Pagosa's Past: Working at the lumber mill

2020/03/oldtimer-march-12-scan0019-300x213.jpg Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Back in the early 1900s, a lumber mill and yards for drying the lumber covered a good deal of the land now serving to house school buildings and athletic fields. In those days, south Pagosa was almost a town unto itself separate from Pagosa Springs. This photo shows the “Company Store.”[/caption]

By John M. Motter

PREVIEW Columnist

Last week’s column about my first car tickled some forgotten memory lobes and drifted across things that took place but had been long forgotten.

I reminisced about my first car, the black, four-door 1936 Ford sedan, all go and no stop. Within a few months, the all go went, traded in on a higher priority 1940 Chevrolet coupe, royal blue and the car of choice among my generation, boy or girl, or boy and girl.

Upon graduating from high school, I felt fortunate in securing a job pulling green chain at Spaulding’s lumber mill out near Murphy, Ore. As a boy, I had obtained favor from the Spauldings by mowing their lawn for 50 cents an hour. That mill had another connection with our family fortunes. That was the same green chain where my step-father ripped apart his lower abdomen so bad he had to wear a truss to keep his insides inside.

Now I know Pagosa Springs was a logging, lumber mill town throughout most of its history. Making lumber was still going on when I moved here some 50 years ago. So I know there are some Paul Bunyans here, I mean lumberjacks, who know what pulling green chain was all about. After a good-sized tree had been reduced to lumber of various sizes suitable for building houses and such, the freshly cut lumber moves down a conveyor chain, where it is tallied, graded and sorted in stacks according to size and grade. Pulling green chain was the job of pulling that lumber off of the moving chain and stacking it in neat piles so it can be dried in the yard surrounding the mill and eventually sold. I’ve been told that most of the lumber used to develop the metropolitan areas stretching along the east side of the mountains running north-south through Colorado and New Mexico was cut from Pagosa Country.

And, so, my first job out of high school was pulling green chain, starting in Murphy, and then about 80 miles west in Crescent City, Calif., at the northern extremity of the coastal redwoods. I worked in two redwood mills and I can tell you a wet, freshly cut redwood plank 3 inch by 12 inch by 18 feet long weighs around 300 pounds. But, in truth, I liked to show off my 148 pounds of grit, especially when the mill owners from back east came to ooh and aah.

I had had a couple of years of college before working in the redwood mills, so it was easy for me to get promoted to chain boss. On one shift, the big boss showed up with a couple of new hands. These guys were well over 6 feet tall and looked pretty stout. The boss introduced them and had me show them how to pull chain. We happened to be sorting 300-pound boards at the time. I hitched up my leather apron, latched onto the next board coming down the chain and deftly planted it on the blocks.

“Wanna try it, bub?” I asked, a grin on my face.” I’d learned not to use the King’s English when talkin’ to mill hands.

“Nothin’ to it,” one of the new hands replied. The look in his eyes told me he figured if I could do it, it would be a lead-pipe cinch for him.

Pretty quick like, I was pulling the lumber off of the new hand and helping him back to his feet. The two new hands looked at each other, took off their gloves and without a word or a look at me, headed out the gate for home.

In truth, I wasn’t stronger, but, I knew a lot more about leverage. And I used that leverage to enjoy my Chevrolet coupe until Korea called and Uncle Sam gave me a new job.