Final days for village where loggers enjoy the comforts of home

WHEN it opened back in 1946, Camp Grisdale was touted as ``a shining beacon of light in the darkness of the forest.'' The tiny logging village deep in Washington's Olympic mountains was Simpson Timber Company's first planned community just for lumberjacks and their families. The village, complete with a two-room school and company store, was designed to provide ``clean and comfortable shelter, recreation, and an opportunity for normal family living,'' according to a Grisdale newsletter in 1956.

Forty years later, Camp Grisdale's life is drawing to a close. Economic pressures have forced Simpson and other companies to abandon the outmoded logging strategy years earlier than planned.

When the last load of massive logs is brought down sometime in November, it will symbolize the end of an era in American logging -- and the beginning of a new one.

When the camp first opened, loggers and their families were no longer sleeping on planks and straw, as in earlier days. Yet they still considered Camp Grisdale, with its carefully laid-out business and residential areas, a big step forward.

The ``last word in logging camps'' -- in the lower 48 states -- contained 52 family homes that rented for $20 to $30 a month including utilities. (Forty years later, rents were still less than $100.) Bachelors and men whose families lived outside camp in the surrounding towns were housed four to a room in steam-heated bunkhouses, their pillows plumped daily by a bedmaker.

Down at the mess hall, a logger could breakfast on sausages, ham, bacon, eggs, French toast, hotcakes, hash browns, toast, rolls, juice, and coffee. ``Take All You Want and Eat All You Take Here,'' read the sign on the door.

The Grisdale Recreation Association offered weekly movies, bowling, covered horseshoe courts, pinochle and poker games, dances, musicmaking, and even a camp newspaper. At the company store, residents could buy groceries, dry goods, and supplies at the same prices they would pay in the nearest town, 35 rough miles away.

A social structure evolved in the little community. Single men and families didn't mix, and the bachelors cleared out on the weekends.

As for the families, ``There are six cliques here,'' Warren Turner was told when he arrived as camp administrator. ``Whichever one you're in, the other five will talk about you. When you're not around, your own will talk about you.''

Life in the deep woods got more claustrophobic in the rainy season. Camp Grisdale averages a sopping 160 inches of rain annually. ``Every year you have to get used to it all over again,'' says rigging foreman Chet Swearingen.

Living so far from town also made it difficult to care for health needs. That's a problem since High-country logging is one of the most hazardous professions. Thanks to regular safety meetings, the accident rate at the camp has steadily decreased over the years.

In spite of the drawbacks, most families say they wouldn't trade their years at Camp Grisdale for anything. This summer, as they packed their belongings and boarded up their windows, camp residents enjoyed memories of picking blackberries and wild mushrooms, spotting a herd of elk, going bobcat hunting in snowshoes.

``You could just turn your kids loose,'' said Ruth Selby, an 18-year veteran of the camp. ``Up here there was no way for them to get in trouble.''

Grisdale ran its own two-room school, usually staffed by a husband-and-wife team. Darrell Barnes fondly remembers being a student there. ``The teachers had time to work with you individually,'' he says. ``I got better grades there than I did later. None of the kids were stuckup, either. Did you ever watch `Little House on the Prairie?' That's what it was like.''

A microcosm of the world outside, Camp Grisdale changed over the years, especially with the advent of television. ``Instead of getting together for a good time, the camp separated into 52 families sitting home by the TV,'' says Turner.

The company store closed in the early '60s when it became too costly to operate. Roads into the camp improved, some people moved out, and crew buses started making daily runs to and from Grisdale. Mechanization of some of the operations led to fewer jobs in the woods.

By 1982, the bunkhouses and the cookhouse were closed. The few families remaining in camp this summer were told to relocate by the start of the new school year. Today, the loggers alone are bused in each day to harvest the last few million board feet that will come down from the Camp Grisdale area.

The seeds of a new era for the camp were planted after World War II, when Simpson Timber Company and the US Forest Service adopted a pioneering concept known as ``sustained yield.'' Rather than ``cut and run'' in the Pacific Northwest logging tradition, Simpson has been harvesting ``old growth'' fir and hemlock from the Olympic National Forest while waiting for a fresh crop of ``second growth'' trees to mature on its own nearly depleted land.

Camp Grisdale, built in this same spirit of modernization four decades ago, has now been dismantled in the face of a new age.

``This isn't the end of the logging industry, it's a stage we knew we would reach. But we reached it five years early for economic reasons,'' says Jim Hartley, Simpson public relations director.

Logging the remaining old-growth timber on steep, inaccessible slopes has just become too expensive, he explains. At the same time, the whole Northwest timber industry has been faced with slow housing starts, a glutted wood-products market, and competition from less-expensive Canadian timber.

Simpson responded by restructuring its whole operation earlier this year. It will log (and replant) only its own 240,000 acres of second-growth trees at lower elevations.

Enormous mechanized ``shearers'' snip off these trees, producing 2 1/2 times the volume of wood for the same number of man-hours -- and under safer working conditions.

About 600 of Simpson's 1,800 employees are losing their jobs with the closure of logging camps and lumber mills, but some will be rehired as the company expands and updates mills in Washington and northern California.

Simpson is also joining local unions and the state in a $1.5 million reemployment project backed by federal funding. Grisdale loggers who can't take advantage of rehiring will take advantage of an early retirement, retraining, and generous severance options, says Hartley.

This is good news to some, and not such good news to others who can't conceive of a life away from the woods. Typically, some of Grisdale's independent-spirited loggers will go into business for themselves. Others will head for Alaska, where the quick wits, strong muscles, and nimble feet they developed at Grisdale can still be used in high-country logging. Still others will go to work in the Shelton plywood plant, but the adjustment will be a challenge.

``You miss the outdoors,'' says Chet Swearingen. ``They say a logger can only be comfortable working in a mill if they turn the sprinklers on and take the roof off.''

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