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Greenchain Vaudeville

In the last episode of the House of Morgan saga I described my millworker career from the humble Point job up to the celebratory Greenchain #4 puller position working next to “Highload” Hurst. This week I will recollect miscellaneous vaudevillian episodes we staged to levitate our boring 53 hour work week. Some of these stories I recovered from my personal memory bank, others came from the recollections of local friends like “Highload,” Mike Mannix and Jack Lindsey Clow.

The spirit of the work environment we created as defense against its never ending sweat and boredom was forms of collaborative subversion of the system and its overseers, if not actual, at least in our collective consciousness. For example, during the morning and afternoon breaks, sometimes at lunchtime too, we would gather in the mill yard to spectate footraces between Sam Prather, age 35 and Jack Lindsay Clow, maybe fifteen years younger. Sam was the one who designed the contest, which was formally an approximately forty yard dash, according to space available, with Sam providing the large, bulky Jack with starting lines increasingly further from his own. Somehow, it was only in the last event of the races that Lindsay finally beat Sammy to the finish line, having had a 25 yard head start out of the more or less forty.

Then there were the spirited political debates Freewill Baptist Church Pastor and employee Jerry Camp and I conducted over by the tally shack and in the shade of the log deck summer pavilion Bill Witherell had built with his crane each spring. The basic theme was the nature of monotheism, whether there really is a God, what’s the meaning of penitence and of forgiveness, and so on. As we were good friends, the debate tone was always very speculative and considerate of one another. Despite the non-adversarial tone of our show, we generally attracted half a dozen to a dozen congregants to it, some of whom asked us good questions about our views of life. To a man the Jehovah Witnesses avoided these meeting, their conviction about the solidity of their doctrine their protection against different ideas.

The most memorable event of subversion I remember though was the way we celebrated the beginning of the Christmas holiday by shutting down the mill before noon on the last day of work prior to our weeklong vacation. Here’s what I remember. It was a clear, windless December day, just the right temperature for Greenchain work. After about an hour on the chain, I noticed a lot of the employees were doing their jobs with a can of beer in hand or nearby their posts. Apparently this was a normal custom at Philo Mill going back a number of years. At one point someone strolled over to Ken and my position and offered us each a “Bud.” Usually not my habit, as much as I enjoy beer, to have one in the morning. But in deference to the celebratory mood, we both accepted our gifts. And it turned out a small hit of morning alcohol made our work a lot more interesting than under “normal” conditions of just oxygen and sweat.

Half an hour later another buddy came over and offered us another brew, what he claimed was the last of his six pack. After downing that second beer, and as the morning grew warmer, Ken and I had a meeting across the boards and decided we’d like another beer, and we also needed a reserve stash to repay the generosity of our friends who’s provided us earlier. At which point I had a great idea. I walked over to the straddle buggy, threw a couple of 4 X 4 blocks onto its bed, drove her out the mill gate, turned left and headed up the hill to the Philo Market. No morning customers then, so I parked right at the store’s front steps, blocked the wheels so she wouldn’t roll down the incline into Norman Island’s lath mill and purchased a couple of cases of Bud and Olympia, diversity to please all of our colleagues.

Throwing the beer on the 4 X 4 blocks, I jumped up onto the driver’s seat over the load space, swung the vehicle around and crossed back into the south lane of Highway 128. At which point I remembered I had only driven the buggy in the flat mill yard, never used the puny brakes and had a sudden rush of fear about whether I would be going down toward Indian Creek too fast to negotiate the turn into the mill. Calm under pressure returned, though, and I reasoned, oh well, if I am going too fast to try the turn, I’ll just straddle down the hill to the Indian Creek road, make a u-turn and head back to the mill. The fans waiting for my return would enjoy the spectacle, no?

As it turned out the turn into the mill yard was no problem for my vehicle, and after parking it back near the Greenchain, Ken and I broke down the two or three cases into smaller units and distributed them in the shade of the units up and down the Chain. 

In retrospect what was curious about the celebration so far was that there had been no sign of the mill boss, Mac McDonald all morning. Typically he would stroll randomly through the whole operation a couple of times a day, simply to see if everything was running smoothly, or if there was equipment showing signs of wearing out, or any unannounced absences from the work force. When I was working at The Point earlier in my career, my partner a couple of times told me he had an afternoon appointment in court over in Ukiah, that he’d be leaving work at lunch time and would I tell the boss of his engagement. Twice I did that for him. A third time, while I was moving a unit of lumber away from the Chain right after lunch I glanced across the highway toward the mill cottage where Roger lived and saw his pick-up parked in its front yard. Then on my way home that evening as I drove out of the mill, I saw him open the front door of home, yawn and stretch as if from a sound sleep, and sit down on the steps. I didn’t know anything about methamphetamines in those days, but later on I figured out Roger was a cranker and came down and crashed solidly every couple of days. Another learning experience at the House of Morgan.

So, anyway, back at the mill holiday party, the morning moved along and the beer supply began running down again. At which point the substitute edger operator Jack Lindsay Clow walked across the yard past the chain, and with a huge smile on his face and his hands rubbing together aggressively as if he were entering the batter’s box at the ball field. Not five minutes after Jack had gone up the steps into the mill, there arose that loud distressful whine we all recognized, followed by a small explosion and the smell of burning plastic, then the shrill mill alarm telling us some important mill operation had broken down. Well, this very large cant had come down the chain from the headrig, and when Lindsay tried to move it through the edger, it turned out to be too big for the motor driving the edger, the saw blades dulled with pitch, then seized up, the motor blew up, and unfortunately the mill was out of operation.

At that point Mac McDonald appeared out of the mill office, sauntered over to the main building as was his way and made an inspection. Five minutes later, Mac emerged from the building, strolled on back to the office without saying anything to anyone. Another five minutes went by and the mill’s start and stop whistle went off to announce the end of the work day, about 11:30 AM. Out of beer anyway, we all flooded away from our work positions, swept across the mill yard toward our cars, shaking hands and hugging one another in seasons’ greetings, some of us still finishing our beers, and headed out the gate for home. Last little vignette of the celebration I saw was in my rear view mirror as I started up 128 toward Philo Market. The big white van I knew belonged to Craig Titus came roaring out of the gate and headed south, way too fast for the turn, instead partially into the far lane also occupied by another vehicle. So Craig overcorrected back with a squeal of brakes on tires up onto the bank on his side of the road. I thought he was going to roll over for sure. But no, he kind of slid back down onto the highway, hit the gas and rode on down the hill toward Indian Creek. An accident then would have wrecked the most exciting work holiday party I have, even to this day, ever attended. Thank you, Saint Christopher. 

And then, soon thereafter the holiday celebration came our “End of Days” at the Philo Mill. During the autumn and early winter I was unaware of any threat to “The Contract” between the Greenchain Gang and Landis Morgan. So it was a surprise to me when one day, probably in February, Ken stepped up onto the chain work platform and told me Morgan wanted to terminate the arrangement. I think I remember us spending a few hours each day that week assessing dialectically what Morgan expected to gain by ending it. I think I remember that Ken said it did have something to do with wanting to add another Chain in order to support more volume and more grades of lumber than we were pulling at the moment. An addition to the mill’s capacity seemed like a good thing to me for both owner and employees. But I couldn’t understand why the current operating terms using piece-work labor had to end to benefit the addition to the mill’s capacity. Nor did Ken, though he surmised that somehow Morgan believed the Greenchain crew had been the instigators of the sitdown strike that had happened last summer.

So after a couple of speculative on the job meetings, and in between reviewing local gossip and the prospects for the SF Giants in the upcoming baseball season, I proposed to Ken that he and I, maybe Sammy Prather too, the senior citizens on The Chain, have a formal meeting with Morgan in the spirit of exploring his reasoning behind reverting our pay to hourly and to see if we could persuade him that our efficiency created productivity and cost-savings to him that were worth keeping as part of his operations. Then I said, “Let me see copy of ‘The Contract;’ Let’s sit down and analyze it together before we have a meeting with Morgan. It’ll help us understand his motives for the change.”

Ken turned toward me as we pulled boards with a mildly surprised look on his face and for the first time advised me, “Contract, there’s no contract, just a verbal agreement between me and Morgan.” And so ended my career as one of the Gods of production labor. We worked effectively but sullenly for another week or two, but I believe the last day of work for The Greenchain Gyppos was also the last day in February. Four of us quit our jobs at the mill, Ken, Sammy and I and Arnold Martin, the others stayed on and reverted to hourly wages, and I never heard another word about the life and culture at Philo Mill again.

Citizens, when you look from your car as you drive by Philo Lumber on these dark mornings, and you see a flash of brilliance, you will know it will be millyard lights and not a Gyppo’s smile.

Ken Hurst, March, 1973.

* * *

PS: About five years later, I contracted with another type of gyppo, Leland Lewis of Honeydew fame, to log my place. I wanted to do a sustainable harvest and use the income to build a house on the ranch. After studying the market for redwood logs for a year or so in advance of the 1978 season, the best offer for my timber, including the nominal cost of hauling the harvest eight miles to Philo, came from Landis Morgan and Philo Lumber. Despite the attractiveness of Morgan’s price, I wondered whether in revenge for my participation in the 1972 strike and the Greenchain demise, whether he would cheat me out of some of the log scale I delivered the mill. But rising to the challenge of dealing with Morgan, I came up with a delivery verification plan. 

Because I was paying the logger Lewis a piecework rate of so many dollars per thousand board feet of logs felled and skidded to the landing here, he kept a log book with the scale of board feet on each truck that left the ranch headed for the mill. 28 truckloads of redwood left here for Philo Lumber, about 165 thousand board feet of sawlogs. What a relief it was when I got a statement and check from Morgan within two weeks of the deliveries, and lo and behold, Landis’s and my scale for the deliverables were almost exactly the same, 165 thousand board feet. And that money, plus my pretty scrawny savings were what enabled me to build the two bedroom house, design copied from the Guntly Ranch home, I still live in forty odd years later. Thank you, Landis Morgan.

One Comment

  1. Ralph Witherell May 28, 2021

    Thanks for these stories. My Dad, Jack Witherell, grew up on Whipple ridge in the 30’s and 40’s an told us stories of pulling green chain when he was a teenager and and young adult during summers when he was home from studies at srjc and San Jose state. His stories were less generous concerning the camaraderie than yours, mainly telling of the backbreaking work and unfair pay and treatment by the powers that be. Your stories add good color to my recollections of my Dad.

    Ralph Witherell

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