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Big Timber

Settle in for another trip on the wayback machine to the Anderson Valley of my younger days, from the late 1950s through the late 1980s. The subject this time is big timber and we start in the present. However, instead of Anderson Valley, this installment begins on Highway 128 just north of Cloverdale.

My occasional trips into the Valley pass the Redwood Empire Mill near Cloverdale, and I can’t help but look at the log deck and contrast it with the log decks of 50 years ago. The deck is — befitting a mill in full operation — huge, but the redwood logs are mostly small — in some instances less than 18 inches feet in diameter. Such little logs were called “toothpicks” when I was a kid and usually went to the mills only when knocked down during the falling of bigger trees. Logging was all about big timber in those days, but it wouldn’t be for very much longer. Though I wasn’t aware of it until later, I lived in Anderson Valley just as the big timber era was drawing to a close.

Actually, the late 1940s through the early 1960s was the second iteration of big timber in Anderson Valley. The first began in the 1850s, when Joshua Hendy — ironically the person who preserved Big Hendy Grove — established the first sawmill in the valley. That era lasted until the 1920s, by which time most of the accessible virgin redwoods had been felled. The second began in the post-war boom of the late 1940s, when demand for lumber to build suburbia exploded.

The economy of Anderson Valley back then was driven by sawmills, apple orchards, sheep and — to lesser extents than the first three — resorts and beef cattle. Vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms didn’t really arrive until the late 1960s and remained a modest economic element until the 1980s. In the late 1950s there were more than a dozen mills in the valley, each with a “teepee” burner for waste and each manned by men — many from Arkansas and Oklahoma — doing tough and often dangerous work.

By then, unprotected virgin redwoods were essentially gone from Anderson Valley. Sizeable redwood and Douglas fir trees continued to be cut in the valley, but most — in my memory, anyway — were three to five feet in diameter; young growth from the first big timber era that had matured over the years. However, virgin redwood logs — behemoths 10 feet or more across — continued to be delivered to local mills, hauled from stands up the coast.

When my father selectively logged our property in the early 1960s, he focused primarily on Douglas fir, which was in steep decline due to Douglas fir bark beetle, a very nasty bug whose larvae bore into the sapwood and killed the trees. One of our neighbors commented he’d noticed his Douglas fir were in trouble in the early 1940s and notified Mendocino County officialdom: in the mid-1960s, he was still waiting for them to check into the problem! Several of the Douglas fir on our property were impressive — four feet across at the base and 150 feet tall — but a dead tree that size was a major hazard, so — preemptively — down they came.

About 1960, my parents took us to Fort Bragg to tour the Union Lumber Company, possibly the largest mill along the Mendocino coast. I remember it had a high pressure water and moveable nozzle system in a special room in the mill to remove bark from the logs. The redwood logs rolling into the debarking station were so wide they could barely get through the door!

Local mills handled redwood logs of similar size, though without the benefit of a fancy debarking machine. They arrived at the mills on logging trucks, frequently one big log and a few smaller ones (but not small like today) on the tractor-trailer and occasionally one gigantic log traveling solo (or one and one, if the rig was a double). Logging and milling were seasonal, with the season running from spring into autumn (our wet winters made logging extremely perilous). But during those months, at our house more than half a mile from the highway, we could hear the trucks rattling and roaring through Philo on their way to the mills. Back then there was no speed limit in Philo, and the trucks were flying along near — and sometimes above — the then 60 miles-per-hour speed limit. We could also hear the Philo Mill; the bang of lumber being stacked and loaded onto trucks, the whine of the saws, and the occasional screech of the green chain.

Apparently, during the 1950s, it wasn’t uncommon for lumber trucks with huge logs to slowly roll through Boonville during the Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show Parade, and then continue on their way to the mills. Probably because I went to the fair for the first time in the late 1950s, I only recall seeing one; a truck hauling a single huge log with a plywood sign on top that read “Last of the Redwoods.” It was near the end of the parade, and after the truck passed the rodeo grounds, the trucker pulled over, removed the sign and took off down the road!

The passage of the second big timber era was gradual. The logs got smaller and the number of trucks fewer. Then, during lean years, mills in Anderson Valley began closing and — even when times got better — they rarely reopened. Sooner or later, the closed mills — “teepee” burners and all — were dismantled or simply crumbled. Today almost all signs they were ever here are gone and only long-time residents can point out their locations.

Most of the remaining virgin redwood forests on the North Coast are now protected and that is as it should be; they are a legacy that deserves to be preserved. I understand logged forestlands that haven’t been clear-cut and haven’t been trashed by pot cultivation can regenerate quickly, with redwoods growing at an impressive rate — far faster than in a climax forest — due to established root systems and a lack of competition for sunlight. Though they may never produce the big timber of my memory, these restored forests also will be a legacy: not for us, but for future generations.

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