Memories of a 19th Century Mountain Girl

Written by Ken Fisher
Originally published in the ECHO 7/1989

Mountain Millmen primarily worked: Purisima, Tunitas and Corte Madera Canyons – with 23 known mill sites. The Tunitas was first milled by Eugene Froment in 1868, as discussed previously. Clarence Hayward moved into the canyon in 1875, in a site already quick cut by Purdy Pharis and the Sampson brothers. Raised on his father’s Pescadero Creek mill in the 1860s, young Hayward milled the Tunitas until 1898. His daughter, Mrs.A.S.Kalenborn, was raised on the Mountain and presented a paper of her memories to the San Mateo County Historical Association in 1944. Here are some excerpts:

We lived on the steep hillside of one side of a gulch in the bottom of which stood the shingle mill. I can remember how steep it was because my father would carry me until we got down on the level when he took me down to the mill or up the skid road on those never to- be-forgotten and exciting expeditions. As soon as the men could get into the woods, in the spring they would cut and fall the timber, peel it, and when the weather was right burn the trash and work the timber so that they were able to cross cut the logs in lengths from 12 to 20 feet usually, unless there was a special order.

The mill was overhauled and prepared for the summer’s run and where it was possible a dam would be built for the log pond or a log way constructed where the bull teams would bring the logs. The skid road must also be put into shape. One of the most exciting days was when my father would take me part way up the skid road, put me on a stump beside the skid road where I could watch the oxen bring down those logs. I wish I could make you see them with the heavy yokes on their necks, the driver goading them on with his own particular vernacular and calling each one by name, particularly the leaders. No team was much good without a good leader. No whips were used, only a short goad, four and a half feet long with a brad on the end, and the teams were usually no less than four yoke, depending of course on the size of the mill. Engineering those logs so they didn’t run into the oxen was some job.

The mill community was interesting. There were cabins built for the men and a cookhouse where they ate. The cook at our mill was chinese, … They had good food and plenty of it. During the winter many of the men would go down to the valley and work on the ranches or in some cases stay at the mills where the winter was spent gambling, and when the mills opened in the spring there was always a supply of labor because most of the men were broke by then … Another exciting event at the mill was when the peddler arrived. His wagon was a general store on wheels and I can remember the men crowding around the wagon making their purchases while I was wondering what treasure would come my way. Hintz of San Mateo has a lucrative trade up at the mills.

Another vivid recollection of my childhood in the mountains were the fires. In the stories of these early mills there is frequent reference to the fact that the mill was burned… I can remember seeing the fire in the distance, crackling and jumping from tree to tree and sky with an angry red glow, being aware of the fear and anxiety among the women at the camp. Of course all the men were fighting the fire. I was deeply impressed after one fire had been stopped when my father stumbled in, told my mother, “We’ve stopped it. It won’t get the mill,”  then fell asleep with his clothes on completely exhausted, and couldn’t be aroused for hours.

Of course there were many interesting characters ….. One I remember particularly, as I was fascinated by the hook he wore where his left hand was missing. He handled the heavy loads with the greatest of ease. He had a very high pitched voice and was known as Squeally Bob.

Thank you Mrs. Kalenborn – There isn’t enough known of Squeally Bob Rawls to devote a blog to him. He was a rough man, used to rough ways, as were these early Tunitas mill men.

PS: 1989 is a good year for Mountain history. On June 6th the Kings Mountain Historical Society (KMHS) was created as by-laws were signed by its nine founders: Cheri and Ralph Buffa, Zanette Cornman, Sherri and Ken Fisher, Bill Goebner, John Koeker, Kathy KennedyMiller, and Ardyth Woodruff. The purpose of the KMHS is to collect, maintain and promote interest in and knowledge of the Mountain’s history, and for social events revolving around Mountain history. The KMHS is almost anarchistic and is to have no money or assets other than, the intellectual property contributed by its members and the paper on which that intellectual property is composed.” Hard assets of historical value such as old photos or letters will be documented by the KMHS, copied if possible, and donated to our big cousin, the San Mateo County Historical Association (SMCHA) for safekeeping and archival storage due to their superior security capability. The KMHS has already located and placed in the SMCHA several recent finds including a local 1934 election campaign card and copies of old photos of the 19th century Van Winkle family.