History of Johnsondale, and R-Ranch

Written by Walter S. Nicholas

The Pre-History

During the 1980's, Michael J. Fox starred in a series of "Back To The Future" movies which proved to be quite popular. I remember hearing many conversations about what time period a person would like to experience if time travel were really a possibility. I invite you to allow your imaginations to wander and to imagine what we R-Ranch Pardners would see if we traveled back 180 to 250 million years ago to Johnsondale. This period of time was known as the Triacic Age when Johnsondale as well as all of California was completely covered by ocean water and part of the continental shelf. At this time in other parts of the country and world, dinosaurs were roaming the earth. Since the R-Ranch was completely covered by ocean, where did all the mountains come from that surround us today?

If we hop back into our "time-machine" and move forward to the Cretaceous Age (65-145 million years ago), and if we could observe what was happening under the water that still covered the Ranch, we would see the birth of our granite mountains. The plates that make up the bottom of the ocean floor are in motion causing liquid rocks to form. It takes between 1 and 10 million years for these liquid rocks to cool, which causes coarse crystals to form into what is known as Plutonic rocks (named after Pluto, god of the underworld). The continuing movement of the ocean-floor plates raised these underwater-rocks up out of the water to form our mountains. Throughout the ages, the action of weather, rain, wind, etc. wore off all the overlay that the original rocks had, leaving the massive granite as we see it today.

One Million Years Ago

If we now continue our travel "back to the future" and arrive at the Ranch 1 million years ago, we would see that the ocean had receded. The glaciers from the Sierras did not travel as far south as Johnsondale. The mountains were not as high as they are today because erosion is not keeping pace with the continuing uplift of the mountains. The rivers were much larger and flowing with abundant water due to glacial runoff and the great amount of rain. The sequoia forest and other flora were similar to those in the Yukon and southern Alaska area. The R-Ranch had cold-climate type of vegetation, redwoods and evergreen pine. There was no manzanita or oak. Even the animals were different: the sabre-tooth tigerwas abundant as well as the dire wolf, a type of ice-age wolf. It was during this period that humans (Homo Sapiens) made their appearance.

Indigenous Native Americans

30,000 to 50,000 thousand years ago, during the Ice Age, the forefathers of the Indians who lived along the Kern River crossed the land bridge between the Orient and North America. Indians have lived in the Kern River Valley for the last 3,000 years, whereas the white man arrived only in the 1850s. The Indians who lived in this area are known as the Tubatulabal Tribe.

The Tubatulabal was one of over 100 tribes of Shoshonean-speaking people numbering as many as 133,000 individuals. They were of Shoshone stock and came into the Kern River Valley from the east. The Tubatulabal, a sub-group of the Uto-Aztecan family, moved into the area as early as 1,000 B.C. Three distinct bands which all spoke the same language once made up the Tubatulabal Tribe:

Palagewan settled in the North Fork of the Kern River;

Bankalachi (also called Pong-ah-lache) lived across Greenhorn Mountain at Poso Flat;

Pahkanapil (now known as the Tubatulabal) settled in the South Fork of the Kern River.

The word Tubatulabal means "a people that go to the forest to gather tubat (piñon nuts)." This was the name for the Tribe as well as for its language. They were known as "happy talkers" because their language was so lilting and full of laughter.

The Tubatulabal were a peace-loving tribe that were in the Johnsondale area probably only during the summer months. They moved around quite a bit in search of food, but they made semi-permanent camps in the foothills. Their hamlets were always located by fresh water and sometimes a spring. Availability of firewood was always taken into consideration. Since they lived by hunting game and gathering native plants and seeds, their life was closely woven around the harvest of the products


What did the Tubatulabal eat? The bulk of their meat diet came from rabbits, deer and fish while whole acorns comprised a very large part of the plant food obtained, followed by piñons and a variety of small seeds. They also hunted and ate mountain sheep, brown bear, mountain lion, wildcat, mule deer, raccoon, gray squirrel, blue squirrel, golden mantle ground squirrel, small chipmunk-like ground squirrel, mallard ducks, mud hens, mountain and valley quail, band-tailed pigeon, white-faced goose, blue-winged teal, and canvasback ducks.

The Tubatulabal usually began their day eating meat and acorn mush. The acorns, from oak trees, made up about 40% of the food they consumed or about 1,000 pounds per family annually. You have no doubt seen the bed-rock mortars or Indian grinding stones around the Ranch. This is where the acorns were pounded into a flour or meal after they were hulled. These pit mortars are found along many of the streambeds in the Kern River Valley and are the only evidence left of the many Indian village sites. The holes in the large flat rock were usually eight to ten inches deep and three to five inches wide. The pestles or stones used to pound the acorns in the hole were usually eight to fourteen inches long and two and a half to five inches wide depending on the size of the bed-rock mortar. The acorns were pounded into a course meal, the consistency of course flour, and then taken to the side of a stream to have the bitter tannin leached from it by pouring hot and cold water over it while it was in a wet sand pit. After the leaching, the acorn meal was left covered overnight with deerskin until the meal dried. The loaf or cake was then lifted out of the pit where it had been leached. Some of the acorn bread was eaten from the loaf without being cooked, but most of it was cooked into a thick mush or soup.


As you walk around the Ranch, did you ever wonder in what kind of dwellings the Indians lived when they were in the Johnsondale area during the summers? They lived in dome-shaped willow and tule huts about 20 feet in diameter. There was a two foot hole at the top to allow light into the dwelling and to let smoke escape. The doorway faced east to catch the rising morning sun. The frame was made of willow poles ten feet tall placed around the 20 foot diameter circle and horizontal, two-inch thick willow bands. Brush was piled on the frame and then covered with mud. A layer of tules six to eight inches thick finished off the outside of the house. A tule mat was hung over the door. Tule mats were also used to sleep on with rabbit-skin blankets. It took forty jackrabbit skins to make a blanket 6 by 8 feet.

We R-Ranch Pardners are following a great tradition of the Tubatulabal: as the Johnsondale area was used by the Indians mainly during the summer months, so the Ranch's heaviest usage is during the summer. In between the time of the Tubatulabal and the R-Ranch, of course, is the saw mill and the town of 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 towork 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 a 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 good 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 saw mill. While this road was still being built, 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 totally controlled 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 saw mill 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 cook house 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. Prior to 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 a number of 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 truck load 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 reorganized under the General Manager working out of San Francisco, Mr. Howard Blagen, with local control under the managers at Johnsondale. Management 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.

Saw Mill Operations

John McNally, whom most of us know as the founder of McNally's Restaurantand resort in Fairview, is a long-time resident of the area. He was a logging truck driver for the Mt. Whitney Lumber Co. and later became a Tulare County deputy sheriff who covered the Johnsondale area. John remembers hauling five to six loads of timber daily into Johnsondale. He drove Federals, Sterlings and AutoCars and said that Hall Scott engines, not diesels, were used. He would drive his truck to the edge of the mill pond to the brow log where big straps lifted the timber off the truck. The timber was then dumped into the pond. The soaking pond was used for insect protection and to keep the logs from drying and cracking. Only green wood was sawed. The men who walked the logs in the mill pond were called "pond monkeys" who with long poles directed the logs to where a chain hooked them and took them up a ramp into the mill.

A giant crosssaw first cut the logs into 16 foot lengths, then a nine-foot bandsaw took over. The logs were flipped from side to side and ran through at high speeds to get the most lumber from the log. When the lumber was being cut, there was always one man present with a hose in case of a fire. All of the wood was used: odd slices were used for posts or narrow boards, short pieces were sent to the box factory for making fruit and vegetable crates. The boards that came out of the mill were very "green" and so laden with water that they were quite heavy. The stackers had to stack the boards in piles 30-40 feet high with room for air to circulate around each board to help it dry. Early on, wages were $1.60 per hour, and when the mill closed in 1979 they were around $11.00 an hour.

In 1970 the mill operations became more automated and the soaking pond was no longer used. The timber was stacked up and kept wet by sprinklers. To get a first-person glimpse of the saw mill operations just before the mill closed, let's look at an article in the Kern Valley Sun, March 29, 1979.

"The warm sun of the day heated four very large, perfect shaped logs where they waited until the 2:30 p.m. appointment with the debarking machine. They were chained to the trailer of a large logging truck. ...The truck driver started the motor of the huge behemoth and let it warm up. Slowly the giant moved forward a few hundred feet and the equally large log moving apparatus came alongside. The large clamps, looking like the teeth of a prehistoric monster, grabbed a log like it was a broom handle in a hand, suspended it in midair for a moment, then moved on down the timeworn ruts to the debarking machine where the log rolled, being stripped of about three inches of bark as it rolled and moved on the first step of the lumber mill process.

The bark went to a drying bin, belching its ... smoke into the clear, blue sky. The drying bin looked like a teepee of days gone by or a Dutch windmill without arms. The smoke coming out of the top reminded one of the teepee while the dark brown shape was like the Dutch windmill. Somehow less noble in its naked condition, the log was carried by the conveyor system to the sawing area where it was cut into huge rough boards. One could still see traces of the bark in places.

One man, looking like a creature from outer space in his protective gear, operated the black controls for the entire rough cutting operation. At his command, the log was rolled, pruned and became smaller with each maneuver. ...The very rough log went back and forth, subjected to the sharp cutting teeth of the huge circle saw blades, costing about $1500 each and as big as two normal sized rooms in its oval shape. As it went back and forth, over and over, it lost part of its greatness while a plank would go down the assembly line.

Throughout the long trip, the plank would become more smooth, more dimensional and more recognizable as the lumber used to build houses, to build the stores, to serve mankind in a different way than it had in its majesty as a tree in the forest. It had many more years of usefulness before it was completely gone from the service to mankind and returned to the earth...."

The mill had a design capacity of 35 million board feet per year and produced at a rate of 30-33 million board feet of lumber. One board foot is a piece of wood 12 inches long by 12 inches wide by 1 inch thick. The mill operated all year long, with logging normally performed from April to November. 98% of the timber processed came from the Sequoia National Forest. Four major tree species were processed at the mill:

  • Ponderosa Pine
  • Sugar Pine
  • Fir (white and red)
  • Incense Cedar

An average tree, 26 inches in diameter by 100 feet tall would yield approximately 1,000 board feet. One logging truck carried enough wood to make the lumber to build a half of a house. Its load weight was about 80,000 pounds. In one hour the mill produced enough lumber to build one house; in one day, 8 houses; and in 1 year, 1,800 two-bedroom houses.

The Town of Johnsondale

Not only did the mill change through the years, but Johnsondale itself changed from being a "tent city" to a town where over 100 houses were maintained. In 1960, there were 467 people living here, and in its peak in the early 70s, the population rose to between 600 and 700 people. At that time about 125 people were employed on two shifts.

Law and Order

It must be remembered that Johnsondale was a Company town that was built on privately owned land, and that the only people allowed to live here wereemployees of the Company. The Superintendent of the mill was basically in charge and day-to-day "law and order" was kept by the Company and the union. The threat of no job kept most workers in line because if they were fired, they had to move out of Johnsondale. For more serious infractions of the law, the Tulare County Sheriff's Department provided service. John McNally was a Deputy Sheriff who covered Johnsondale. Bob Powers in his book North Fork Country says of John McNally: "Each of his former jobs, plus the fact that he knew every foot of the country, made him a natural for the job of deputy sheriff in this remote area. In policing Johnsondale, he explained, 'I get along well with the loggers and the men at the mill because they know me, and they know there isn't anything they do that I haven't done' ". It is interesting to note that on some occasions, men in trouble with the law tried to get a job in Johnsondale because of its isolation. Several murders took place in town. Before the County provided Sheriff's services, a Constable from Kernville provided services.

Employees' Homes

The cabins in which we stay at the Ranch were the homes for the employees of the saw mill who rented them from the Company. The rent for the one to four bedroom homes varied from $17.50 to $39.00 per month!!! The rent was usually taken directly from the paycheck of the Company employee. Each house had front and back yards with lawns and flowers and white picket fences . The yards were terraced and there was not the erosion problem then that we have now. A clothes line was usually seen in the backyard. The mainreason for the fences was to keep the cattle out; Johnsondale, then as now, was in open range. Each house had a 3 X 12 cedar septic tank. John McNally remembers one day when a bull got on top of one of the septic tanks and fell through. It must have been quite a sight seeing the lift truck trying to haul up the bull!

Most houses had hardwood floors and knotty cedar throughout the whole house. They were heated by propane heaters, oil stove heaters or wood-burning stoves. Only three of the houses had fireplaces. They had swamp coolers and fans. Evidently, summers were cooler and winters were more severe back then. There was usually an afternoon breeze (sound familiar?). The Company-owned water from Parker Creek was free to the residents.

Parker Creek Water Suppy

On June 11, 1937, the State of California, Department of Public Works, Division of Water Resources issued a License for Diversion and Use of Water which granted the Mt. Whitney Lumber Company the "right to use the waters of Parker Creek in Tulare County, a tributary of South Creek thence Kern River, for the purpose of industrial, domestic and fire protection uses..." The amount of water was not to exceed 36,300 gallons per day from January 1 to December 31 each year. The Parker Creek water was piped through a flume to two large storage tanks. I'm sure we've all seen the old flume and the storage tank at the end of Grizzly Hill Rd. On June 12, 1937 another License was issued "to use the waters of South Creek in Tulare County, tributary of Kern River for the purpose of saw mill pond and auxiliary fire protection uses..." The amount of water was not to exceed "five tenths (0.5) cubic foot per second and forty (40) acre feet per annum from about March 1 to about December 1 of each season, the total annual diversions not to exceed seventy-five (75) acre feet." There is an old reservoir right across the road from the entrance to the Ranch where water was pumped up from underground and fed into the saw mill pond. Near cabin 215 there was a pipe coming out from the mountain that provided cold spring water. When the house pipes were frozen in the winter, drinking water was obtained there. Water for household use when the pipes were frozen came from residents melting snow and icicles.


Residents paid for electricity and stove oil. Once a year the Company maintenance men would repair and paint the fences. Maintenance took care of all major home repairs. The Company formed its own television company and installed a large antenna on Little Capital Rock. Cables ran down into the town with boosters where residents watched regular network programming on black & white T V s.

Street Names

Most of the street names were the same as they are today with a few exceptions: Grizzly Hill Rd. was called Faller's Road; Stone St. was calledStore Street. There were originally nine homes on Skunk Hollow. Oleita Harrison, a current R-Ranch employee, lived on Grizzly Hill Rd. when she was 10 years old. When she and Archie Harrison were first married, they lived in Cabin 245. Cabin 101, recently brought back to life under the enthusiastic encouragement of Norma Neil and the many dirty, sweaty hours of several owners!, used to be Bill Arblaster's home. Bill was the owner of Mt. Whitney Lumber Company and his home is said to have been the showpiece of Johnsondale with a big fireplace and several animal heads hanging on the cedar paneled walls. Walter Johnson, after whom Johnsondale is named, was Bill's father-in-law.

Single loggers lived in small bunkhouses with no more than four beds each. A number of bunkhouses were located in the open space behind the Ranch Dance Hall. Our Ranch Museum building was once part of a bunkhouse. There were no cooking facilities so they ate in the dining room where they paid $1.50 formeals. There were also three trailer parks in Johnsondale: one at the end of Logger's Hill Rd., one at the end of Main Street where the restroom is now; and the other where the Ranch employee housing is located. Residents living in the trailer park had to supply their own trailers. Before there was a trailer park at the end of Main St., there were tent-houses there.


The first store was a little one "Pappy " Hall had in his own house. Pappy was one of the early timber fallers in town and had one small room set aside for selling fresh vegetables and milk brought up several times a week from California Hot Springs. The rest of the grocery shopping was done in old Kernville or Old Isabella. Eventually a regular grocery store or Commissary was established which sold food, clothes and household goods. Most major grocery shopping was done in Kernville or Bakersfield. Former store operators include Stewart & Hill; Oscar & Caroline Greene; Opal & Verne Chapin. When the mill was closing, Opal Chapin said, "There are closer friendships here. A trip to the grocery store made you blow a whole day." Merchandise could be charged at the Company store and then deducted from the paycheck. Or a book of Company Scrip could be purchased by payroll deduction. These were $5 and $10 coupons that could be used at the store or restaurant/bar. Some men were constantly in debt to the Company. (Remember the line from Tennessee Ernie Ford's song Sixteen Tons: "I owe my soul to the Company Store!")

Our current store is housed in the same building as the original store. As you walk up the stairs, you might notice a door to the right of the main entrance. This was the door to the ice cream parlor or soda fountain which had round tables, wrought-iron chairs and a juke box.

The saw mill operated continuously for 41 years, but at 4:00 pm on March 23, 1979 the mill shut down. Why did the mill shut down and what happened to the town of Johnsondale after the closure? One newspaper article said that due to the U.S. Forest Service Roadless Area Review and Evaluation program (RARE II), it was determined that the lumber in the surrounding area was no longer available in enough quantity to justify the mill's existence. There were three sawmills in a two sawmill forest, so it was not feasible to continue. Bendix Corporation closed the mill and sold it and the town to a neighboring sawmill, Sierra Forest Products of Terra Bella, who decided not to reopen the operation. "I'll tell you why it shut down," one of the last loggers said, "Environmentalists." The surrounding forest areas were designated wilderness sites and off-limits to timber harvesting. The last stroke of the ax fell in 1978 when Congress designated a prime timber source of 306,000 acres north of the mill as the "Golden Trout Wilderness Area." These actions took away the economic base that had supported the town.

Ed Doyle, a Sierra Forest Products official, listed four reasons for the closure of Johnsondale and the mill:

1) A downturn in the lumber market in the late 1970s
2) A lack of good roads and railroad to ship out the finished lumber
3) Lack of access to a market for the mill's by-products
4) A strong labor union that led to high labor costs.

Sierra Forest Products decided to auction off the mill and it was sold

Life for the approximately 400 remaining residents was very different. Some of the personnel relocated to the North Fork branch of Bendix Forest Products Corporation. Some found jobs in other lumbering operations including the purchaser, Terra Bella. Some were unemployed and looking for jobs. An article in the Kern Valley Sun on 3-29-79 states, "People milled around the area between the commissary (general store) and the post office, not wanting to stay but not wanting to leave either. Small groups clustered around the TV crews who were there to record the end. It looked like the scene at an accident or some other disaster and yet there were no emergency vehicles around the site. There were no smoke or flames coming from a burning house. They still nestled among the trees, quieted from the laughter of other days, waiting for the residents to come home from a busy day at the mill, the last busy day. Emergency vehicles aren't necessary for a dying town." Another article stated, "The teachers were conducting school in a normal routine last Friday, the last day of mill operation, and so were unavailable for comment about this closing; however, one teacher remarked that they were unable to be absorbed. Schedules are being speeded up to make it less traumatic on the students whose parents, employed by the mill, begin to move to other locations. The school year will be completed so that the children will not have to enter another school so late in the academic year."

After the mill was auctioned and all the people had left, Sierra Forest Products of Terra Bella kept a couple of people in Johnsondale as caretakers. Hack Davis was the head Caretaker who continued to live there with his wife Ramona. Don Stubblefield was the assistant Caretaker who continued living in town with his wife Dottie. Living in Johnsondale since the mill closed had its rather strange moments as the Stubblefields told a reporter. A Los Angeles Times article in 1979 labeled Johnsondale a "ghost town" and brought a number of visitors to the area. "I went out back one day and saw a man eyeing my freezer," said Dottie. "I said 'what do you think you're doing?' and he said 'trying to figure a way to get this freezer into my pickup truck.' " Convinced by the Times article that Johnsondale was a ghost town, the man told her he could take anything he wanted. Some serious persuasion was needed to convince the man that the town was inhabited by more than ghosts! Some US Forest Service employees and their families continued to live there also. The Caretakers' main responsibilities were to prevent vandalism and to show the town to prospective buyers and answer questions.

REDE, a partnership of owners of Sierra Forest Products, was the group trying to sell Johnsondale. An entry in the Guest Journal dated 1981 says, "It is impossible to have a dream come true if you don't have a dream. Johnsondale is the realization of my dream. Ken Clark, new Owner Johnsondale." Mr. Clark wanted to restore the town to an old western theme with horse and buggy, etc. Unfortunately, his financial backing didn't come through. Alanoville Foundation, an association involved with helping those recovering from alcohol, drug and other substance abuse, began negotiations with REDE in the summer of 1983. On April 5, 1984 a lease/option agreement was signed between Alanoville Foundation and REDE for six months at $20,000 per month and one million dollars at each six-month interval until the entire purchase price was satisfied. They planned to restore the existing portion of Johnsondale with the dining room, houses and commissary open to the public. Residents, whenever possible, would be recovering alcoholics or drug addicts and would rent available houses and stores as in any other town. A special, private section of town (Alanoville) was to be developed as a resort town on a membership and time-share principle to raise money. This adventure lasted less than a year.

David Schott Associates, a Santa Barbara Realty firm, represented REDE at that time. The initial asking price for Johnsondale was listed at $3,500,000 with $1,500,000 down. The sales brochure said that there were 71 single-family residences: 6 one bedroom; 42 two bedroom; 16 three bedroom; 3 four bedroom; and one apartment with 4 two bedroom residences. (Cabin 205, A,B,C & D) All homes were heated with wood stove or electric portable. Interior walls and ceilings were of knotty cedar. There was a 3,000 sq. ft. grocery store; a 3,100 sq. ft. community hall; a 2,900 sq. ft. dining hall and kitchen with bar; and a 400 sq. ft. Post Office. There were also equipment sheds, an old mill office and trailer courts. The price was later reduced to $2,500,000.

In late 1984, Great Western Ranches, a Nevada City, California company, purchased Johnsondale from REDE. R-Ranch in the Sequoias became a division of Great Western Ranches. Richard Malott was the general manager of the project and Jeff Dennis was the president of the company. Dick Burns of Richard L. Burns & Associates in Rolling Hills Estates represented REDE at the end. He said, "We must have had about 200 qualified people who wanted to buy Johnsondale. But Jeff Dennis was an ironclad buyer and had a track record longer than anybody in the business. And he was the only one who didn't want to level the town."

R-Ranch in the Sequoias, opened in 1989, became the fourth R-Ranch developed by Jeff Dennis. The other three are:

  • The original R-Ranch in Siskiyou County, seven miles from the California-Oregon border, adjoining the Klamath National Forest.
  • R-Ranch at the Lake near Lake Berryessa in Napa Valley
  • R-Wild Horse Ranch in Tehama County.

Today R-Ranch in the Sequoias continues many of the historic traditions. Many artifacts and photographs are preserved in a small museum at the Ranch. To discover the modern Johnsondale and the recreational lifestyle afforded the owners of R-Ranch, call to schedule a tour.

We welcome the memoirs of past Johnsondale residents as we build upon our historic legacy.