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Closing The Mill

A Short History of Johnsondale

Written by Walter S. Nicholas

Johnsondale, CA


V. The Closing of Johnsondale

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."


VI. Johnsondale the "Ghost Town"

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.


VII. R-Ranch In The Sequoias

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.

Return to Johnsondale Home Page.


Created : Feb.17,1997
Last update: April 3,1997




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