(Part Six of Six)
Wally Lee Parker
… an opening thought …
“Tuffy’s War” tells the tale of two brothers — Alvin “Tuffy” Luhr and Orland Luhr — who exemplify all the qualities newsman Tom Brokaw intended when he characterized those who carried the burden of America’s struggle during World War II as our greatest generation. Both brothers once called Clayton — a little town in the northeastern part of Washington State — their home. One brother has gone on to live a long, productive life. The other did not survive the war; resting ever since on a small, ancient hill just a few miles from his hometown — a hill overlooking the farm speckled sweep of the Little Spokane River Valley. This is their story — presented in six parts as an oral history augmented by materials drawn from newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and a slew of private and government documents.
… regarding copyright …
This material was originally published by the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society. It is under copyright to that organization and used here by permission. Alterations of the original material have been made — including the addition of comments by Alan Berg. Anyone wishing to reprint this blog version of “Tuffy’s War” will need to obtain permission from both the C/DPHS and the author, Wally Lee Parker, to cover the entire content as presented here.
… measuring my day’s work ...
“I was discharged from the army on the first day of November, 1945, and returned to my home on Loon Lake’s Sunset Bay. The GI bill said I could go back to college, expenses paid, but when I got home, I was just a bundle of nerves. I wouldn’t have been able to sit down at a desk and study for anything.
“In the early spring of ‘44, before I was drafted, the wife and I had bought quite a bit of frontage along the lake. We had three or four individual lots, plus another quarter mile of lakeside. I needed something to do, some kind of employment, so I decided to build speculation houses on our lakefront property.
“Lumber was scarce just after the war ended, so I bought a little sawmill that a bunch of farmers had put together on the Earl Jones place along Spotted Road — that was about a mile south of where Spotted crossed Highway 395. The farmers had sited the mill on a slope, but the way they had arranged everything the logs were moving uphill through the mill instead of downhill. So it wasn’t all that efficient.
“The sawmill was supposed to be a portable. I leased a diesel engine to power the thing, and got my younger brother Allen Berg and another fellow to run it. We rearranged the workings so everything would flow through the mill better. We cut logs into boards, then hauled the lumber to a mill in Spokane to be kiln-dried and planed. First I used the lumber to build a couple of four-room cabins on our lots. And before long I was selling my mill’s extra output to a couple of Spokane brokers – Joseph M. Smith and Henry V. “Hank” Nielsen – who were buying and shipping out carloads of whatever lumber they could find as soon as they could find it.
“I was still restless. It was so bad that I’d be getting the wife up a four o’clock in the morning to help me haul lumber or sawdust or whatever, and I’d keep going like that until midnight. I don’t know why Marjorie didn’t just shoot me and be done with it.
“The wife’s parents owned a sawmill in the Pataha Valley, near the little town of Pomeroy. I spent four or five months down there getting a planing mill installed and working, and generally upgrading their mill for them. That was when Joe and Hank asked me if I wanted to join them and their accountant in forming a lumber company. Because lumber was so scarce, they’d decided to expand into production to insure a reliable supply for their wholesale customers. That’s how the Smith-Nielsen Lumber Company got started — and that’s what I did for the next quarter century.”
The available data suggests that Joe and Hank were quite the characters. Joe had gotten involved with the manufacturing and distribution of an industrial degreasing product developed by a Massachusetts corporation in the early 1930s. Henry was a well-experienced pilot who had flown fighters against the Japanese under the banner of the Chinese Air Force prior to America’s entry into World War II, and after Pearl Harbor continued flying as a pilot for the Air Transport Command. Joe and Hank got together with the intent of distributing Joe’s degreasing product to the aircraft industry nationwide and, since Hank knew airplanes inside and out, the two did extremely well. The trade-name of Joe’s degreasing product was ‘Gunk’.
When an offer to buy Joe’s company came along, he took it. Looking around for a new business, the two decided to cash in on the postwar building boom by brokering lumber. And then, though neither had any practical experience in the lumber industry, they decided they could better exploit the chronic lumber shortage by moving into the manufacturing side too.
Tuffy said, “The first piece of equipment the Smith-Nielsen Lumber Company bought was an old wood-planer we found in the middle of a wheat field. Nielsen tinkered it into what he thought was running shape, turned it on, and – just in case - ran like hell. And we never stopped running after.
“Spaulding was a little place about ten miles east of Lewiston on Idaho’s Clearwater River. We lived in Clarkston – where Richard and Susan started grade school — while I scratch-built and then ran the partnership’s Spaulding lumber-mill. The family would stay at our Loon Lake place during the summer — something that became a tradition for us — and I’d commute to the lake on weekends.”
Smith and Neilson were associated with an accountant — Robert H. Anderson — who was likely quite a bit more than just an accountant. All seemed to have a penchant for forming supply chains of interlocking companies and partnerships. By 1950 the Smith-Nielsen Lumber Company, which appears to have actually been an equal partnership between Smith, Neilson, Anderson, and the new guy, Tuffy, owned a sawmill at Kettle Falls, as well as half interest in the sawmill at Spalding. The other half interest in the Idaho mill was owned by the Pataha Valley Lumber Company, a corporation registered in Washington. And oddly enough, the Pataha Valley Lumber Company appears to have been owned by Joseph Smith and Henry Nielsen.
“After about five years of operation,” Tuffy continued, “this guy came along with a deal to lease our Spaulding operation. We signed it over, and my family — including our new boy, David, — moved to Spokane.”
“We bought a house on Brown’s Mountain. And every day I would put on a suit and go to work in the partnership’s downtown office. By that time the partnership had everything we needed to make lumber — including timberland. And don’t ask me exactly how or why, but I don’t think our group ever really had much of a chain of command. It was a partnership in every sense of the word, but instead of doing things together, we’d just talk about it and then go out and do our own thing — buying different companies and things like that. Of course Joe was the senior. He had lots of money and an unbelievable number of political and economic contacts. So we called him ‘Boss’.
“The group owned ten different companies by time we were done. My main job was overseeing the group’s four sawmills. The way things worked was the group would reach a consensus, then Joe would call the shots. For example, the group owned a machine shop in Spokane that manufactured automatic blade sharpening machines for both circular and band saws. Joe came to me and said, ‘The sawmills are running pretty smoothly, but our machine shop is having problems. I think you should find out what’s going on there.’ So I added the machine shop to my list of responsibilities.
“For the most part I would sit at my desk all day, poking at a typewriter, and at the end of the day I would carry my entire day’s work to the mailbox in maybe six envelopes. A whole day’s work and it looked like nothing. I was used to measuring my day’s work by the thousands of board-feet of logs and lumber moving in and out, in the number of railcars and logging trucks being loaded and unloaded, in solving the headaches created by broken machines, late deliveries, and all those other inevitable problems that had to be sorted through to keep a sawmill working day after day. Sitting all day in the head-office was something I didn’t really care for.
“It seems like it was somewhere in the mid-1950s that a fellow at Harrison, Idaho, had gone broke and was trying to sell his lumberyard. Joe sent me over to break all the stock into saleable units. It felt so good to be working around real lumber again — to see it, feel it, smell it. And I think that’s what finally started me looking for some excuse to get back into the hands-on side of the business.
“My brother Alan was living in Colville at the time — working for Darigold. He invited the family up for a Sunday picnic. His family had a nice house on a side street close to the hospital. I liked the town, and was fairly familiar with it since our sawmills bought a lot of timber from Canada, so I was driving through Colville all the time on my way to deal with the Canadians. It was at my brother’s picnic that I started thinking Colville would put me seventy miles closer to those Canadian associates — and more importantly, moving north would get me out of the head office.
“First we moved to Kettle Falls where I worked building up our sawmill. After about four or five months my wife decided she really wanted to take a job at the library in Colville — and, since it was only a few miles east of Kettle Falls, it didn’t take much to convince me that we should move there. At first we leased our house with an option to buy. It was an older place located on the side of a hill — and at that time the highest house in town.
“All the kids graduated high school in Colville — the youngest going there all twelve grades.
“I don’t think the kids missed out on much. It must have been in the early 1960s that I had an industry meeting at Bozeman, Montana, and we decided that as long as I was going we’d make it a family vacation and take the kids to Yellowstone.
“We took the train — Northern Pacific. They had those Vista-Domes. And my youngest, David, spent his time running from one end of that train to the other. While I was at the conference, the wife rented a rubber boat and took the kids down one of the rivers — and all kinds of things like that. And then we rented a car and drove to Yellowstone.
“One thing I do remember, that mountain air put me so soundly to sleep that first night at Bozeman that I slept right through breakfast and barely woke up in time for the beginning of the conference — and, since I was part of the program, that could have been a problem.
“As I remember it was about 1970 — after having accumulating ten companies during the 25 years we were in business together — that the older fellows decided they wanted to retire — all three of them. That meant we’d have to divide the assets. The seniors decided — since I was still pretty young and wanted to keep on working — to offer me whichever company I liked as part of my compensation. I decided to take the sawmill at Kettle Falls, as well as a good chunk of the timberland in the area. The Kettle Falls mill was the newest of our mills, and the closest to home. The rest the partners sold off.
“And I just kept going — with Marjorie as the mill’s timekeeper.
“It was going good. The mill had a veneer plant. I was shipping the veneer out to be made into plywood elsewhere. We were just getting ready to put in our own plywood plant when Boise Cascade came along and said, ‘Put a price on your whole operation. We’d rather buy you out than put up with the competition.’
“As far as the market value of the mill, equipment, standing timber, and contracts, I knew what everything was worth. But as far as getting out of the business, I wasn’t ready. So I told them I wasn’t interested. Coming back, they dropped a number on me that was almost twice my estimated market value, and at that point it just didn’t make sense not to sell.
“As part of the deal, the only thing I kept was one of the company pickups. Everything else was liquidated.
“So I hadn’t yet turned fifty-five, and I was retired. I tried my hand at golf because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re retired. It didn’t turn out to be that satisfying.
“Early morning and I’d be lying in bed. I could hear the logging trucks out on the highway. I knew they weren’t my logging trucks. I knew they weren’t my logs. And it bothered me. It felt like somebody had cut off my arm. It felt like I didn’t amount to a damn.
“I was retired for about four or five months when a fellow I knew back east — an old customer — called. He owned a bunch of lumber yards from Chicago on east and things weren’t going well. He wanted me to look things over and give him an idea of what might be wrong.
“It took a week or two. One of his problems was that he didn’t want to pay anybody for anything. He didn’t think it was necessary to compensate people for their skills and experience — as a result he couldn’t keep good staff. And he didn’t have anybody educated in sales working for him. So I wrote up a report — a set of suggestions — and went home.
“A representative from Burlington Northern Railroad was waiting for me when my plane landed. He asked me if I’d be interested in building his company a new sawmill just south of Colville at Arden. He was a big guy, about 6’ 3” and maybe 300 pounds. I told him I’d never really worked for anybody else. In reply he said, ‘Damn it Tuffy, you could try, couldn’t you?’
“They were willing to give me eight and a half million dollars to build the mill. I really wanted something to do, although I didn’t really care if I worked or not. So I looked at it as fun and had a very relaxed approach — especially since someone else was paying for everything. More than once Burlington’s representative said to me, ‘Next time we hire somebody, it’s gonna be somebody who actually needs to work.’ But all in all we had a pretty good working relationship.
“There wasn’t really anything wrong with the original sawmill, so I kept it running two shifts while we were building its replacement. Everything would be new — meaning it took two years to complete. The worst part was getting all the permits — and at that time the permits were everything.
“After building it, I ran the place for another two years, and then I began thinking it might be time to retire again, this time to Loon Lake. So I quit the mill and built a new home on the lake.
“And then some tribal members from Omak approached me about a new sawmill they’d just put together that had lost almost three million dollars in its first year. I’d done business with the tribes before when I had the sawmill at Kettle Falls, so I was well known around Omak. It turned out to be quite a job getting everything up there straightened out.
“And I’ve been working at consulting on this and that ever since.
“A few years back Marjorie’s health had declined so much that we decided to move into Spokane so we’d be closer to the doctors and such. And then in ’07 she passed on – we’d been married 67 years.
“Two of our kids are retired now. Our youngest works for the Department of Transportation. And we have a bunch of grand and great-grand kids.
|Tuffy Luhr - Spring 2008|
(Photo by author)
“I don’t think I’ve ever actually retired. Just in the last few years I’ve talked to people from China – where they’re short on electricity, short on water, and long on pollution. And I’ve consulted with a couple of guys from Australia who are trying to build a plant to generate electricity from sawdust. My main advice to them was to slow down. They’re trying to rush their project along, and that’s likely to get them into trouble. And then the Omak people have approached me again regarding a sawmill I’d built for them about ten years ago. It was allowed to wear down until it had to be shut it down. They asked me to get it going for them again. I’m trying to get the paperwork finished up on that.
“So all in all, it looks as if this is about as retired as I’m going to get.”
… the end …
… The author's closing thoughts …
The substance of this history was drawn out of seven 90 minute taped interviews with Alvin “Tuffy” Luhr, and one 90 minute interview with Tuffy’s half-brother, Alan Berg. These interviews began early in 2008, and extended on throughout the year — with numerous telephone conversations in-between and after to clarify this point or that. Wherever possible I’ve inserted the essence of Tuffy and Alan’s comments as creatively reinterpreted first-person dialog, and I believe my distillation of our discussions remains faithful to the essential intent of their original words — if not the words themselves. As noted in the introduction, Tuffy’s personal recollections were augmented by referencing other sources — those references being largely, though not always, displayed within my own narrative and outside of Tuffy’s quotes.
Tuffy’s recollections of his experiences in wartime Europe were placed into context using published chronologies of his military unit’s movements during Tuffy’s portion of the war — in essence, these outside materials were used to “best guess” the locations of the individual incidents as Tuffy recalled them. Tuffy felt my rendering of said chronology was “reasonable” within the limitations of his memory, though he could not certify all of them as being “totally” accurate.
To clarify the matter of quotes, I’m placing all material intended as quotes into italic print. As noted above, these quotes will often be distillations of the topics covered in our interviews — as opposed to direct transcriptions. This system is consistent with common journalistic practice in that the tapes are considered and treated as notes. To assure my interpretations did not stray too far from the intent of Tuffy’s words, a copy of the script was given to Tuffy for comments and corrections prior to the articles original publication in serialized format in the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society’s newsletter, the Mortarboard. That being said, any errors as to fact in the materials represented as being either the interviewees’ speech or my augmenting journalistic narrative should be considered my fault and my fault alone. This is a complicated story. And though my intent in manipulating the material throughout has been to make the story more accessible to my readers, my expectation is that errors in fact as well as narrative precision do exist. I do apologize for any such found, and will revise any material documented to my satisfaction as being in error.
At ninety plus years of age, Tuffy Luhr is small and slender. He uses a cane to steady himself when walking. But his mind is sharp, and as of our last interview he was still active in the business world — contracting as a paid consultant on various projects related to the lumber industry. Being allowed to write this short biography of one of our region’s most colorful characters was and continues to be a singular honor. And being allowed to interview this soft-spoken, meticulously polite, and doubtlessly courageous gentleman was an agreeable reminder as to why he and his kind — the veterans of World War II — should rightly be remembered as America’s greatest generation.
Also, the author would appreciate any corrections, comments, or additional material that might expand and enrich the body of this story in any of its future incarnations. The author can be reached via this blog, or through the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society.
— W. L. P. —