Mulling over the mill
Residents remember the influence of Park Lumber Mill as the property's future is pondered
The Park Lumber Mill along Highway 224 might seem quiet now, but it certainly wasn't always that way.
For six decades, the mill played an indispensable role in Estacada's financial and cultural identity. Though the mill has been closed for almost 10 years, many recall the influence the once busy and bustling property had on the city.
"(Estacada) was a sawmill and logging community," said Bert Osborne, who worked at the mill during its early years. "Coming from the Clackamas River into town, you used to see 100 or more log trucks coming in every day."
During the 1950s, there were as many as 25 active mills in the Estacada area.
But times have changed in the 70 years since the Park Mill was built, and current owner RSG Forest Products has torn down multiple decaying structures on the 70-acre site as leaders determine what's next.
"The future of the site is unknown, but it's been sitting for so long," said Mitchel Karp, CFO of RSG. "We need to do something (to keep it in good condition)."
Chapters in the mill's history
The mill was built by James Park and his son Glen — who would later become the person behind Estacada's famed Safari Club — in 1947. Glen Park bought his father's shares of the company in 1955.
Osborne, who worked at the mill for 19 years, enjoyed the specialized products the company made during its earliest days.
"We took pride in our work," he recalled. "We (worked on) many custom-made orders for different houses."
"It wasn't like in later years when they switched to mass production," he added.
Osborne also spoke highly of the mill's close-knit atmosphere, estimating there were around 75 people working there during the early days.
"Everybody knew everybody," he said. "I liked the atmosphere of knowing the company and the boss. I got along with everybody."
Osborne enjoyed spending time with his coworkers outside of the mill, as well.
"During hunting season, they shut the mill down and let people go hunting," he recalled.
Charles Surfus, whose father John worked at the mill for 40 years beginning in the late 1940s, also recalled it being a friendly place.
"(Growing up,) I would go to mill on weekends to get a little dad time," Surfus said. "The workers always greeted me and treated me well. Glen (Park)...always talked to me and promised to take me on his airplane. I remember that lit up my day."
However, even in his youth, Surfus was aware that the mill presented real dangers.
Surfus' uncle, Charles, worked with his father but died as a result of an accident at the mill in the late 1950s, during which logs that were waiting to be sawed fell onto him. Surfus' father was the one to pull the last log from his brother.
"Dad always said when he pulled the log off, my uncle said, 'I knew it was going to be you, John," Surfus recalled.
Because of this incident, Surfus knew he needed to be mindful of his surroundings while at the mill.
"The foreman told my dad the mill wasn't the best place for a kid, and my dad told the foreman that I knew better than most people," he said.
Glen Park sold the mill to Crown Zellerbach in 1969, ushering in a new era of production. The company eventually merged with Georgia Pacific, which owned many mills across the country and employed as many as 22,000 people.
Glen Park's son, Mike, estimated that the 1970s were the mill's busiest time.
"There were well over 100 people working there," he estimated. A Clackamas County News (predecessor to the Estacada News) article reported the exact number of people the mill employed was 250.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the mill produced more than 50 million board feet of lumber annually.
It received international attention in 1975 when a group of Russian delegates visited to learn more about American-made sawmill machinery. The group would tour various mills throughout Oregon for a week before determining which equipment should be used in the Soviet Union.
"This visit is the first of its kind in the U.S.," the News reported.
Though the mill was successful in many ways, it saw its fair share of accidents over the years.
Loren Nibbe, an employee from 1975-80, said it wasn't uncommon for workers to lose fingers. One person had lost everything on one hand except his thumb.
"Production was a priority," Nibbe recalled. "Sometimes we removed the saw guards so things would move faster."
Though he enjoyed his job, Nibbe quit after witnessing a particularly gruesome accident.
After a chain from a piece of large machinery became tangled, a coworker went to untangle it. In the process of doing so, the chain became wrapped around his arm, but the people operating the machine hadn't realized this and began to pull the machine's chains — which sliced off the man's arm.
"I saw him carrying his arm as he walked back, and I knew it was time to find another job," Nibbe said.
Several years later, 21-year-old millworker Jackie Burril made headlines after his arm was successfully reattached. Days before, it had been severed between his elbow and shoulder after the fabric of his jacket got caught in a machine at the mill. A spokesperson at Emanuel Hospital was "highly optimistic that (Burril) would regain most of the use of his arm."
As the decade wore on, the mill faced ever increasing financial difficulties. Poor market conditions caused it to operate with limited shifts or close temporarily for several months at a time. The News reported company officials attributed a shutdown in 1984 to "a seasonally low demand abroad for...custom-cut lumber combined with a continuing slump in domestic dimensional lumber demand."
Two years prior, the mill reported $14 million in losses from its wood products division in one quarter alone.
Many believed it was important to stand by the mill in the face of tough times.
After Crown Zellerbach leaders announced their interest in selling the property in 1982, Clackamas County News publisher Raymond Horn, in a front page commentary, encouraged local businessmen to buy the mill and form a workers' cooperative.
"Even in a bad economy there is still a market for lumber," Horn wrote. "Someone is going to fill the international and domestic orders and why not a small, hustling mill in Esacada, Oregon?"
Two years later, after much speculation about its fate, the mill was purchased by Washington-based company RSG Forest Products.
"The long-standing rumors of a possible sale or permanent closure of the mill got an overdue dose of credibility with the sale announcement," a Clackamas County News story detailing the sale read. "Not a week went by since the mill began a temporary shutdown...that someone wasn't saying the mill was sold or would never re-open."
The previous owners were confident that the sale would bring success to the Estacada mill. RSG Forest Products had operated two mills in Kalama, Wash., for a decade, and neither had experienced a slowdown or shutdown during that time.
"The company was...fortunate in finding a buyer with many years of experience in the wood products industry who intends to operate the mill," Crown Zellerbach officials wrote in a press release.
The mill would reopen in March 1985, after RSG completed renovation on its equipment. The mill's first shift consisted of former Crown Zellerbach workers, and the second shift would soon be advertised to the general public.
Though the mill was providing many jobs to the Estacada area once again, the industry wasn't without its difficulties.
The 1990s saw difficulty at the mill again, this time because of broader tensions in the logging industry. The spotted owl's status as a threatened species, acquired in 1990, led to strain between loggers and environmental groups trying to balance their interests.
In 1993, several leaders in East Clackamas County's logging industry attended a Portland-based forest summit held by then-President Bill Clinton to discuss the gridlock surrounding Pacific Northwest public forest lands.
Approximately 60 percent of the Mt. Hood National Forest was in spotted owl territory, and logging in the forest had decreased significantly in recent years. The Estacada Ranger District produced 13.9 million board feet of timber in 1991, a number that plummeted to 4 million in 1992.
The Clinton Administration later produced the Northwest Forest Plan, which is still in use today. Though the plan strived to balance logging and conservation interests, many in the timber industry have been critical of the plan's call for decreased timber yields on National Forest land.
In spite of these difficulties, the mill continued operations until 2007. Karp attributes the closure to the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble that same year.
"Prices of houses crashed, and there was no demand for (lumber for) new ones," Karp said.
Since the closure — nearly 10 years ago — a once-busy section of the city has sat empty and quiet.
Influence on Estacada's past — and future
Since its inception, the mill carved an important place for itself in Estacada's cultural and fiscal identity.
"People definitely missed the mill when it closed," said City Manager Denise Carey, recalling that she often heard the mill's whistles calling its employees to work at the start of each shift while it was in operation.
While the mill was active, many Estacada residents were able to work and live in the same place.
"(The mill) served as an economic hub," said Surfus. "Now that (Estacada has) lost that, a lot of people work outside of the town. (The mill) provided a lot of jobs for families."
Nibbe added that one of the benefits of working at the mill was the pay.
"It was three times what minimum wage was," he said. In 1976, Oregon's minimum wage was $2.30 per hour, and during that same period, the mill paid $4.75 per hour. "It was pretty good money for the time."
In addition to creating well-paying jobs within the city, the mill also boosted commerce at other local establishments.
"A lot of the businesses benefited because there were places loggers would go," Osborne remembered. "At bars, there were a lot of logging and sawmill type personalities. They pumped money into those places."
In addition to its economic benefits, the mill also contributed to the city's identity as as a timber town, perhaps its most well-known characteristic for many years. Since the mill's closure, other qualities have emerged.
"(Today,) Estacada is more known for its art than logging," Nibbe said. "I don't ever see the mill coming back."
Carey said that moving forward, city leaders plan to focus on boosting commerce mainly through tourism and its industrial park.
"It took awhile to figure out what to do next (after the mill closed)," she added.
Earlier, the city held a series of meetings for those interested in participating in an alternative lodging network, similar to Airbnb, for travelers interesting staying overnight after visiting the Clackamas River or Mt. Hood National Forest. City leaders previously estimated that the network could launch sometime in 2017.
Though the city is exploring new options, Karp didn't rule out the possibility of rebuilding the mill one day. However, he was quick to emphasize that the future of the property has not yet been determined.
"It's (nearly) 100 acres of employable land," he said. "It's hard to watch that sit when everyone drives to the west side for work."