Johnsondale the ghost town

Building Johnsondale.

In 1886 a Michigan lumberman by the name of John P. Fleitz acquired different parcels of forest land, including many sequoia groves, that extended from Double Bunk Meadow to Camp Nelson and Lloyd Meadows. Because these timberlands were so scattered and intermingled with government timber lands, it would have been quite difficult for the private owners to efficiently operate a sawmill. Logging took place for many years and unfortunately many giant sequoias were cut. In 1935, Joseph Elliot was very concerned about the destruction of the giant sequoias by the lumberman. Under the auspices of the U.S. Forest Service, he opened negotiations with the Dwyer-Rucker Timber Co. of Detroit, Michigan to work out a timber and land exchange. In order to develop an economical logging unit, it was necessary first to consolidate these holdings, and under an Act of Congress it was made possible for a private owner to offer his holdings to the Forest Service in exchange for Government timber, and through this method, a consolidation was effected creating a more economical logging unit. The Forest Service was eager for this transfer for two reasons:
  • Since the area had just experienced severe economic depression, they wanted to help create an industry where people could earn a living.
  • They wanted governmental control of the big tree groves owned by the Dwyer-Rucker interests.
After this land exchange had taken place, someone needed to develop a sawmill and establish a town to house the employees of the sawmill. There were five men, Walter S. Johnson, W.E. and George Arblaster, Horace Webster and C. T. Gruenhagan who were interested in this project. At this time, it was a wild, undeveloped area, accessible only by trail, except for the Forest Service’s partially constructed fire road between Hot Springs and Double Bunk. A group of men took off on foot and on horseback to look for a mill site. They were looking for three things:
  • a location along the lower edge of the timber belt
  • a large piece of level ground for a lumber yard with right drying conditions
  • a stream for the sawmill pond
They chose a spot where the South Creek and Parker Meadow Creek joined: our current R-Ranch. The five men formed: Mount Whitney Lumber Company and had to determine whether or not a road could be constructed down South Creek and along the main Kern River to the Edison Intake as an outlet for the lumber. Mt. Whitney Lumber Co. contributed its pro-rata share of the cost, and Dwyer-Rucker contributed several thousand dollars. After surveys were taken, it was decided that the new company, in a cooperative effort with the U.S. Forest Service, would build a road south out of the selected site for the sawmill. While this road was still being developed, the Mount Whitney Lumber Company, on June 30, 1936, entered into an agreement with the Dwyer-Rucker Lumber Co. of Detroit to cut the timber. However, the logging operation was to be controlled entirely by the U.S. Forest Service. In the fall of 1936, the United States Forest Service established two Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps: a 100-man CCC Camp at Roads End and a 25-man CCC Camp on South Creek where our R-Ranch horse arena is currently located. The Mount Whitney Lumber Company then purchased a sawmill in Florida and had it shipped by rail to Ducor, CA. Since the new road wasn’t completed yet, the mill had to be trucked through California Hot Springs and up and over the Forest Service fire road to Double Bunk. A trail was then built by bulldozers to complete the journey to the mill site. At that time, the only way into the area was via California Hot Springs. They erected a sawmill in the fall of 1935. In addition to building a mill, it was, of course, necessary to provide homes, dormitories, commissary and cookhouse for the employees of Mt. Whitney Lumber Company. At first many of the employees lived in tents while cabins were being erected for their use. They called this private company town Johnsondale after the chief planner, Walter S. Johnson. Until l937 the established road only went as far as Road’s End and had been built for the California Edison Company operations. On October 10, 1937, the new highway, built by the CCC, between the mill site and Kernville was dedicated and opened for public use. The dedication services were held in the middle of what is now called the Johnsondale bridge. When this road was first proposed, and it became known that it would be necessary to construct a road up the Kern River Canyon, the sportsmen, particularly of Kern County, became quite incensed and put up a very determined battle to prevent the construction of the road because they felt it would seriously interfere with the fishing along the Kern River; they also believed the road would bring more deer hunters into the area. Before the construction of the last leg of the road, the lumber was taken out partly by sluicing it down and partly by hauling it on very rough trails. The Mt. Whitney Lumber Co. built many of the roads north of Johnsondale. In addition to the sawmill imported from Florida, a small portable mill was installed for cutting the timbers for the new mill and work was pushed rapidly. The mill was practically completed in the fall of 1937, and some 200,000 feet of lumber was cut. At first, all logging was done under contract, but later the company hired its own loggers and also began to transport its own lumber to Los Angeles. In the early spring of 1938, the logging and manufacturing of lumber really got underway and continued operating at full capacity until the winter of  1943 when the mill burned down. This was an enormous loss at a time when we were at war, and the demand for war materials was at its peak. Quickly cleaning up the mess, they started to rebuild, and in the spring of 1944, a small mill was set up, and timbers were being cut on a 60 inch top and bottom saw. The new sawmill was completed in the summer of 1944, and some 7 million feet of lumber was sawed that year. The management was organized as an independent company with the following officers: Walter S. Johnson, President; W.E. Arblaster, Vice-President and General Manager; and C.T. Gruenhagen, Secretary-Treasurer. Local management was under some resident managers including Halmar Holmberg, Warren Wood, J.E. Elliot, and Simon Alsaker. In a 1943 school graduation speech, the following was said: “Mr. William Arblaster was the second general manager. Mr. Gilbert Mathews is the present general superintendent. Mr. Warren Woods, the present assistant superintendent, has been a part of Johnsondale’s history from the very first. He and Wilbur Nine brought in the first truckload of machinery and stayed on the grounds during the first winter. Mr. Selbey Dotters, the first and only logging contractor in Johnsondale, has been here since April 1938, and is responsible for the good road over the mountain to Double Bunk.” In 1959, the company was reorganized as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the American Forest Products Corporation. In 1962 it became a division of the parent corporation. The management was restructured under the General Manager working out of San Francisco, Mr. Howard Blagen, with local control under the managers at Johnsondale. Administration returned to Johnsondale with William Lantsberger assuming that position. In 1970, stockholders of American Forest Products Corporation and Bendix Corporation approved the merger of American Forest Products into a wholly owned subsidiary of the Bendix Corporation.