pay for lumberjacks, and Mrs. Warren did a remarkable job of managing this facility, which contributed much to maintaining a top-notch crew. Early on Mr. Wilsey would regularly visit, ostensibly to monitor my activities, but in reality I’m sure he found those bountiful cookhouse lunches as the primary inducement. I must also mention that Florence Warren was always a second mother to our children and we all treasure her memory. One of the cookhouse boarders was hard-working, ornery Swede who had a reputation of consistently complaining about everything – working conditions, low pay, etc. – and he was the only one to my knowledge that also downgraded the cookhouse. One day I asked him why he kept it up when no one else was griping. His memorable reply in broken English was, “Well, Mr. Blagen, you must understand we have to complain in order to maintain the standards that we have!”
The decade of the 1950’s, crowded with change, was probably the most memorable era of my life. Vital events were Ruth’s passing in 1952, Pat’s marriage in 1953, my own remarriage in 1954, and my transfer to the San Francisco Bay area in 1958. The early 1950’s found Wilseyville continuing to make production and profit records and my job settled into a relatively quiet routine. Recently widowed, my indispensable mother-in-law, Mrs. Warren, moved in and kept house for my two younger children and myself. In early 1954 my good friends, Budgie and Jim Pearce invited me to their new housewarming party in Mokelumne Hill, and there I met Budgie’s recently widowed sister, Florence Casey. Again, it was almost love at first sight and, while Flo had a home and job in Richmond, she finally yielded to my courting pressures. We were married March 6, 1954, and Flo took on the formidable task of managing a new home in Railroad Flat and becoming mother to my two youngest, along with her own 17-year-old son, Bob Casey, who soon joined the army. To say I have been lucky in my choice of wives is putting it mildly and Flo filled a void in my life in a manner that defies description, and our devotion to each other is as strong today as it was 38 years ago.
When Lawrence Wilsey, my much respected mentor, retired in 1955, I was elected a parent company vice president and director, and Charles Gray moved to San Francisco corporate headquarters as president, with Walter Johnson continuing as chairman of the Board of Directors. I thereupon began reporting to Gray and, at the request of both Johnson and Gray, I assumed responsibility for all twelve sawmill operations. This additional activity involved much travel and I helped keep the two company airplanes busy about three days per week, with much auto travel during inclement weather. The operations were spread out from Lakeview, Oregon, to the south Sierra, east of Bakersfield. This schedule continued for the next 15 years. I resisted pressure to transfer my headquarters from Wilseyville to San Francisco until 1958, when it became obvious that I should move or quit. While I enjoyed the close association with the other mill managers, as well as the added income and prestige, I was never again as happy as I had been at Wilseyville after moving to San Francisco. Probably the biggest responsibility I carried during this period was that of handling oral bidding on Forest Service timber sales and, with our overall 75 percent dependency on public timber, the job was pretty stressful.
While Flo and I lived in San Francisco the first year, we moved to a comfortable San Rafael home in 1959 where we resided for the next 15 years. My job kept me jumping, but the one compensating factor in Bay area living, for me, was boating, and I made the most of it. Over some 20 years we did much cruising, both bay, delta and coastal waters, from Bodega to Catalina. I also entertained our managers, as well as Forest Service personnel, on numerous salmon fishing and other cruising trips.
Notwithstanding the busy workplace, I never felt that exciting “satisfaction of achievement” sensation during the San Francisco era, and the last five years there were downright depressing. Expanding profit performance had leveled out, with the sawmill division generating about 75 percent of the total, although a declining timber resource base was muddying future prospects. Accordingly, our top management began a seemingly endless effort to effect a profitable merger, while our stars were still shining. This provoked a status quo situation and “don’t rock the boat” atmosphere that precluded continued capital outlays for modernization to keep competitive. Obviously this created a demoralizing climate for the manufacturing division.
Finally, in 1971, a deal was struck with the Bendix Corporation of Southfield, Michigan, and I believe our biggest selling point for them was the then booming real estate potential of our Calaveras properties. While I “hung in there” for another two years, the completely different Bendix management technique caused my resignation in early 1974. We sold our San Rafael home and, with our boat, moved to Stockton, where we rented an apartment on the water. I next tried working as a lumber buyer for International Forest Products, in which my son is a principal, but it didn’t work out – probably because I was burned out.
At age 63 I needed to find a new occupation and decided to take a fling at real estate and obtained a license. At this point, Flo’s sister, Budgie, induced us to buy a very desirable property in Mokelumne Hill where we thereupon moved and built our present home. I became active locally in real estate and, after obtaining a brokers license, began specializing in large ranch and commercial properties. Strangely enough, I prospered and thoroughly enjoyed this new activity. Flo was very happy in her own new home and in the community where she was raised and still had many relatives and old friends. The next ten years, 1977 to 1987, were probably the happiest ever for Howard and Flo Blagen.
My real estate business was wound up by early 1988 due to colon cancer surgery, and in that same year Flo’s mental problem became increasingly evident. However, by way of one last fling at “adventure” my son, Nels, graciously accompanied me on a short junket to the South Pacific, a couple months after my operation, as the trip had long since been preplanned. We flew from Los Angeles to Tahiti, thence on to Easter Island, and thence by ship to visit certain islands and primarily Pitcairn, of Bounty Mutiny fame. While still ailing somewhat, I thoroughly enjoyed hiking around Pitcairn, as I have long been a Bounty buff. Unfortunately the trip was cut short due to my physical condition, but all told, it was a great experience.
By September, 1988, Flo’s Alzheimer’s problem required moving her to a Stockton hospital facility where she is presently holding her own quite well. My life at this point has settled into a relatively quiet, but enjoyable routine of maintaining our Mokelumne Hill home, monitoring a few investments and taking care of our aging dog, Jingles. I also enjoy visiting Flo weekly and seeing much of my children and their families, who live locally. All told, I consider myself to be a very lucky guy and have no problem accepting the inevitable slowdown that must follow almost 80 years of active living.
H.W.B. September 1992
By way of a brief epilogue, I realize that this rambling tale may be of questionable interest to others, but it has proved to be a unique and pleasurable exercise for me. The concentration and effort to now recall and record what were highlights of my life has resulted in a kind of reliving of so many almost forgotten memories.
This final version constitutes the third revision of the original, and has been prompted by my being urged to include more items of possible anecdotal interest to my children and their families, to whom this work is lovingly dedicated.