|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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Advice for Forest Service regarding the pine country south of
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
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
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 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.”