Around 1909, Horace Tarter and Bert Webster created the American Box Corporation (ABC) in Stockton, supplying boxes and crates for fresh, dried and canned fruits and vegetables (American Eagle 1944). In the 1920s, Walter S. Johnson became a partner and he grew the corporation into a major business operating out of four states that eventually evolved into American Forest Products Corporation. ABC prospered and met customer demand by building sawmills to guarantee a supply of lumber for their box factories and a network of warehouses to sell both shook (pieces for building boxes) and nailed boxes. When the United States entered WWII in 1941, ABC was in a position for rapid expansion to supply both shook and lumber to the military and civilian markets (American Eagle 1944b). ABC supplied lumber for military cantonments and other Government construction worldwide. Everything that was shipped required wooden boxes and there were large orders for locker, ration, ammunition, and bomb boxes. One order alone was for a million 75-mm shell crates! To meet increasing demand, ABC continued to expand and by 1944 it had eight sawmills, nine box factories, one veneer plant, twenty-six shook warehouses and five sales offices (American Eagle 1944c). The Associated Lumber & Box Company at Sandy Gulch was one of those sawmills (Calaveras Prospect 1942; Calaveras Weekly 1942).
To operate a sawmill the following resources are required:
1. Large stands of timber. The Calaveras Land and Timber Company had vast landholdings of old growth forests on Blue Mountain while timber was also available from the Bureau of Land Management and other land holders.
2. Paved roads to transport logs and lumber. It is noteworthy that the Mokelumne Hill-West Point Road and Rail Road Flat Road were re-graded, re-aligned and surfaced with oil and gravel in the 1930s by Calaveras County under Roosevelt’s New Deal to stimulate the development of the agricultural, mining, lumber and recreation industries in north eastern section of the County (Calaveras Californian 1933a, 1933b, 1933c, 1936 and 1937; McGreevy 2005c). The Mokelumne Hill – West Point Road was surfaced with asphalt in the early 1940s and Railroad flat and Blue Mountain Roads were paved with asphalt soon after. The state eventually took ownership of the Mokelumne Hill-West Point Road as State Highway 26 which assured its future maintenance.
3. Source of electricity. Power was supplied by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company that brought transmission lines from West Point to Sandy Gulch in 1943 (McGreevy and Ames 2005; K. Smith 1996)
4. Source of water. Water would become available by refurbishing the Harris Ditch in 1943 (American Eagle 1944d).
5. Land. Land was available for a sawmill in Sandy Gulch which was centrally located and had access to the above resources. American Forest Products purchased 500 acres of land in the 1940s from Albert Sharpneck (K. Smith 1996).
6. Source of labor. Manpower was scarce because of World War II. At startup, there was some local labor, but most of the men immigrated from distant locations. Housing was also scarce and room and board in the early years was provided by the company (Calaveras Weekly 1942; Wilsey 1944; American Eagle 1944d and 1945; Noble 1996).
During this period, Walter S. Johnson owned the Golden Eagle Ranch near the McCarty reservoir in Rail Road Flat (McGreevy 2005c) and it is likely that he knew that Sandy Gulch had all of the resources required for a sawmill. He was also the president of American Forest Products and in a position to influence the decision to build the sawmill there. In 1942, Lawrence Wilsey, General Manager, and Howard Blagen, Resident Manager, were in Sandy Gulch designing and surveying the new sawmill. Construction commenced in December, 1942 and milling began in December, 1943 (American Eagle 1944d). The sawmill continued to grow and in 1944 it was milling 100,000 board feet per shift (La Teer 1944) and 20 million feet of lumber for the year (Wilsey 1944) and over 1.2 million board feet of lathes (American Eagle 1946a). Later, production increased when a swing shift was added (McGreevy 2005a). Some 300 men were employed in the summer and 150 in the winter and the annual payroll was $1,250,000 (American Eagle 1952).
Labor was recruited from as far away as Stockton and local housing was provided in a company town built in 1944 and called The Camp. It had 28 family homes, a bunk house with 20 rooms for men, 12 two-man logger’s cabins, a cook house serving three meals a day, a commissary and a town hall (American Eagle 1944d, 1945 and 1946b). The thankful residents named the town Wilseyville and the main road Blagen Boulevard after their beloved supervisors and the Federal Government gave its recognition by establishing the Wilseyville Post Office in 1947 (American Eagle 1952; United States Postal Service 2005). The mill men were soon joined by their wives and as they established private homes in the area surrounding the bunk house; the loggers’ cabins were eventually vacated and were demolished along with the cook house.
The Sandy Gulch Mill closed in March, 1969. After 26 years, the machinery was obsolete and the supply of standing timber was in decline. To maintain its competitive edge, American Forest Products, the parent corporation, opened a modern Sawmill in Martell, California, to process logs from both Amador and Calaveras Counties. The Martell mill produced twice as much lumber as the Sandy Gulch Mill at less expense. It also had access to the railroad which minimized the need for trucking finished lumber to market.
It is ironic that the closure of the Associated Lumber and Box Company, which gave so much to the community and the nation, was never reported in the American Eagle and only received short announcements in the Calaveras newspapers (Calaveras Prospect 1969). The Sandy Gulch Mill was demolished and burned in 1972 (McGreevy 2005a) and today the only remains are a few foundations, lots of concrete rubble, local roads, the mill pond and the water ditches. The residents of The Camp incorporated into the Wilseyville Homeowners’ Association in 1973 and mediated the sale of the 28 cottages in 1975 from American Forest Products to the local residents (Wilseyville Homeowners’ Association 1975). The Association maintained ownership of the commissary and some eight acres of community land (Calaveras County Deed Book 394, p. 623, 1975). Today, the Post Office is still open, but the commissary is closed and the Home Owner’s Association serves the 28 houses that remain in the Camp (Ruthrauff 1997).
By Patrick B. McGreevy
Article Source: Costello, Julia G., and Patrick B McGreevy, 2015. Cultural Resources Survey and Evaluation for the Woody Biomass-Fired Combined Heat and Power Project, Wilseyville, CA.. Prepared by Foothill Resources, Ltd., Mokelumne Hill, CA; prepared for Calaveras Healthy Impacts Products Solutions Group, West Point, CA.
1944a ABC Progress. American Eagle 1(2):9,18.
1944b Lumber is Most Critical Item in ’44. American Eagle 1(1):7,16.
1944c List of ABC subsidiaries on inside of cover page. American Eagle 1(1).
1944d Let’s Visit Sandy Gulch. American Eagle 1(2):1-4.
1945 Modern Sawmill Town. American Eagle 2(10):12-17).
1946a Making Carstrips at Sandy Gulch. American Eagle 3(11):6-8.
1946b Everyone Pitches in to Help Build Community Club House at Wilseyville. American Eagle 3(11):14-15.
1952 It Used to be Sandy Gulch but Now It’s Wilseyville. American Eagle 9(8):1-3,7-13.
1933a Supervisors Could Open Vast Territory, October 12, 1933.
1933b Should Investigate Federal Road Financing, October 19, 1933.
1933c Frank Solinsky Backs Editorial on County Road Improvement, October19, 1933.
1936 Sup. Claude T. Smith to Seek Re-Election, April 11, 1936.
1937 $94,000 Road Job Underway Near County Seat, November 25, 1937.
La Teer, Paul, 1944. Sandy Gulch Specials. American Eagle 1(5):12.
McGreevy, Patrick B., 2005a. Interview with Earl Mason. On file at the Calaveras County Historical Society, 2005c Interview with Jess Mechling. On file at the Calaveras County Historical Society,
McGreevy, Patrick B., and Lloyd D. Ames, 2005. Interview with Leland and Ailene Haley. On file at the Calaveras County Historical Society, San Andreas, California.
Noble, Kenny. 1996. Local History – Humorous Stories of the 40’s and 50’s in the Blue Mountain Area of Calaveras County, Wilseyville and Mitchell Mill. Reprinted from the West Point News, March 1996: 1-2. On file at the Calaveras County Historical Society, San Andreas, California.
Ruthrauff, Patricia, 1997. Voices of the Past, Tales of the Mother Lode – Truth, Legend, Hearsay, Sandy Gulch – A Company Camp. Calaveras Tuolumne Telegram, August: 11, 24, 25.
Smith, K (ed), 1996. West Point Historical Project. On file at the Calaveras County Historical Society.
United States Postal Service, 2005. Wilseyville Post Office, Calaveras County, California. USPS- Display Postmasters by City. Available at http://www.wrcc.dri.edu .
Wilsey, Lawrence, 1944. Blagen Lumber Company’s Vice-President and Manager, Lawrence Wilsey, Compliments Crew on Year’s Accomplishments. American Eagle 1(10):3.
Wilseyville Homeowners’ Association, 1975. Minutes of special meeting of Board of Directors, April 3, 1975. On file at the Calaveras County Historical Society, San Andreas, California.