johnsondale the sawmill town

Johnsondale The Sawmill Town.

Saw Mill Operations

John McNally, whom most of us know as the founder of McNally’s Restaurant and 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 diesel, 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 wood was then dumped into the lake. 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 cross saw 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 sawmill 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 huge, 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 turned 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 teepees 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 substantial 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 vast circular saw blades, costing about $1500 each and as big as two average 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 create 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 gone entirely 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 commonly performed from April to November. 98% of the timber processed came from the Sequoia National Forest. Four dominant 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 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 homes; 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, 467 people were living here, and at 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 were employees 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 sawmill 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 clothesline was usually seen in the backyard. The main reason 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 Supply

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, the tributary of Kern River for the purpose of sawmill 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 sawmill 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 TV 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 called Store 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 are 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. Some 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 for meals. 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 close 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 jukebox.