Remembering Irmulco by Ferol M. Slotte
One summer day in the early 60's my son Bob, his wife Mary, and I met in Fort Bragg. We excitedly boarded the "Skunk" excursion coach for a delightful train trip along the Noyo river and through the Redwoods to Willits. I told the conductor I would appreciate his pointing out the site of Irmulco. A once-thriving lumbering town during the years of this (the 20th) century, but now no longer in existence.
As we clattered along mile after mile through the unbelievable beauty of the forest on each side, I spent the time reminiscing of the years between 1908 and 1913 when I lived there with my parents, knowing it had been the happiest years of my childhood. Mr Muir had hired my father, Port Lawson, as logging superintendent in the summer of 1908.
The Irvine and Muir Lumber Company of Willits (with H.B. Muir the main stockholder) owned an extensive redwood acreage between Willits and Fort Bragg to be turned into lumber. They chose a site for their operations adjacent to the California Western Railroad (CWR) which would provide adequately for their transportation and shipping needs for years.
H.B. Muir (affectionately known as H.B.) will be remembered as one of the most respected citizens in Mendocino County. Much time, money and careful planning went into setting up this little lumbering town. They had a contest to name it. The prize went to a Willits lady for Irmulco, derived from Irvine and Muir Lumber Company (Ir-Mu-L-Co). All this took place around the turn of the (20th) century.
A spur track led back from the main railroad to the mill. First beside the (spur) track came a large two-story building, containing on the ground-floor the company store, huge stockroom, bookkeeper's office and post office. A large platform provided for the unloading of an enormous amount of supplies each freight day, as everyone traded at this one store.
A large auditorium with a stage at one end and an excellent dance floor occupied the second story – the social center for the employees. Here we held not only dances, socials of all kinds, but twice-weekly silent movies, community three-act plays, school programs, Sunday school and church services. These contributed greatly to everyone's morale.
I have a picture of a "hard-times dance" showing the large audience (almost all in costumes) laughing happily. My mother, Clara Lawson, and the company bookkeeper, Bert Waters, were in the middle as they had won the first prize. Mother's costume, as it appears in this picture, was in absolute tatters. I remember how proud I always felt when my father sang tenor in a Barbershop quartet at community entertainments.
The spur track led back into a little canyon holding the large lumber yard with a giant crane straddling it both for stacking lumber and loading flat cars for rail shipment. Then came the large and most modern mill of of that era – a two story building with its mill pond holding logs from the woods. A large cookhouse supplying mills for the single men stood to the left of the mill pond. Just beyond ten family houses for the married men who worked in the nearby woods ended this part of Irmulco.
Adjacent to the store a very spacious home had been built for the bookkeeper, an important employee. A similar house had been constructed on the other side for the general manager. It was the first one in a row of about ten or twelve four-room houses, supposedly for the mill employees families. Although my father's work was in the woods, we had one of these nicely built homes so he could be close to the bookkeeper's office. Each was painted outside and papered and painted inside. They were on the left of a small stream running behind them and to the right of the main railroad.
Each had an enclosed backyard and small front yard. Some families raised gardens or chickens behind their homes, but everyone had beautiful flower gardens in the front. A wooden sidewalk ran along all these houses, bordered by a narrow dirt road.
My parents raised chickens in their backyard. However, my father fenced off part of it and I had a 6' by 10' playhouse for me, with flower boxes under each side window. There, my next door neighbor and best friend, Evelyn Cook, and I played many happy hours from our second grade through the sixth.
The company also furnished a well-built school building at one end of this row of houses with a large playground adjacent. The stream behind the houses gave us swimming pools and "Tom Sawyer" raft playtime. We picked huckleberries in season and sold them to the schoolhouse for spending money.
A small hill promontory like the toe of a huge shoe separated those houses from the mill section on the other side. At one end and above this hill two rows of bunk houses had been built on the mountainside for the single employees – two men to each cabin. (N.B. Hank's father would have lived in one of these cabins). These looked down on the mill section (see photos above). I believe there then must have been between 150 and 200 employees.
H.B. Muir was proud of Irmulco and wanted the workers well cared for and happy. I remember during the five years we were there , he gave generous Christmas bonuses to his main employees, Fred Steele, general manager, Toby Coffer, mill superintendent, and my dad, Port Lawson, logging superintendent. There were always gifts for each child on the community tree, a turkey for each family and a big special Christmas dinner for all the single men at the cook house. H.B. was a true Santa to everyone.
But all good things must come to an end. The company's timber had been logged off by the fall of 1913, thus ending the operations at Irmulco. Regretfully, everyone had to leave and seek other employment. They took down all that could be salvaged for use elsewhere or sold. It is my understanding in later years a fire swept through, destroying what remained at Irmulco.
My musings came to an end as the conductor pointed out the site of our much-loved lumbering community – now not even a ghost town. In its place I saw a beautiful new forest of second-growth redwood. My father told me these trees would grow that fast, and here stood the living proof of his words after a half-century.
Somehow I knew that H.B. (in his senior years) must have been happy in remembering his successes here and also would have derived pleasure in seeing nature at work renewing her lost forest so quickly.
I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of our excursion, knowing that those of us privileged to have lived there so many years ago would always remember H.B Muir and his Irmulco with the deepest affection.