It has been a few years now since I wrote this article for The Prineville Territory magazine. Researching this one really warmed my heart. If you like history, old pictures, memories, or just want to read some truth…read on!
Kinzua, Oregon…Lumber Town, Beginning to End
History, corporate and personal, comes together to create a story of a place that is physically gone now. A visit to the site of Kinzua, Oregon will find nothing to hint at the existence of a town. However, the stories live on and they are not ghost stories, but real truth that burns bright in the hearts and minds of those with a connection.
Founding a Lumber Town
In the 1930 Federal Census, Lumberman, Edward D. Wetmore described himself as a capitalist in the lumber industry, living at that time in Warren, Pennsylvania. Wetmore held vast tracts of timber land in Oregon, Washington and Arizona, but he was most proud of those in Wheeler County, Oregon and made that holding the center and hub of his lumber business, founding Kinzua (pronounced Kinzu) in 1927. Wetmore was a product of the Pennsylvania lumber business and the White Pine forests there. He chose the name, originating from the Seneca Indians, meaning land of many fishes.
Originally acquiring the land while travelling from Pennsylvania in 1909, Wetmore held deeds to about 50,000 acres in the west. Classified as land grants, the deeds were signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. The claim of presidential signature is misleading and likely not absolute, as in 1833, Andrew Jackson made the decision that the President would discontinue signing land grants and they would be signed in proxy by a secretary. Land grants are gifts of real estate made by the government to encourage development of unused land, generally in remote and unpopulated areas. Wetmore had big plans for his land in Oregon.
Differing accounts of the actual acquisition of the timber land exist. A publication called The Kinzua Graphic from about 1945, published by the Kinzua Pine Mills Company, states that the timber site was selected in 1905 by E. D. Wetmore, third generation lumberman, in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Nate Coleman, also with a family history in the business, planned and built the Kinzua modern sawmill and lumber factory. Actual ownership passed from Wetmore to the Coleman Brothers and then to O’Donnell and Son, a group based in Seattle who held ownership until the town was shut down in 1978.
From early on, environmentally friendly practices were in place. Trees were only harvested upon reaching maturity and turned into lumber, of which every inch was used or sold. Cutting was on a selective basis, with schedules in place for harvest. The timber was constantly replenished under the Certified Tree Farm Program. Kinzua Pine Mills Company was granted a certificate from the Western Pine Association as a Western Pine Tree Farm for their “sound forestry practices for the continuous production of commercial forest crops in accordance with approved standards”. The goal was to create a permanent business.
Also of note is the service of Kinzua during World War II. From their small town, they sent 117 men to serve and noted that the women, called “Kinzua girl war-workers”, did an excellent job in maintaining production in the factory during the war. Government war orders had to take precedence in production, but every effort was made to meet regular customer needs, as well. Reaching peacetime, the goal was to re-employ every worker wanting to return to work.
A “company town”, such as Kinzua, is developed specifically for the workers. Everything is owned by the company…all stores and even the houses people live in. By 1965 the town had evolved to include 125 homes, a community hall, church, library, store, service station, post office, hotel, café, phone company, railroad line to Condon and a golf course.
Earl and Opal…a love story in Kinzua
Earl and Opal Williams had never met until their paths crossed in Oregon after Earl moved far from home to find work at the Kinzua Pine Mills Company. Though they had lived only about 10 miles from one another, their age difference during the high-school years made their lives very separate back in Kentucky. Opal’s father had also moved to find work in Kinzua and when she visited him, she met Earl and the rest, as they say, is history. Opal stayed and found work in the factory. The couple married on Dec. 22, 1949. Opal calls their courtship pretty “normal”. The Williams’ left Kinzua in 1954. What a distance they traveled to meet, fall in love, marry and then return back to their roots in Kentucky. Call it luck or fate; things seem to have worked out well for Earl and Opal. Opal recalls the freedom and sense of safety in the community. Following is her account of life there…
Kinzua had a population of about three hundred in its prime. People came from all over the country – Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia and other states. Opal says there were hardly any native Oregonians and most everyone worked at the Pine Mill and Factory. When they were there, everything was company owned and was managed by the Coleman family.
Opal recalls the houses being modern and very nice. They had hardwood floors and were nicely painted inside. Everything was cared for by a crew of one woman and a couple of men who did nothing but keep the houses in good shape. Rent was about $30 per month including utilities. Some of the town residents lived in a boarding house with about thirty rooms and where meals were served at a long table. Everyone knew everyone and got along pretty well. There was no law enforcement and “we never locked our doors”. Opal doesn’t recall any crime being committed there.
There was one store in town that supplied groceries, dry goods and most of what was needed. There was a Post Office and a gas station. All purchases were charged and payment withheld from salaries.
A large log building, called The Pastime, served as a community center. In the front there was a bar and confectionary shop, run by Claude and Teresa England. In the back of the building was a large room used for many things. Meetings were held there. It also served as a movie theater, dance hall, skating rink and church on Sunday mornings. Since everyone knew each other, there were lots of cards and board games…oh, the days before TV! “It was a carefree time; I’m glad we had it. It was like living in a mountain resort”.
Some of the things we didn’t have were a high school or a doctor. There was an elementary school, but older students had to go to Fossil for high school. There was a first aid station with a male nurse, but no doctor in town. There were also no telephones in homes, but there was one at the store. People could use it to call out or if someone called in, a message would be carried to the appropriate person.
The factory and mill worked two shifts. A loud whistle was blown ten minutes before seven in the morning so people knew it was time to walk to work. The whistle blew again at seven, starting time, and again at noon, when it was time to go home for lunch. Ponderosa pine logs were cut at Camp Five, about 20 miles further up the mountain. These were brought into the mill once a day by train. The logs were sawed and planed and brought into the factory. Window frames and door jambs were made there. Lumber of all board lengths were also cut and bundled for shipping all over the country along with the other products. There was a glue room where they made flooring and other things. Earl worked in the glue room where it was always warm and Opal was jealous of that. Winters were very long. It started snowing about November first and lasted until March. Everybody had to have chains or snow tires. “At times we were literally snowed in for days”.
Condon, Oregon served as another connection to the rest of the world. Mail and passengers came and went to Kinzua on the “Blue Goose”, a blue box car, which can still be seen in Condon today. In the summer, nearby towns had rodeos, which served up other entertainment and a nice change of pace.
Kinzua was surrounded by heavy forests, so there was always a danger of forest fires. There was no fire department, so in the event of fire, everyone had to help. It was not voluntary, but compulsory. A whistle was blown to alert residents. Opal recalls only one fire while she was there…and she started it! “We burned wood in our cook stove and I cleaned out the ashes. Thinking there were no hot coals in them, I dumped the box on the hillside in back of the house. A few moments later the whole hillside was ablaze”. The neighbors finally got it out. This telling may be the first public confession by Opal.
The mill closed in 1978 and the buildings were removed and/or burned. The homes were made available for purchase for $25 per bedroom. A $100 deposit was required and when the house was moved and the property left clean that deposit was refunded. There are quite a few of those homes still in use today. The site now is back to the original state of the land, as 400,000 trees were planted to cover the town. These are mostly Ponderosa Pine trees. The name, Kinzua, is still in use by the landing strip nearby and by Kinzua Mountain. The Kinzua Hills Golf Club is still in operation and occupies part of the land.
Kinzua Spirit Lives On
Though back to its original state, a stand of ponderosa pine, the spirit of Kinzua lives on. Generations of families lived and worked there and many still gather for an annual reunion in Fossil, Oregon, located just ten miles from the site of Kinzua. The third Saturday of June, at the Wheeler County Fairgrounds is the place to go to learn more about the lives and times at the company town. June 16, 2012 was a little short on attendance at about 100 people, as a beloved resident and friend of many had passed and the services were held that day. However, the love and joy that is a big part of the heritage for those who experienced life in Kinzua was ever-present. Though I didn’t know a soul when I walked in, I was reluctant to walk out when the time came.
I was able to listen to Morris Wilson, 99 years old and sharp as a tack, relate some of his experiences. Wilson started in the office at the mill on June 27, 1931 at the age of 18 making $.38 per hour. By 1937 he was promoted to personnel manager and did all the hiring for Kinzua for the next 6 years. Many folks spent their last dollars to get there in hope of finding a job.
Bonnie Campbell lived in Kinzua from 1956 to 1979; one year after the last whistle blew at the factory on May 17, 1978. She worked at the Post Office, which stayed open until the town was closed down. Campbell related that the rent on their one-bedroom house was $17 per month. They moved a couple of times and ended up in a very nice four-bedroom house at $90 per month.
Montell (Walker) McDonald was at the reunion. Her father ran the mercantile in Kinzua, known to supply most everything anyone needed from jeans to corn flakes to furniture. Everything was purchased on the “2-B account” and deducted from your wages. Paychecks were sometimes “in the red”. People lived comfortably, even if they rarely saw any actual Kinzua dollars.
Moving to Kinzua at age 2 in 1942, Pat (Worlein) Hyatt lived there until she moved to Heppner in 1975, staying with Kinzua Corporation but at a plant they opened in Heppner. Hyatt was employed as a clerk first, then office manager and ultimately an accountant for the corporation. Her sister Janet Christensen was with her and they agreed that growing up in Kinzua they felt very much protected. It was “one big family” and you could get “hugs all day long”!
Theresa Hyatt-Morris, is Pat Hyatt’s daughter and was born in Kinzua in 1955. She lived there until she went off to college. She remembers being on roller skates at the roller rink her grandfather ran before she could walk. Family values were important and the corporation always had activities for kids…weekly trips to Condon, lots of sports, golf, and swimming. Hyatt-Morris relates that “old in Kinzua was 65”…when you couldn’t work you had to move. She went back during the summers in her college years and lived in an apartment above the store. She painted houses (all brown with white trim) and mostly worked at the golf course. Growing up there seemed normal, but her heartfelt comment was “Now I know it was special”.
Another couple with very touching comments was Kathy and Rudy Rhodes. Rudy spoke first and said “I was born at Kinzua”, however, he didn’t move there until age 16. He only lived there for 2 years, but those were the “nicest people I’ve ever met around this world”…it was the “joy of my life”. Kathy and Rudy have been together for 49 years now and she spoke tearfully of going there every year with her parents to visit friends and it became “home”. Obviously, she met the man she married and it has worked out well for a long time! They try to be sure their children and grand-children make it to the reunion so they can experience that joy.
Jim Craig was greeting folks at the door and later recalled water skiing at Camp 5 and winters with so much snow. “It was a great day if the roads couldn’t be cleared because you could sled all day! You could ride that sled all the way into town, but the only problem was you had to pull it back home!” Craig lived at Kinzua from his birth in 1952 until 1967, when he moved to Fossil, but he continued to work at the mill until it shut down. He says it was the kind of place where “if you didn’t have a friend, it was your fault”.
Another person attending the reunion was Gael (Close) Liptak, who now lives in Condon. Liptak was born in Kinzua in 1940 and moved away in 1958. Her father came to work at Kinzua from New York. That trip may have come about due to a family relationship with the Coleman’s, owners of the corporation. Liptak’s mother, Dorothy, was Elizabeth Coleman’s sister. The freedom that children experienced was once again recalled by Liptak. Sitting next to Montell McDonald, they related fun stories of just being free to roam and play with no worries whether making mud pies or just exploring. Parents filled the role of guidance and caretaker for all children of the community. These two ladies shared a story of Liptak sitting on a nail and McDonald’s mom “swabbed it good with methylate, put on a band aid and sent her on her way”.
Marilyn (Bailey) Garcia lives in Fossil now and was also born at Kinzua. Family circumstances caused some moving around in her lifetime, but she has been back and forth to the area a few times, finally deciding to settle there. Garcia might be considered to be the keeper of the memories, as she is a big part of planning the reunion and works with the Fossil Museum and Old School House too. Her recollections of Kinzua are that of an “extended family”. It was a complete town in itself and she feels very fortunate to keep in contact with so many folks from there. Garcia’s grandparents, Bud and Mary Bailey, owned the Golden Ranch before Wetmore even knew of the land. Golden Ranch later became the Kinzua Dairy. Once the idea for the mill was in place and the early workers came to begin construction, there were no homes and these workers camped in tents on a flat across Thirty Mile Creek from the Bailey farm. The workers would come across with cups or jars and ask for a little milk, so the Baileys got the idea to start a dairy. Kinzua Dairy was not part of the company ownership, but they delivered milk to the residents from about 1938 to 1942. At that time, milk sold for $.10 per quart or $.35 per gallon.
So, though there is nothing left but a name on the map, Kinzua lives on in stories that are being kept alive from generation to generation. I’m glad I feel a little part of it now too!
I have to say that I have never made it back to the reunion, though I think of it often. I am sure that if I walked in I would feel just as welcome as I did the day I did this research! This is one of the favorite articles I ever worked on and I have some Facebook friends from it, as well!
Hold on to the memories…somehow!