When Logging Made The Rim Grow

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Photo courtesy of the Ella Lee Owens

The motto of the Owens Brothers’ sawmill in Payson was “Where your home begins” and it is where many builders bought the wood to not only build homes in the Rim Country, but for construction around the state. The mill was also “the paycheck,” said Pat Haught Cline in an interview with the Roundup for the 125th anniversary of the founding of Payson.

Editor’s note: The Rim Review of the Payson Roundup features regular columns by area historians. Stan Brown recently devoted his “Back When” column to the history of the sawmill that used to stand at the southwest corner of the Beeline Highway and its junction with Payson’s historic Main Street.

To share that history with visitors in town for the 2010 Sawdust Festival, the story is being reprinted.

Enjoy.

In 1951 the Owens family located their sawmill in the old Pieper Meadow at what was then the east end of town. At least folks were still calling it Pieper’s Meadow, even though Mrs. Pieper sold the acreage to the Hathaways after she was widowed. The meadow was an open area leading down from Main Street to the American Gulch.

In the dim past, Tonto Apache women planted and harvested corn there near the spring-fed stream. In 1884 the excited yells of cowboys roping calves rose from there as Charlie Meadows and his cohorts held the first “rodeo” in 1884.

Sarah McDonald Lockwood, in an interview with Ira Murphy, said, “They started putting the August Doin’s in Pieper’s Meadow there, the first one they ever held.” And Theresa Boardman also remembered attending the rodeo “in Pieper’s Meadow.”

By the late 1880s August Pieper had staked claims on the land from south McLane Road east beyond the later-to-be State Highway 87. With all that property he became Payson’s first real estate developer. More than half a century later, the family of Frank Owens eyed it as a perfect place for their sawmill.

The Owens family was not the first to operate a sawmill in Payson. That honor went to early settlers William Burch and John McDonald who set up a mill where the Baptist Church on Main Street would later stand.

“Right where those rocks are,” said Sarah McDonald Lockwood. Her grandfather had brought his mill down from Pine and purchased some of the Pieper property for it. The sawmill was bought by the Chilsons, and after several years taken back to Pine, closer to logging operations. In those days people would get sawdust from the mills, and the kids would use the piles of sawdust to jump in. Ernest Pieper remembered a 20-foot wide hole at that first mill where the owners dumped their used oil, a fearful thing by later environmental standards.

Frank (Horace Franklin) Owens had been a logger and woodworker, punching cattle when necessary, and his wife Ethel (Ethel Lanora Shaw Owens) was a school teacher, so the family would move to wherever she was employed. Their boys Kermeth and Keith thus lived in several places including Gordon Canyon and finally settling in Payson where their mother taught school for about 30 years.[1]

Inheriting their father’s skills, the sons were enterprising even as youths. Kerm made his own wooden toys and collected whiskey bottles during the Depression to sell to bootleggers. Likewise he collected empty medicine bottles and sold them to Dr. Risser.

In Payson the family lived in the house that Dr. Risser had built at Oak and Main, and the boys set up a small sawmill in their back yard. They cut wood for the stoves of local families, and cleaned buildings in their high school years to earn money. After high school Kerm worked for the CCC and built cabins for the Boy Scout camp. His various jobs included working in the Zulu Mine near Payson, until he and his brother Keith decided to go into the sawmill business.

In 1935 they set up a portable mill in the forest at the junction of the Control Road and the road leading to Diamond Point, close to their source of supply. That same year they provided the lumber for Payson’s first church building on Main Street.

After a year, Kerm, who was very creative at inventing machines and making models, decided he wanted to become an architect. He left the mill and took drafting classes at the college in Tempe, but when family finances would not permit him to continue, he returned to the sawmill. During World War II he left Payson again to work for an architectural firm in Phoenix that was holding government contracts. After the war he took up the sawmill business once again, joining with his brother Keith at the Diamond Point site.

However, in 1951 an event occurred that changed the brothers’ lives and resulted in a great benefit for the town of Payson. The sawmill in the forest burned. In those days the waste sawdust and chips were burned in open burners, and sawmills often caught fire. At this juncture, Keith and Ella Lee Owens took a leap of faith and purchased the meadow property from the Hathaway family, moving the family sawmill operation to Payson. Incorporating modern power equipment they built a new mill and were under way with the business the very next year — 1952.

Sometime before then, Kerm soon found restlessness getting the better of him, and sold his share to brother Keith, and went to work for the architectural firm of Letcher and Mahoney in Phoenix and made his home in Tempe.

However, Kerm eventually returned to the mill. His sister-in-law, Ella Lee Owens said, “He hated business, but was a wonderful mechanic and could invent machinery and keep it running.”

Some of that machinery was incorporated into the mill.

His handcrafted, working model of the Owens Brothers’ mill was later obtained for display by the Rim Country Museum.

The Owens Brothers’ sawmill became the area’s foremost employer. The mill was soon employing from 40 to 60 persons and providing three to five million board feet of lumber to the Arizona market each year.

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Photo courtesy of Ella Lee Owens

The size of the trees used in the sawmill can be seen when compared to the height of Keith Owens.

Apache “Chief” Melton Campbell said of the Owens brothers, “They were very good with the Indian people … 97 percent of those employed at the mill were Indian. Several generations of Tonto Apaches worked there, often fathers and sons working together, and the owners provided free water and firewood for the Tontos who lived at ‘The Camp’ across the road from their present reservation.” [2]

Chief Campbell recalled how the lumber mill drew other Apaches to Payson seeking work. “The San Carlos and Verde Reservations didn’t give them that employment. Oh, they’ve got sawmills, but they are much different than this. What I mean is, if you miss a day and you’ve got a family to support they’re going to lay you off for a week just because you missed one day. Now up here, you can miss two days and still go back to work the third day …” This was indicative of the community spirit of the Owens family. When Tonto families were having financial troubles, the mill and the local bankers would give loans and credit.

Mrs. Owens later said only two or three of the 65 men working at the mill were Native Americans.

She said the free water and wood was made available to anyone who came to the mill for it.

Tragedy struck in 1957 when Keith Owens was electrocuted at the mill. His wife, Ella Lee sold the operation to the partnership of Whiting and Kutch, who later sold it to Kaibab Industries (owned by the Whiting family) in 1958, but Kerm continued working at the mill until he retired in 1971.

One of the community activities sponsored by Kaibab Forest Industries was the original annual Sawdust Festival. This summer event brought back the skills of old-time loggers who descended on Payson to compete in the contests. Hand sawing, wood chopping, log rolling and loading logs with cant hooks were revived at each festival; these being routine chores in early lumber camps.

However, as the movement to save animal and forest habitat gained momentum, the logging industry faded as a viable local business. After more than 40 years in Payson, Kaibab shut down the sawmill in the spring of 1993, along with their two other mills at Fredonia, Ariz., and Panguitch, Utah. The last board cut at the Payson mill was put on display at the Rim Country Museum.

During the years of the sawmill in Payson, the sweet smell of burning sawdust and the sight of smoke coming from the screened dome of the furnace was a nostalgic experience for local and summer residents. As one crested the hill coming into town from the south, the sawmill was a welcome landmark.

Times change and today most people sitting comfortably in a movie theater at Sawmill Crossing know little or nothing about the origin of the name.

[1] Information about Kermeth Owens’ early life comes from an interview with him in January 1986 by eighth-grade student Jay Cee Pearce, during a class assignment in oral histories.

[2] In an interview with Mr. Houser in 1970.

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