Monday, February 23, 2009


These mills were located in Willits. ( now confirmed by Ross Sherburn to have been located in Ukiah) I showed these to you to show you a typical town in the Northwest Coast of California in the Fifties.

Bottom of Photo is the Harold Castell Mill later sold to Pacific Coast. West of highway 101 is the Little Lake Lumber Co and then at the upper right is the Southwick Lumber Mill and the Kelsey Lumber Mill to the right. ( photo and text from The Mendocino Historical Society)

This photo is most likely from the '50's, and back before anyone even thought about air pollution. How many tepee burners can you spot.

The next photo is from the Humboldt State collection. I included it because the men have obviously inlaid the center rot and the riff crack. I got a kick out of it because it's also apparent that it was cut off an old rotten stump and filled in to be some kind of a show piece. Not too elaborate!

It reminded me of the old loggers that would send a log to the mill with a rotten spot on it. They would rub mud on the rotten spot, hoping that the log scalers at the mill would miss the rot, and pay them full price for the rotten log. What ended up happening was the log scalers would just dock back any log that had mud on the end. Turn-about was fair play!

It kind of looks like the Old-Timers are proud of their axes. The one laying at the bottom left of the photo is a long bit axe and it was used for chopping notches deep in the side of a tree to install springboards. Spring boards were installed on the side of a tree and a board platform was built on them to make a place to stand far enough up up the tree to get away from the butt taper when they were cutting the tree down. What's commonly called falling the tree. The newcomers always correct you when you say "falling a tree". They will tell you it's "Felling at tree". Yeah, maybe where they come from!

Most of the old loggers worked for "Scale", they got paid for the board foot of timber that they sent to the mill. They didn't get paid by the hour. So the scale was important to them. The more scale the more money. They got paid by the thousand board foot. A board foot is 12"x 12"x 1" and thousand board foot is abbreviated as MBF. (M=1000. BF = board foot)

This idea is important, because how much lumber that you can get out of a tree determines how successful you will be.

The lumber business was always based on efficiency. The woods workers always worked harder when they got paid for what they produced. They didn’t get paid for their logs by the hour, the got paid by the MBF.

So the logger always produced the best log that he could, to make the most “Scale”. The mill then had to cut that log to make the most scale. If the mill was too sloppy and made off-size lumber, that was too large or small, they would not get enough out of the logs that they bought to make a profit.

The original scale book was made up to be able to measure a log and tell what the mill would be able to cut out of it. The mill bought the logs by whatever the scale book said that they could cut out of it in lumber.

The original lumber was full dimension. In other words, a two by four, would be a full two inches by a full four inches. The mill workers soon learned that the closest that they could cut to those dimensions, the more lumber they could get out of the log. When the lumber went to the planer mill to be smooth surfaced it would come out 1 ¾” x 3 ¾”. That size has crept smaller through the years to the point that our standard finished board size today is around 1 ½” x 3 ½” for a two by four. Do the math, the logger is still being paid on the old scale book and the mill is getting paid full price for the smaller size. The mill's saws cut between 3/8” and ½” curf. Curf is the thickness of the saw cut. The mills figured out that if they could use narrower saws they could get even more boards out of that same log. So they started experimenting with narrower saws. The problem with narrower saws is the problem of stopping the saw whip and the crooked cuts, and wasting more lumber than they could increase with the narrow saws.

The original mainsaws, called a headrig in the mill, cut the log into slabs. The slabs would drop down onto a set of rollers that would move the slab to what was called an “Edger”. The original edger had fixed blade saws in it. It would be set up to cut the slab into fixed width boards. The lumber that came out would have a ½ inch curf on the head rig saw and the edger would cut a 3/8 inch curf. The fixed blade edger just cut the slab into boards that it was set up for. The lumber that came out was the luck of the draw. Anything that wasn’t a full dimension board was pushed into the conveyor and sent up to the Teepee burner.

The mill operators learned that they could cut narrower curfs with a band saw headrig. Then they made moveable blades in the edger and made much more accurate lumber.

A fellow by the name of Al Thresher from Blue Lake developed what they call the “Thresher Edger.” He used very narrow saws. The saws were placed on a huge arbor shaft. The saws floated on the arbor shaft, and they could be quickly repositioned by the use of saw guides. They fit the lumber size that the mill needed to cut for maximum efficiency. They cut a very narrow curf and they gained a bunch on efficiency. Ah, but the “Problem”. Nobody could make them run. They broke saws. They cut crooked and everybody hated them. They smarter mills and the smarter saw filers realized that to be able to make the Thresher Edger work would be the key to a high efficiency mill. They sprayed the saws with water to keep them cool. They soon learned that you could have too much or to little cooling water. The saw had to be tensioned with more stress in the leading edge so when they warmed up they would cut true.

I’m going to brag a little here, so bear with me. My uncle Ben Branscomb was one of the first people figure out how to make a Tresher Edger run consistently true with very little down time. Harwood Products sawmill in Branscomb California became the most efficient mill on the north coast. My uncle soon learned that no good deed goes unpunished. Before my uncle was able to make the edger run, it was pretty much hated by mill workers, and they thought that the old edgers were better. After he got the edger to run, he was pestered to death night and day for information on how to make the damn thing run. He decided early on that it wasn’t something that could be taught over the phone and anybody that wanted to learn had to apprentice under him and that was the way it was. He taught many people to run the edger.

When Harry Merlo was buying up timber and saw mills, he said that he was looking for people that could make a mill work more than he was looking for timber or assets. The Crawford Mill in Covelo was one of those mills, They had perfected the use of the Thresher Edger. Here is what Merlo said about that acquisition. He following is taken from The Mendocino Redwood company’s web-site:

Merlo considered F.M. Crawford Lumber Company his best acquisition in Mendocino County. He suggested the acquisition around 1968 when he was still a new V.P. with Georgia-Pacific(G-P) in Samoa, CA. This proposal illustrated Merlo’s early strategy to focus on people rather than timber. “Frank Crawford’s people,” Merlo said, “were the best to be found.” One reason for this assessment, according to Merlo, was that Crawford used the Al Thrasher edger to produce lumber with minimum waste. “If you have the best mill,” Merlo said, “the trees will come to YOU!”

Al Thrasher was born in 1920 in Chelan, Washington and started working at age 10 in the sawmill industry to help his family. Later he became a sawmill owner in Oregon. In the late 1960s, he revolutionized timber saw blades. His technology drastically reduced the thickness of the saw blade and, therefore, increased the amount of lumber recovered from a log. He also designed a “floating” saw that, unlike the earlier fixed collared saws, could easily glide for adjustments.

Although not a technical wiz himself, Frank Crawford hired individuals like Herb Ryan who would pore for hours over log data and propose sawing patterns that would optimize the amount of lumber recovered from a log. Merlo wanted people in the mold of Herb Ryan, who were oriented toward maximum efficiency and could get the most “product” out of a log. In fact, Herb Ryan became a consultant to L-P.

In part, it was a family tragedy that precipitated Merlo’s acquisition of Crawford Lumber Company. Frank (55) and Vivian (53) Crawford, along with two companions, were killed when their Cessna 320, piloted by Vivian, crashed in Canada on September 7, 1966. The group had left Ukiah on September 2 for a fishing trip; they were returning when their plane went down in a remote area, thick with timber. Exactly two years passed before hunters accidentally spotted the wreckage. Struggling in those intervening years to carry on the inivestigation of the missing plane and to keep the business going, the Crawford family finally decided to sell F.M. Crawford Lumber Company to G-P in 1968. Merlo had negotiated the deal with George Schmidbauer, who was married to Peggy Crawford, the daughter of Frank and Vivian. Schmidbauer became G-P’s general manager of Crawford operations.
Shortly before the negotiations, the three family-owned Crawford corporations—Covelo Lumber Company, Dinsmore Lumber Company, and Apache Lumber Company—were merged under the name F.M. Crawford Lumber Company (UDJ 10 April 1968). The eventual sale to G-P included about 62,000 acres, as well as sawmills in Ukiah, Willits, Alderpoint, Potter Valley, Covelo, and Dinsmore, and a re-manufacturing plant in Ukiah (PD 1 September 1968). At the time, there were 550 employees in the Crawford company.

In the mid-1980s, L-P proposed to spend about $2.5 million to rebuild the old Crawford mill and install computer equipment (PD 12 Sept 1983). Around 1993 the mill was shut down; its crew went to the Willits sawmill until LP built the new computerized mill between 1995 and 1996. This mill is still operational and is now the Ukiah sawmill of Mendocino Forest Products (MFP), one of the sibling companies of MRC. MFP has upgraded three of the major components of the sawmill equipment since 1998

The first photo is The Al Tresher Mill in Blue Lake back in the fifties. The second photo is The Frank Crawford lumber company in Covelo in the fifties.

Crawford Mill Ukiah


Fred said...

That's spelled kerf, Ernie, not curf.

Anonymous said...

Ya Ernie. And it is not narrower saws, it is thinner saws. Ya gotta follow the rules with this one.


Ernie Branscomb said...

What the hell do I know about mills? I'm an old logger. But, I wanted to get a dialog going. Thanks Fred, I knew that it was spelled wrong, but my spell check say’s that it’s spelled wrong no matter how I spelled it.

So, it’s pronounced “Kerf” not “Curf”. So hold your mouths right when you read this.

Oregon, I know I’m stepping on your toes by putting this up here, but I’m kinda’ proud of my family that ALL work in the mills. I wish that your kid. “Mr. computer” would tell us how they have a computer tell them how to make the best lumber out of a log.

Yes folks, it’s come to that, sawmills are run by lumber reading cameras, computers, laser sights, and automatic lumber sorters and stackers, but they still need a filing room and saw filers, but it looks like my family is going to have to move to China if they want to keep working.

Kym said...

Ernie, I enjoyed the post. I especially liked the explanation of why 2x4's aren't!

sohumborn said...

Great post Ernie! I love the old pics. I love the old Mills. I get sad when I go to Scotia now and see so many of the buildings empty. When I was little mills were full of working men day and night.

Anonymous said...

Ernie, a lot of the mills now days are nothing like the mills of the past. There are some mills that have the conventional carriages and saw for grade. Most of the new mills are dimentional mills and saw for high production and recovery. Gone are the carriages and now have overhead end doggers or sharp chains for their primary brake down. Our gang is a marvel to watch, it is to me, since growing up with the old conventional gang edgers. Ours is a curve saw, double arbor 12" gang. The saw box moves back and forth and "twists" in the cut to accomendate the curve in the cant. A modern marvel it is...
By the way, our thin saws in the gang start out at .130" kerf.
Maybe you can get Jamey or some other smart person to tell you how they optimize the logs and cants.


eric said...

Good read Ernie. My grandparents, some aunts and uncles and my father used to work at Harwood's B-Plant here in Willits. As a kid, it was one of my favorite places to be and I got to know a lot of the old timers. As fate would have it, I wound up working in the same mill, though by then it was no longer owned by Harwood. It was the hardest work I'd ever done, but I got so much satisfaction out of that job because I finally felt, after doing janitorial and dishwashing work prior, that I was doing a real man's job. If it wasn't for layoffs a few months in, I probably would have still been there today.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Eric, anybody with a name like Branscomb, Newland or Comer, are relatives of mine. I liked the days when working people were respected. I think that it will come back again. In fact, I think that we will see a lot of changes in the next few years. But jobs will have to move back to America

Oregon, .13 Kerf? I have wider hacksaw blades. What kind of a genius does it take to run those, and how long do they stay sharp? What does a nail do to them? What kind of metal are the cutters, (Teeth?)Back in the old days they were insert bits.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Do they still use edgers? Or are they all gang saws?

Anonymous said...

They still use edgers. Ours is a high speed edger with a feed rate of 1200 per minute. On our band saws and edger saws we tip the teeth with stellite. That is 60% colbalt and still doesn't like nails. Some days we run the saws 5 hours and they are a little tired by that time. Usual run time is 4 hours.
By the way, I worked at Harwoods in Willits and was there when they shut down. Somebody took a picture of all us crew standing on and around the carraige with the last log sawn. 1987.. That was a shotgun carraige and had a ratchet setter still riding the carraige. I have home movies if it to boot.


ross sherburn said...

ernie,i know the area around willits fairly well.but i can't get my bearings correct on that top picture.i assume we are looking southwest??? THANKS!

Ernie Branscomb said...

Ross, I couldn't get my bearings on that picture either. But, from the shadows on the trees. It had to be facing south to southwest and from the leaves on the trees, and the high angle of the sun on the tree shadows, it had to be late spring. The description on the photo has to be wrong. The road just past the mill looks like it may be the railroad, and the curve to the west would be where the rail goes down hwy. 20, and the far road would be 101. If that were the case there would be a hill with a hospital on it to the south, and there isn’t. I would bet at least ten bucks that is NOT Willits. Maybe somebody from Willits can give us our bearings.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Oregon, thanks for the heads-up. It makes me a lot more comfortable knowing that mills still have edgers, but the flying overhead carriage with sharp chains make me a little nervous!

Ernie Branscomb said...

Oregon, I guess that I'll have to email your computer programers kid that runs sawmills from his easy chair to tell us how they do that.

ross sherburn said...

when i first saw the picture,i thought it was just north of ukiah??? more flat land to the west there!!

ross sherburn said...

in my book"mills of mendocino county"it shows a picture of CASTEEL's mill on page 86.says the mill is at ukiah,near CDF station!

Ernie Branscomb said...

Ross, you are right! You just can't fool a country boy.

ross sherburn said...

thanks ernie,i was semi-guessing at this,ya know!!!!books can be wrong also!and BTW,when ever on a road trip with my dad when younger,i was always looking out the windows.i didn't have a GAMEBOY back then to keep me occupied!!!and of course,my dad was always pointing stuff out to me!

Anonymous said...

Very happy to have found your blog and the photos. I got to your blog because I found a 3" x 6" metal tag on our property saying "Property of F.M.Crawford Lumber Co." Several years earlier I had found an old corner marker of Union Lumber Company near our our present one. I wondered if there was a relation between the two companies. We are east of Comptche on Orr Springs Rd. I first saw tepee burners in 1963 while on a 1000 mile bicycle ride from Vancouver Island to S.F. Little did I know how much things would change.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ernie; I was just down to Crescent City for an overnight visit. We lived in Lake county from 1965 to 1967. I hauled logs in to Crawford mills in Ukiah and Covelo. I was working for Bob Campbell Trucking at the time.
He and his brother Jack took over the business of Joe D. Brundage in Covelo in 1966. The truck shop was out of town to the North East. There was a dirt air strip out by it so light airplanes landed there. We drove off- hiway trucks that hauled about 2.5 times bigger loads than a legal highway truck hauls.
We went clear up past Low Gap, into Glen County to load up and hauled the logs down mostly private roads to Covelo. This was early summer of '66. I was just 21 then and Covelo seemed pretty rough and remote to me. I drove back to Lakeport on weekends to see my wife and daughter. By mid-summer, I'd had enough of that job and I quit and stayed in Lake County driving a dump truck.

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Anonymous said...

Didn't want to be anonymous but did not see any other options that seemed to apply.
Top picture: We are looking southwest. You can see where the main railroad and the "Skunk" line to Fort Bragg separate. Go up out of the top of the photo toward Fort Bragg.

Anonymous said...

Hate to be the penmanship police but Al's name was T-H-R-A-S-H-E-R and that other family was C-A-S-T-E-E-L not Castell. I think their contributions to our industry merit spelling their names right.
My father built the Sage Land Improvement mill out on the Willits-Fort Bragg road (now Hwy 20) then started his own mill with Warren Daniels out on Redwood Creek, near Irmulco, on the upper Noyo River, along the Skunk track. He was killed in Willits in 1950 but Daniels & Ross lumber company built another mill on our property in Elk.
I worked for Greenwood Lumber Co. and for Al Thrasher in his mill at Calpella.
I saw the name Comer mentioned. I knew Clifton Comer. He worked for my brother at Beacon & Ross over on the coast. My brother had been friends with his son Richard who had been killed in the woods near Willits in the early fifties.