Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Last Whistle: Remembering Deer Park's Sawmill

The Last Whistle
Wally Lee Parker
(© Wallace Lee Parker)

(Reprint from the “Letters, Email, Bouquets & Brickbats” segment
of the August, 2014, issue of the Mortarboard;
newsletter for the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society.)

                In July, the C/DPHS’s president, Bill Sebright, sent out a general email announcing that Marc Stelting, “in honor of his Dad, Art, and grandfather, Jim,” had donated a bell — the type that uses a cord-activated mechanical clapper to strike a hemispherical gong — to the society.  This particular bell was once used in the old Clayton brick plant — something to do with the operation of a clay conveyer.  That donation brought up the subject of historic bells and whistles throughout the community — and specifically the steam whistles at the Clayton and Deer Park factories.
                At least one of the emails forwarded to your editor’s desk suggested not everyone in the area penetrated by such mellow wails  was happy with those community wide calls to work, lunch, and then home.  They considered it intrusive and somewhat similar to the whistles alluded to in the classic science fiction movie Metropolis (I say alluded to since the movie, released back in 1926, was silent).  In the movie, steam whistles called an army of spiritless workers who then, in column after column, shuffled lockstep to their work stations.
                Remembering that your elderly editor had been one of those shuffling into Deer Park’s sawmill back in the day, Bill asking how long I’d worked there — and if I recalled when the company had ceased operation.
                I replied, “I worked primarily in the cut-shop from the late summer of 1966 until about February or March of 1971 — that was when the mill was being phased out — by that I mean being shut down section by section as the last few orders worked their way through the system.
                My first winter at the mill the cut-shop was closed for about three months due to a recession in the housing industry, and I, like the other new hires, was laid off until the orders picked up in the early spring of ‘67.  We scaled back a few other times in the years after, but I had enough seniority by then that I was usually just bumped to a lower paying job or moved to a different part of the factory.  For all those years, whether or not we were going to stay in business was a subject of rumor.
                As for resenting those whistles, most working class people live by the whistle in one way or another.  It’s just that some of the whistles are actually bells.  Some are more musical tones.  Some are just inky numbers that a wall-mounted clock bites into a sliver of cardstock bearing the worker’s name.  And some are just a boss's cranky voice yelling “get back to work” — or a colorful, possibly profane variation thereof.
                Though he seldom used profanity, Art Roll was cut-shop supervisor at the sawmill.  He had an elevated office on the south side of the shop — elevated at least 10 feet above the floor so he could visually sweep the entire shop through the glass-paned windows that lined three sides of his heated cubical (one of the few areas in the cut-shop heated in the winter).  At times you’d look around and he’d be sitting at his desk.  Other times he’d be propped against the railing at one of the stairway’s landings.  Sometimes he’d be prowling the floor.  Regardless, there wasn’t much happening he wouldn’t know about.
                If there was a spot for new hires open in the summer, the company made it a habit to take on college kids as a way of helping them and their families with expenses.  Most of those kids were grateful — though a few just barely.  I recall one that made a sport of running into the cut-shop just as the morning whistle was blowing.  Since Art was acutely aware and not terribly appreciative of things that suggested a less than workman like attitude, he did take notice.
                One morning the kid was about a minute late getting in.  Art was standing half way up the stairs, on the landing — hands in his coveralls’ pockets, rocking his adequate tummy against the railing, watching.  Art waddled over to the kid — after 40 plus years in a sawmill, most everybody waddles — pulled his right hand out of his pocket, curled his index finger in a “come here” manner, and waited for the kid’s approach and — eventually — full attention.
                I say Art curled his index finger, though I can’t state that as a certainty.  It was a rare employee that had worked in the cut-shop very long and still had all his fingers.  As I recall, Art was missing random lengths of more than one.  I just can’t remember which.
                Anyway, whatever the conversation, it was drowned out by the rising racket as the cut-shop came to life.  There was the screeching shrill of the dry planers just a few dozen feet away.  (I still carry a high pitched whistle inside my ears likely associated with four and a half years of that.)  There was the slap of wood as the cut-off saws came to life.  And then the upward winding chippers, vacuums, and dozens of smaller electric motors.  Whatever one-way communication was occurring between the two — the kid standing slack-jawed for the majority of it — it caused Art to turn even ruddier than usual.
                After that the kid continued to run in just as the whistle was blowing — it being a matter of principle I suspect.  But at least he wasn’t late anymore.
                The sawmill was ripe with what was clearly gossip.  Some of that came from the mill’s foremen — though I’m sure none would own up to it.  It’s possible a portion of that was management communicating with the workers by other than official means.  But occasionally the official anti-scuttlebutt policy would break down and we’d hear some gossip from the bosses themselves.  For example, there was the recent Deer Park graduate hired to fill a vacancy left by a college kid going back to school at the end of the summer.  The new kid had worked for just a few weeks when he informed Art that he’d need a week off to go hunting with his dad.  Art tried to explain that that wasn’t the way it worked.  That he’d have to work there long enough to earn vacation time, then put in for the time he wanted off, and — assuming no one else with more seniority wanted that same block of time — it’s possible he’d get the time off.  But, since an awful lot of the guys who’d worked there for years and years wanted time off during hunting season, even then it was unlikely.
                The kid explained that he always went hunting with his dad in the autumn.  That for the last few years he’d even been taking a week off from school just for that.
                Art gave the kid a final, “No,” and on the Friday before the hunting trip was supposed to take place, the kid quit.
                Art was stunned.  The idea of having a job when so many men were desperate for work, and walking away from that job for something as petty as a hunting trip just didn’t make sense to him — or most of the rest of us for that matter.  It had Art so bumfuzzled he just had to tell some of the older employees.  So the story got around.
                A couple of Mondays later, I’m hard at work watching the ten inch blade of my cut-off saw snap window stock to length (all this snapping occurring just an inch or two beyond the unguarded tips of my fingers) when the guy running the saw next to me taps me on the back.  I turn, and he points (he still had an index finger to do that with) to the floor just below Art’s office.  There, fresh back from his trip and standing nose to nose with Art, was the time-off-for-hunting kid.
                Everybody in the cut-shop is watching — most surreptitiously — a few of the elders outright.  Art just keeps shaking his head from side to side.  And the kid just keeps getting more and more frustrated.  Finally the kid storms off.  Art looks at all of us, shrugged his shoulders, grins, and waddles up the stairs to his office.
                Story was the kid took the matter of Art not taking him back over to the main office — over to the plant’s superintendent, Harvey Coe.  Seems the main office unsympathetically explained that the circumstance of his departure didn’t merit a rehire.
                Hopefully the kid learned something about working in the real world as a result.
                My dad, Owen Lee Parker, worked at the Clayton brick plant from 1948 until it shut down in ‘57.  Then at the sawmill till it shut down.  And then on the income from selling the family farm, plus several summers picking fruit in Washington and Oregon (like Mom and Dad had done when they were younger — making the orchards more of a vacation than work), until cancer finally wasted him away a short time later.  As a lifetime working man, who only got to retire due to what proved to be a fatal illness, he’s the one that explained to me what working for wages was all about.
                As Dad told it, hiring out was selling your time — quite literally, selling part of your life.  The employer could tell a worker to do certain things during those hired hours, and, as long as those requests were within reason, the worker was supposed to do them.
                What I took from this was that it was all a matter of how I chose to see things.  If I chose to work rather than bum, thieve, or go into politics (all pretty much the same), I could see it as something demeaning if I wanted to; in which case the demands of the sawmill whistle would be something to resent.  On the other hand, I could look at working for wages as a cooperative endeavor — which would at least leave me with some dignity.  Manipulating my frame of mind might just be, as Mary Poppins says, a spoonful of sugar — but it would be better than being chronically angry.
                That mind trick — common to most working men — got me through an assortment of small jobs, through four-and-a-half years at the sawmill, and another thirty-five years at Holy Family Hospital.  A lot of that time I was inconvenienced enough that I could have chosen to be miserable.  Sometimes I was.  But the compensation tended to even things out.
                As for the sawmill shutting down, we were informed of the fact just before the end of shift on Monday, the 28th of December, 1970.  That was our first day back after our three day Christmas weekend.  Harvey Coe, the plant’s superintendent, called the factory workers into the cut-shop/molding area and announced that the entire sawmill was closing down permanently.
                An article in the next day’s Spokesman-Review stated that Harvey “read the notice to some 200 workers at the lumber mill shortly after he received it Monday afternoon,” then quoted him as having said, “None of us had any idea it was going to happen.”
                As I recall, one of the more vocal wags in our totally flummoxed group asked Harvey why the company had waited till after Christmas to let the employees know.  Harvey answered that they likely wanted everyone to have a good holiday first.  To which the wag responded that if we’d known we’d soon be without work we wouldn’t have spent money we didn’t have buying Christmas presents we could no longer afford.
                So much for our “good holiday.”
                I still suspect the corporation’s big wigs really waited till after Christmas to avoid banner headlines comparing them to Ebenezer Scrooge.  And it seemed that most everything we heard from them after was heavily laced with corporate spin.  For example, in its December 29th article the Review noted that the sawmill’s corporate owner, Potlatch Forests Inc., (then in the process of selling Deer Park’s woodlands to Boise Cascade) intended to “try to help the Deer Park plant employees to either relocate or find new employment in the area” — which  eventually boiled down to little more than a one-time offer to those with enough seniority to take available jobs at other company owned operations often hundreds of miles away from their homes.
                During my last week at the mill I’d been bumped into the glue-room section of the cut-shop — the place where, among other things, the window and door jams were pressure treated.  The two elders that normally worked the glue-room were rambling on about everything that was wrong with the country — as I’ve since discovered elders tend to do.  The topic of the moment, the free ride people on welfare seemed to get.  While admitting some people did need help, one of the glue-room guys frothed forth over his resentment that his government was spending his tax money to support a bunch of useless freeloaders.
                Then he stops.  Looks at me.  Looks at his longtime workmate.  Grins a lopsided grin and says, “I don’t know what I’m going on about.  Here pretty quick we might all be on welfare ourselves.”
                Looking back, it’s reasonable to assume that at least a few local people were in fact irritated by the sound of the sawmill’s whistle — just like a few Clayton people were likely irritated by the brick plant’s whistle.  But most probably took a more pragmatic view.  To them those whistles meant food on the table and heat in the house.  To most it was a clockwork reminder that wages were coming into the community.  When those whistles went silent — when the era of Clayton and Deer Park as company towns faded away — it meant hard times and a difficult adjustment for most everyone.
                And as always, the society invites anyone with anecdotes and/or photos of the old sawmill to share them with our readers.
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