Friday, June 15, 2007

Jolly John's Gyp Joint

I’ll tell this story in first person, just like I was there, because I was. The best way to tell a story is to tell it as if you were talking to someone. Make yourself comfortable, and bear with me if you can. This is a story about the people I knew, and the places they liked. The names have been left out to protect the indignant.

About three miles Southwest of Garberville, California, U.S.A. on the Sprowel Creek Road sat the best ever 1950's style Gypo-logger bar. Now that I've said it, the fight is on. The typical Gypo was always in a state of disagreement over which bar was the best. That was what the typical argument was about back then. Anybody that lived there back then, would probably still be arguing about it today, some things just never change.

The bar was named Jolly John’s Gyp Joint, because that was where all the Gypo’s gathered and made logging deals. The bar was well situated. It was about one quarter mile up Sprowel Creek on the West side. Back then, there were three sawmills in the very large canyon. The only way out of the canyon was past "The Gyp Joint", as it became affectionately known by the loggers and mill workers of the time. Every logging and mill crew stopped by at the bar on the way home, that was just the way it was. It didn't make any difference whether you drank soda pop or beer, after a days work in the woods or a mill, a person had to "Rinse the dust out of their throats". logging and mill work was hot, dry, and dusty.

Back in the fifties there was an expression about the lumber industry. "There's a mill in every canyon, and a bar on every stump." That was fairly true. Most of the canyons around Garberville had Sawmills in them. At one time, there were over fifty sawmills in the Southern Humboldt School District. The mills were placed at the mouth of the canyons to utilize the force of gravity to their advantage. Everything was downhill to the sawmill from the steep canyons up the creek. The hillsides were thickly forested with Douglas Fir and Redwood. The loggers that moved the timber to the mills were called Gypo-loggers. Being a "Gypo" meant that you did logging by contract and got paid by the thousand board feet of timber that was delivered to the mill. So the loggers got paid only for what they produced. Most of the logging contracts were done on a bid. Like is usual with contracting, some Gypo's bid too low. They had to work very economically to make ends meet. Some DIDN'T make ends meet. Most of the equipment that they used was poorly constructed and in terrible shape. Some of the smaller sawmills were powered by the cars and trucks that the people used to move out to Northern California from Okalahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, or any of the "Hungry States" as they were called. It was not uncommon to see an old ton-and-a-half truck with the frame and rear axles modified to haul a heavy load of logs. They connected as many as four transmissions in series behind the motor of the trucks to get low enough gears to pull the hills. If a person got caught behind one of these slow moving trucks, that person would be there for a while. When on a long steep uphill pull the drivers would tie the steering wheel down, then get out to check their load and binders while the truck slowly trudged up the hill. Some of the fancy truck drivers even had a clamp from the dashboard to hold the wheel steady. If the Gypo was anything, he was ingenious. The drivers did other things while getting to the top. It was well understood that you did nothing to interfere with these truck's progression up the hill. In most cases it would cause the truck to break down if it had to restart the pull on a hill, that is, if the truck had brakes enough to hold it there. Most trucks didn't have doors, because it was important be able to jump free if it lost it's brakes, or had another mechanical failure. The expression was, “Never holler whoa in a hard pull”. That same expression was often used when a Gypo found him self drinking a little to much and decided maybe he could handle one more beer.

The smart Gypo's soon learned that it was best to be in the "good old boy system". The good old boys always got the best contracts and always had to buy the drinks for the mill's representative. The mill rep was called the "Bull-buck" and he signed all the contracts for the logging, and made the deals for the mill that paid the fee for the timber to be delivered. Those deals were usually made in the local bar. Most were done on a handshake, because a man's word was good enough. Very few deals fell through for lack of a written contract. Most all of the hiring’s and firing’s were done in one of the bars. That was because that's where everyone went after work. The bar was the only place to catch up on the news. The bar was the only place to make contact. It was a rare that a Gypo had a telephone. If someone didn't show-up to work in the morning the boss would go to the local bar and hire a replacement for that worker before noon. If a person got mad and quit, the first thing he would do is head for the bar and wait for a new boss to come hire him. Sometimes the old boss and the worker solved their problems over a few beers, then went back to work.

I never quite understood where the word “Gypo” came from, but I always suspected that it had something to do with the way they did business in the bars. Somebody was always getting “gypped” out of his chance to do honest work by the best “Good-ol-boy”.

Henry David Thoreau said; “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

That doesn’t describe the Gypo-loggers. If they were desperate, they didn’t know it. The typical Gypo was most likely someone that just saved his family from starvation by moving to Northern California. Or one of the local pioneer folks that never had a need for money, because for the most part they lived off the land. Everything looked like prosperity to them. After World War Two, jobs were plentiful, and here was a major building boom going on in the cities to the south. There was a huge, and seemingly endless demand for lumber. Lumber was the Gypo’s product. The locals could see, for the first time in their lives, that they could go to work and buy a new car, or something for the house. It only looked like desperation to someone who had never been truly desperate. Wipe the tear out of your eye, they were happy people.

As for quiet, they were anything but quiet. The equipment that they used in the woods and in the mills ran without mufflers. Most Gypo’s were very hard of hearing. Normal conversation was drowned out by the loud equipment. Communication during the work day was done by hand signals. Most of the Gypo’s could make themselves very well understood by face and body expression, or with a few quick hand signals. It’s hard to describe these people without thinking of their swear words. Swearing was done in great abundance, unless of course there was a lady present, then the conversation got very clean and very brief. Even the hand signals were particularly expressive, in what could only be termed as swearing. The average Gypo was at least a little bit hard of hearing and they spoke spoke quite loudly. They were not quiet people.

As for going to the grave with the song still in them; if they had a song in them it came out every Friday night, usually in one of the Gypo Bars.

I feel a little ashamed of telling this story without using their language, but times have changed beyond my ability to change them back. I know that for a fact, because I've fought that battle and lost too many times. The expressions that they used were priceless, but nowadays someone would point out that it was an illiterate or vulgar expression, without even trying to see the wisdom in it. The pride they had in themselves was beyond description. They liked the woods, they liked logging, they liked the hum of the saws. It was often witnessed that a timber faller would trim a few limbs off a Madrone tree for the deer to eat. Feeding the chipmunks on the landing at lunch was part of the job. Nowadays, it would be said that they loved these things, but back then to say they loved anything would have implied that they were sissies, and a person didn't want to call a Gypo a sissy. They felt like they were the most important part of building America. But now, they are know as the loggers that raped the forest. Now the tear in your eye would be okay.

Margaret Atwood said; “The Eskimo has fifty-two names for snow because it is important to them; there ought to be as many for love.”

If The Eskimo has fifty-two names for snow because it is important to them, the Gypo’s must have had fifty-two rules for swearing because it was important to them. It was more important than love.

Class One Swearing Rules For Boys Under Thirteen; Girls didn’t count because girls didn’t swear. Kids weren’t allowed to swear, but it was understood that boys would do it anyway, but it didn’t count if an adult couldn’t hear them. So, if a boy and his friends wanted to try a little swearing at the swimming hole, it was okay as long as his sister didn’t hear, because she would always tell on him. After all, that was her job if she witnessed any inappropriate behavior. As he got older, a boy would be allowed to swear a little while he was in the woods with the men, or while hunting and fishing. But then the boy would only be allowed to use mild religious oaths. He still couldn’t swear around women, not anytime, or anyway. He couldn’t swear around his Mom out of respect, and he couldn‘t swear around his sister, because she would still tell on him, and that would make his Dad mad. Not so much that he swore, but that he was dumb enough to swear around his sister, because she would tell his Mom, and his Mom would tell his Dad, and then Dad was expected to do something about it. Dad would have that look that said; “Boy, are you stupid“. Then he would have to talk to the boy in private. Not that he got a spanking or anything. The lectures at that point didn’t have so much to do with the swearing as much as the absolute fact that the boy was stupid enough to get caught, and cause them both, boy and Dad, problems. Then they had to make deal that it wouldn’t happen again.

Class Two Swearing Rules for Thirteen to Eighteen year old Boys; By now his sister is tired of telling on him. She is too busy trying to impress the other guys at the swimming hole to care what he says. So he can get away with swearing, as long as it’s mild, without much of a problem. He can now get into heavy duty swearing when he is with the men in the woods. He can only swear about things, and swear with the men, but he can’t swear AT anyone.

Class Three Swearing Rules for Eighteen and up Boys; Girls still aren’t allowed to swear, but bad girls do. At this point he can say anything he wants around the men in the woods or in the mill. He shouldn’t swear around women, but mild swearing is accepted. and he has to swear a little bit to prove he’s not a sissy. He still can’t swear AT anyone until he has achieved the “Gypo Male Rites of Passage”. More on that rite later.

While growing up and going to school here, it was standard practice to ask the new kid what their father did for a living. It was usually announced with great pride that their Dad was a logger, a mill worker, a truck driver, the bank president or ran a gas station. Whatever they did, it was okay to ask, and if someone didn't ask, they were eager to tell you. Most of the kids knew what they wanted to do, or be, when they grew up. That attitude is not seen anymore. Nowadays, it is considered to be very rude to ask anyone what they do for a living. Back then it was insulting to not ask about a persons profession. It seems strange to see the people that live here now go way out of their way to condemn the logging of the fifties and early sixties, yet not want to tell you what they do for a living.

The Gypo's water barred and healed their roads, they left seed trees to provide for future forest regeneration. They left the creeks clear of dirt. It was thought to be beneficial to leave large logs in the stream bed for fish ladders and resting holes for the Salmon. They knew it made good fish habitat, because those holes, in and around the "logjams", were some of the best places to catch trout. I don't know where the "Johnny Come Lately" fish scientists got their degrees, but they're wrong for "Clearing the creeks". Everything that was begged and pleaded for them to not do when they were "clearing the destruction that the Gypo caused", has come back to haunt them. Now they are reinstalling the barriers that they took out. The wisdom of the Gypo was greater than they thought. The Gypo also never intended for their roads to be reopened. They never intended the land to be populated with people. They DID intend for the land and the forest to regenerate itself. For every single thing that the new people say the Gypo did wrong, there is a good reason for it having been done. There is no advice for the new people that came here, they will have to live with their own legacy, but they should have more respect for the people that came before them. The people then, were no better or worse, than those that live here now.

(This is just a working draft that I am sharing with my collaborators. there is far, far more to come)


Nancy said...

I'm writing my late husband's bio for the grandkids. He was one of the Arkies that arrived in Garbervile in 1951 with sawmill experience from Van Buren Co, Arkansas (Dennard,Clinton). After the Army tamed him, I met him at SRJC. (I was born and raised in Sonoma County.) He died in 1990 and I loved reading your account because it fleshes out my memories of his stories.
At one point during the workless days of rainy wintertime, he played in a band in one of these joints. "We'd pass the hat..only to learn later the clinking sounds were pennies, nuts, bolts, washers.. etc. When the fight started, and it always started, we'd throw our instruments under the table and get in front of them. Our skin would grow back, but them instruments were hard to replace. I recall he talked about Sprowel Creek and living at Layontonville once.
He was fond of saying, "If you didn't like the mill you worked for you could quit,take your dinner pail and have a better job before dinner (Arkie name for lunch).
I know that Garberville was the center of the universe during those years. In 1972 I found an envelope in Dennard, Arkansas home we had just bought from another Arkie who worked on Sprowel Creek. The envelope's return address was a Garberville accountant who did the taxes for the Arkie. The accountant was the older brother of my next door neighbor in Petaluma, CA. Small world in 1952..I knew the accountant. In 1962I married the Arkies. In 1972 I found the letter that link us all together.
Most of these Arkies moved down to Willets before 1954.
So glad to find this blog through Google. My dad loved fishing the Eel River and we vacationed at Richardson Grove. I remember driving old 101 in our 39 Chevy with huge log trucks with ONE log hugging us on all sides.
Nancy , Ark.

ross said...

i remember the name john jolly,a fellow that worked for my dad in the 50's somewhere between laytonville&garberville.i probably have work time records on him in some of my dads timebooks.

Nancy said...

There is a fellow in Arkansas in his 80's who worked the log woods in the 50's I have a picture of him with some other ARkansas folks on a one tree load: Henry Huie, Robert Newland. John Jolly is still alive...nearly the last of his siblings. However, I don't think that he had anything to do with running this place. John Jolly is a big man. Perhaps other names ring a bell? Grover Watts? He was noted for giving the local game wardens a hard time. Grover didn't understand or give a hoot for fish and game laws.

ross sherburn said...

a lot of other names ring a bell! these arkie folks as you call them! there kids were scrubbed down clean as a bell.

Nancy said...

Right on. These were all good, hard working, farming folk who were forced to leave the Ozark Mtns that they loved to go where they could make a living. The married ones saved money, improved their farms, put their kids through college and lived honorable lives.
Very few stayed in California, but returned to Ark like my husband did in the late 50s early 60s. Several of the single guys married California girls who cheerfully moved back with them.
Yes! By Ned their kids weren't going anywhere dirty...and they washed and starched and ironed the work clothes for a lot of the husbands.
In many ways the kind of folks that built this country. Willing to do what they had to do to work and provide for their families. Most of the families from my area went to Kokomo, IN at first to pick tomatoes and later to work in factories and drive trucks. Nearly all of them came back home, even living grandkids in IN.! Most of those who stayed away ended up around Galt and stayed with their grandkids. However, they made a yearly migration "back home." Thanks for your input. Nancy