Sam Johnson

Sisters Watershed History Fest/Oral Interview Quotes
Elizabeth ( Becky) H. Johnson (Mrs. Sam)
transcribed from tape by Maret Pajutee
May 29, 1998

The Johnson Family owned large areas of private timber lands in the Sisters area. They were important players in the development of the timber business in Central Oregon, buying and selling land and timber. They were partners in the Tite Knot Pine Mill in Redmond. Samuel S. Johnson went on to a long political career as well as philanthropic work, establishing the Samuel S. Johnson Foundation in 1948. His wife Elizabeth (Becky) was originally from Ohio and was a teacher and volunteer recruiter for the Navy in World War II. The Johnson’s met while in military service. Becky spent many years serving on the Oregon State Board of Higher Education and assists many community groups. The Johnson’s donated the viewpoint and scenic easement at the Head of the Metolius River. Sam Johnson passed away in 1984. Becky continues as the President of the family’s charitable foundation.

Stories and Memories of the early Timber Industry in the Sisters Country

The early days 1904-1920’s
Three generations of Sam’s family were in the lumber business. He was named after his grandfather, the original S.S. Johnson, a sawmill owner from Minnesota. Sam’s father, Samuel Orie Johnson was a timber broker in California.

Sam’s father came up into Oregon. It was very difficult to get to Central Oregon because the only travel was by rail or stagecoach in those days (1903 or 1904). When he saw the pine timber out in the Sisters country he said “ This has to be the finest pine timber in the whole wide world and this is where we should establish a sawmill if we’re ever going to have one, but mostly buy and sell this timber”.

Those were the days when it was advertised that settlers should come out to Oregon and make a claim for land. So all these lumber mills were doing the same thing. They were locating people from the midwest to come out here and stake claims and then the lumber companies bought them out because they weren’t going to succeed with ranching. Nobody told them they couldn’t raise anything in this dry desert country. That’s how the lumber companies accumulated land.

So Sam’s father owned all of what’s now the Black Butte Ranch, Indian Ford , and a great deal of Green Ridge and elsewhere. And they bought up ranches. Among the ranches they bought was the Wurzweiller Ranch, which is now where the headwaters of the Metolius are.

But they didn’t have any railroad and it was hard to get those great big logs to a railhead. So they said if the railroad comes over the mountain at Hogg Pass then they would be able to have a sawmill on the Metolius River there right in the area that is now the viewpoint and the springs of the river. They would just dam those up and that would become the log pond.

A lot of things happened in the meantime. There were lots of saw mills in Sisters. They built the sawmills nearer to the timber so you didn’t have to haul those logs so far. They were logging with horses, maybe with oxen in those early days.

There were lots of sheepherders up there in that country that kept the grasses down inside the woods. The woods were very open. All you could see were the stems of those great big pines, they called them “yellow bellies”. And there wasn’t a lot of undergrowth. So those forests were open and wonderful and you could see through them. And that’s why Sam’s father always said to Sam ,”If you’re selling this timber, be sure they’re here when the suns going down or coming up so and you can see all those stems - they’ll be highly impressed and you won’t have to get out and walk around every tree around here”.

The 1930’s on..

After Sam graduated from College (1934), the Berkeley School of Forestry, he was up here acting as his fathers agent, selling some of this timber in Oregon because they never had any use for all of it and I guess there was money in buying and selling timber. In those days the prices were so low, nobody would believe it now.

Sam lived in Sisters in the old Sisters Hotel and in 1935 his mother and father sold him the 160 acres that includes the headwaters of the river for one dollar. His mother Katie , a strong and independent Irish girl was really a dyed in the wool San Franciscan and she really thought you should give the whole state of Oregon back to the Indians. She was just uncomfortable roughing it in all the dust. She loved meeting with the people that were running Brooks Scanlon and Shevlin Hickson and all that and circulating in Bend when she was there, but she didn’t care for roughing it- that’s why they sold the Metolius river property. She thought it was a beautiful spot but there was no house or anything there.

After the crash came, timber wasn’t worth very much, but it was worth more if you could saw it into boards. The NRA (National Recovery Act) came along and if you didn’t have a sawmill in the area you couldn’t build a new one.

So Sam’s father met up with Phil Dahl’s step father, Bert Peterson who had the capacity to build a mill and to operate a mill- maybe he even had a small operation going in Sisters. There were about 11 sawmills in the Sisters area at that time- this was in the late 1920’s. and early 1930’s.

So Sam’s father had the timber. Bert Peterson had the mill and the know-how. Bert Peterson had married Phil Dahl’s mother-who was a widow, Mr. Dahl had died and Phil had been working in a sawmill down in Klamath Falls and Harold Barclay had come down to Sisters because Weyerhaeuser was on strike and he was logging for Weyerhaeuser up in Washington state.

And this story may be apocryphal but I heard Sam tell it several times and Harold talked about it too. Bert Peterson apparently spotted Harold as a hard worker and they always had a hard time keeping enough logs on hand because there weren’t enough logging companies to supply all those mills. So Bert said to Harold one night after work “Have you ever though about running a logging operation out here Harold? and Harold said “Well sure, I’d love to but I couldn’t possibly, it takes a lot of capitol to start a logging company and I don’t have it.”

And Bert said to him “Why don’t you go home and after supper come over to my house with a list of what you think it would take to start a logging company in connection with the Tite Knot Pine mill”. So Harold did and Bert set him up in business as a logging company and Harold then became a partner in Tite Knot. Because in some cases they couldn’t pay him, except as they pooled whatever . And the partners were each partners and were operating as individuals. Sam’s father was one of the partners , he with the timber, and Harold with the logging and Bert Peterson.

During the war Sam was in the Army Corp of Engineers and he was buying lumber and wood products from all of these mills from all over. It was fortunate that he knew as many of them as he did because it was easier to make arrangements. So the Army Corp. of Engineers was in a good competitive position. Then they linked up with the Navy and the Marine Corp and the Seabee’s and they had a joint purchasing office, which Sam was running in Portland. They shipped out of Astoria.

After the war was over there weren’t too many of those 11 sawmills left. They either had cut out of timber or didn’t have any more. There was so much competitive bidding on Forest Service properties. They were always bidding against Brooks Scanlon and Shevlin Hickson and Dant and Russell, another big mill here in town. And Willy Spoo owned a mill up there (in Sisters) and CG Hitchcock had a mill, his 2 sons were Phil and Morris Hitchcock.

To come back to how Tite Knot happened to be in Redmond and not be in Sisters anymore. So at any rate, after the war, they had decided they needed to be closer to a railhead. So the mill was going to be built in Bend. And another story which may be apocryphal is that Bert Peterson drank occasionally and when he would hang one on he really would and he did that in Bend one night and they put him in jail. And he swore that he would never set foot in Bend Oregon again as long as he lived. And to the best of my knowledge he never did. So that’s why the mill was built in Redmond and Tite Knot became one of the major mills in Redmond. There was also Dant and Russell had a mill here, and Bob Danforth, and there was a big one owned by the Metropolitan Lumber Company from Wisconsin.

So Sam was buying timber for Tite Knot. Sam’s father and Phil Dahl and Harold Barclay- their business operations and mental set were completely different. Sam’s father was brought up in the military- you had secretaries and you had filing cabinets and you wrote everything out in written contracts. Phil was the kind of guy who would do big deals with just a “Well, I’ll talk it over with so- and so and I’ll see you tomorrow at such and such for breakfast and we’ll decide” and it would just be decided over breakfast. To merge something or to buy something or to do something- really make big changes in the mills.

So Sam’s father was always at odds with Phil, who never had an office, never had a desk, his Aunt Bess was keeping the payroll, and paying some of the bills and buying some of the equipment and just being “one of the boys” down at Tite Knot. That terrible office -all that dust and sawdust and everything. But Phil loved it and he could go out in the sawmill if something went wrong with a lathe or a saw or whatever- he could fix it because he was at heart a mill operator and Harold of course was trucking the logs in here as hard and fast as he could from wherever he could buy timber. Everybody was by now out of private timber.

Sam’s big job when he was an informal partner and then when he became the main partner was to do the negotiations of contracts and work with the Forest Service and do the kinds of things that Phil and Harold didn’t like to do because neither one of them liked to sign a paper, or deal with attorneys or contracts. So that was Sam’s job. Then they’d all pow-wow and decide what they were going to bid. But Sam was the bidder and put up the bonds and that sort of thing. I can remember when we’d get a sale there’d be a big celebration and when we lost a sale, you know- better luck next time.

But they had kind of an informal arrangement- that nobody was going to go out of business. There were lots of small mills bidding on the same timber. And while there was never any collusion- they never talked about what price they were going to pay or anything. They’d sort of decide to back off this one and let so and so have it if they knew he was going to bid and they always knew who was going to bid. So that way everybody kept in enough timber.

Then pretty soon it got to be harder to get and you had to go farther away and those additional costs had to be calculated in. But Sam finally decided that it was too tough to be the middle man, in between his father particularly, and his fathers way of doing business and so he offered to buy his father out of all of the Oregon timber holdings. Because all Sam had was just that 160 acres (Head of the Metolius) and that was never going to be logged anyway. So he did and then Sam officially became one of the partners.

He had a little office in Sisters. You had to know all those people who cruised timber, you had to know all the Forest Service people. Sam worked very closely with the Forest Service- that was Sam’s job to be nice to the Forest Service. Mostly everybody hated the Forest Service. (Why did they hate them?)..Well because I think they had to deal with them and they were from the government and you really were at their mercy. You had to buy timber from them or you couldn’t stay in operation. And they (the saw mills) all wanted to keep a supply of their own timber, if they had private timber as a fall back for a disastrous day when you were running low and the mill wasn’t down and you didn’t want to shut it down.

As John Shelk constantly keeps telling the Forest Service and he said it to Mr Dombeck, I was there when he said it. The Forest Service has simply got to do something to see to it that private mill operators have access to enough timber that they can count on to keep the mill going. Because whether one acknowledges it or not we’re one of the best helps you have to keep the forest healthy and to keep managing and doing the reforestation and road building and all this sort of thing. And you can’t start a sawmill up and then shut it down for a few weeks and then start it up again. We’ve got to know that we’ve got a dependable source of timber. And we’re not asking for it to be given away or anything like that. But that’s its going to be available.

Do you think the private lands were managed to give a sustainable source of timber?

I remember we were driving once through Indian Ford and I can remember one big, huge pine tree that was misshapen. And Sam said “Did I ever tell you why we didn’t cut that tree?” and then he’d tell me this story because they were cutting all the big straight trees with good logs in them and leaving the ones that weren’t going to yield that much. And they believed in leaving trees for seed, but they didn’t really worry about the reproduction.

It was hard for me coming from the east where I was fetched up that if you cut a tree down you planted another tree and trees were precious. I think in those days, when they were hard pressed, especially during the depression. They let land go back for taxes. They were only interested in the trees. Once they cut the trees and they cut the most marketable and the most valuable of them first. So the only trees that were left were the disfigured ones or the ones that were hard to get. They did not do a lot of dangerous side of the hill logging. Because they couldn’t they just didn’t have the equipment to do it with. Later the stumps were right down to the ground so they got every inch of merchantable stuff of it. But I think mostly it was sort of “cut out and get out”.

The agreement not to log Black Butte

But there is a story. They talked about logging Black Butte from time to time. I can remember we had a meeting out in Sisters and I was there and Harold Barkley, and Harold Gustafson and Red Nance. It might have been when they were doing a Forest plan. And these fellas were to take part in the meeting. We went someplace to have a bite to eat afterwards. And they were saying “Do you remember Phil -when they were going to log Black Butte and what happened?”
And Phil Dahl had said, “Hell we’re idiots if we do that, because no matter what you do you’re going to get blamed and on top of that Black Butte will look like a striped ape’s behind. And there’s nothing that says we have to bid on it.” And nobody did. And that was something they decided ahead of time. They just didn’t want Black Butte disfigured. They didn’t want roads built to the top.

Probably it would have been a wise thing to do to get some of that mature and dead and dying. And certainly not have the kind of situation you’ve got now with all that terrible fir that’s growing up and all the blackberries and yellow jackets- its just a tangled mess. You can’t even walk through it very well.

Especially with the suppression of fires that kept it more open.
Do you remember them talking about forest fires?

Everybody was always scared to death of them. Sam kept saying to me “You’ve just got to brace yourself Becky-someday there could be a fire up here and the whole countryside goes up”. Because you cannot fight fires. And particularly after there was that much reproduction.

Becky recounts the story of the Head of the Metolius Scenic easement (On tape)

Feelings about “scenery management”

The land really wasn’t worth much after you’d taken off all the merchantable trees. People really didn’t want to cut down those great big beautiful trees where they were visible. I know the talk I heard around our dining room table was they hated that screening business and then you cut everything behind it and everybody should be fooled into thinking that you’re going through a woods when all your doing is going through a scenic corridor. Then we went through the period, my goodness we have to cut all those big trees they’re a terrible safety hazard and we’ll just write them off.

Have you seen a change in the winters?

Oh my yes, the winter of 1948 was an especially bad one. And they used to plow through Sisters , but they generally plowed to the center of the road because they didn’t want those big piles in front of the businesses, the few ones that were there.

Memories of people in Sisters

When Dorothy and Phil Dahl were married they were living in Sisters in a tent house. And she often talked about their boots being frozen to the floor and their goldfish frozen in their bowls because you couldn’t keep those tenthouses warm enough. They cut ice off the lakes for refrigeration. But things were so cold in the winter time thing were almost impossible and that’s when the season was the slackest.

Mrs. Bailey (who owned what is now the Patterson ranch in Sisters) and Sam and I were friends. We had mutual friends in Portland. We used at have dinner at her house and these ladies would come from Portland. She’s the one that helped start the library. She helped foster music appreciation. She was a widow by this time and she was working as the secretary for the Hitchcock Mill. She and Eleanor Becken were great friends and Marin Gripskoff, and Marin and Eleanor started the Pine Tavern. So when Sam was in Bend, he’d be with that group of young people who were then kind of the people around town- Jack Wettle, Pat Metke, Gordon McKay, the Princes. Mr. Prince was a banker and Mrs. Prince was as talented as Mr. Prince and they were kind of a part of the social life of Bend. Mrs. Bailey was very happy when the Pattersons bought her ranch, because she didn’t want to sell it at all but it was too much for her to handle anymore. She never wanted that to be developed. I think Maida would have been happy to know they haven’t and it hasn’t been developed. And its done in such a well organized style.. I just hope they keep doing it...

Cliff Clemens is a remarkable and interesting man. I don’t agree with everything that he believes but by George he has certain principles that he lives by and a lot of them are selfless and giving to others. That I think is good.

I noticed people who died recently...Helen Benson, I liked her so much! And the two Bensons together made a great team.

Memories of the town of Sisters

Sisters was just a little rugged dusty town that you passed through on your way over to the valley. Going over to the valley in those days was a real chore, especially in the winter time. Nobody had snow tires, we finally had sawdust tires, but you just knew if you got stuck behind a hay truck that you could be sitting up there for a long time.

Sisters was always beautiful, you could see those mountains. But it was just a place you went through. I never even used to buy groceries or meat , but just buy them all in Redmond. Mr. Leithausers grocery was the only one of any size. Sisters was just a wide place in the road, sort of like Terrebonne. With one grocery store, one gas station and one post office. Sam’s secretary lived in a little flat over the meat market.

When Ruth’s Cafe (later The Gallery) went in that was something. Because the hotel stopped serving food after a while because there weren’t enough people. Then that cafe and the hamburger stand was the only place to eat. Nobody stopped in Sisters to eat anyhow. There were no bakeries or anything, no reason to stop, maybe get a coke or a cup of coffee. There was no place to stay and the hotel stopped being used as a hotel. So you either camped, or you had your own home or you had relatives. Sisters was not a place to stop and visit. It was a little dusty mill town. And Sisters I suppose was always a Saturday night town in the early days.

What do you think of the changes in Sisters in recent years?

It s added a lot but its also subtracted a lot. Sam used to say repeatedly “If Sisters were smart they’d keep this early time look. And build those facades and leave the old hitching posts, and encourage people to set up horse and buggy trips. Make it look like a frontier town and keep that atmosphere”. Well they’ve done it to a certain extent but not any more. It seems to me its taken on some of the characteristics of a Carmel of Central Oregon. Sort of artsy-craftsy and those people don’t mesh with the thinking and mind set of Sisters as a small town where everybody knew EVERYBODY. As the artsy- craftsy high-toned intellectual people go into business and the markets become the supermarkets and you take them outside of town and the hotels become motels. Plain things don’t mesh and match. And then you’ve people building those great big houses -$700,000 houses.

Advice for Forest Service regarding the pine country south of Sisters?

If you only had some money you could thin. I’m scared to death of controlled burns, I really am, because they can get out of control so terribly easily. And very often when big bureaucracies have to set time schedules, they’ll do it - according to their time schedule. Even though that might be just the wrong time to do it .

I’ve seen where they’ve used that machine to thin. Its an awful thing it grinds the trees up from the top like a rabbit eating the thing right down to the ground. But the chips and branches fly off in every direction and there they lie dry as a bone. Whereas, if you thinned and could pile and then burned those piles when its safe to burn, you’d do a more lasting job. Although I must say where they did controlled burns just west of Sisters,(the first prescribed fire sites along Highway 20 done around 1975) that’s its pretty well recovered now and its much more open and looks a whole lot better. But for the sake of the visitor- it takes a long time for either the effects of logging or effects of burning to recover. Something has to give with those trees. There’s got to be thinning done somehow.

And then you’ve got all those environmentalists that don’t want to touch a limb off a tree, so unrealistic...It doesn’t make any difference what the Forest Service does its going to be in Dutch with somebody anyway. Its just the nature of things I think!


What I kept constantly kept saying about the Metolius... People coming out there don’t want a Coney island experience. How are we going to be able to regulate the number of people that are there at any given time? That’s so far removed from peoples thinking about “This land is your land , this land is my land and by George I can use it any way I want to” Look at the rebellion about paying some fees. Gee, where else could you go- ( for that price) they don’t think anything for paying six dollars for admission to a movie.

Sam’s advice...

Sam saw the big picture. He kept saying to me ”We’ve got to stop just cutting trees, and just cutting these beautiful boards out of these beautiful trees.. We got to, just like wooden pigs, use everything but the squeal and have better use for every bit of it. And keep planting and planting and doing- so that there are going to be big forests.. Because if Oregon loses its forests and its streams, then what have you got.. You’ve got another Los Angeles.”

Copyright © 2006 Sisters Country Historical Society