The Big Lumbering Boom Ended, But Many Residents Decided it Still Was a Good Place to Live
By Alice Staples
When the 20th Century was in its teens, the booming little logging town of McKenna, nestled on the Nisqually River 25 miles southwest of Tacoma was a “jumping, jiving community where the lights never went out,” old-timers say.
There were some 50 homes, a big boarding house, a saloon, a school, and the company store and post-office. The closest town was far away by carriage, or early day automobile, and business was good.
It was about the time of the big depression at the turn of the 1930’s that the log supply dwindled. The company found itself deeply in debt. The market slumped. Finally the mill closed and the lights went out.
McKenna should have become a ghost town like Fairfax, nearby where deserted structures, built by the Eatonville Lumber Co. during the logging boom of the early part of the century, became mournful reminders of feverishly busy days. But McKenna didn’t die.
The McKenna Lumber Co. according to the times, should have gone bankrupt. That didn’t happen either, although the company was deeply in debt and hasn’t paid a cent in dividends to its stockholders in 30 years.
Today the town, a well-kept, quiet little community, seems a world away from the hectic, pell-mell bustle of modern-day living. McKenna has a constable and a justice of the peace, but neither has any business to speak of.
The community is off the beaten track and there is no industry and very little business to disturb the peace and quiet. There is a family feeling among the residents. It has been that way since the mill closed. As many as four generations of some original McKenna families now live there.
The men drive 50 to 150 miles to and from their jobs. On weekends they gather on the porch of the old company store to talk, or they go fishing in the Nisqually.
A restaurant, post office, service station and tavern make up the town’s business district–oh yes, and the old lumber company office where Mrs. Virgil Daskam, secretary for the company, has her desk. Once a month Mrs. Daskam makes out the water bills (the company owns the town water system), totals the collections and prepares her report for the company president.
Newman H. (Zeke) Clark, Seattle attorney, says he became president of the McKenna Lumber Co. “by default.” Clark seems to have a “bull by the horns” and he can’t let go.
Clark wants to close the company’s books. He would like to sell the water system to the townspeople, but they like things the way they are, and no one else is in a mood to buy it. He would like to dispose of other company property in the town, but he isn’t sure just which properties they are, and neither is anyone else.
Clark was named vice president of the company some years ago after Horton Cawmont Force, then company president and a close associate, place 100 shares of stock in Clark’s name. He succeeded to the president’s post when Force died.
Now Clark has placed qualifying shares in the name of Harry R. Venables, young Seattle attorney, and has named Venables vice president, just in case the company outlives Clark.
There aren’t any water meters in the town. The residents pay $2.50 a family for the water they use. The system brings in about the enough to pay for collecting the money.
“Operators for an old folks’ home, which occupies the old boarding house, recently dug a well to supply their needs,” Clark said. “Now the home is getting stand-by service from the system for $5 a month. They were paying $20.”
Clark said some families which have occupied homes for many years have neither deeds nor records to show ownership.
“We have one family which has occupied a house for some 20 to 30 years,” said Clark, “and we can’t find any written contract agreement. We think about $900 is owing and they say they will pay it but they don’t.
“They are nice people and they are working. I’ve threatened suit, and that’s as far as I’ve gone,” Clark continued. “The company never has sued anyone, and I would hate to break the chain of events of the past 30 years, but I’d like to get out of business.”
The late W. N. Goodwin, Sr., foreman for the company, remained in McKenna disposing of the company’s holdings and collecting mortgage payments. He took his pay in property because the collections had to go for company debts. Today the company has paid more than 90 percent of about $100,000 it owed when the mill closed.
“Now I can find no commitments or obligations for the balance that creditors say we owe them,” said Clark.
When Goodwin died, with him went much information about the liquidation.
“I think Mr. Goodwin must have kept a lot of the records in his head,” Clark said.
Why didn’t McKenna become a ghost town? Why didn’t the lumber company go out of business? People like the Daskams, the Hulls, the Huttons, the Posts, the Kominskis, the Murvins and the Conicas know.
“The company had a heart,” said one townsman. “When the mill closed the people were given a chance to buy the homes they occupied, and it was pretty much on their own terms. It was depression days, but we weren’t pressed for payments. When the people got work, most of them paid up.”
“This was our home,” said 83-year-old Mrs. C. E. Hull, whose husband went to work for the company in 1912. “McKenna was a good place to live and rear our families. The people here were like one big family, and when one need help the others all pitched in.
“I can remember when there weren’t any jobs and our men folk banded together and cut and sawed firewood. They hauled it to Tacoma and sold it and everybody got along. When some got jobs, they helped those who didn’t have work.”
The town was intended for permanency, according to Alfred Hull, a son of Mrs. C. E. Hull.
“This town was laid out like a city,” said Hull, with its wide streets and large lots. The family-sized homes were well-built and attractively designed. McKenna was built to last.”
Three sons, eight grandchildren and four great grandchildren of Mrs. Hull call McKenna home. The children leave home to attend college, then return to rear their families in McKenna, sometimes driving long distances to work.
“You can’t beat these little towns for a place to live,” said Edward Daskam, Jr., who, with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, Danielle, were visiting over the week-end. “I own a home here, and I’d live here if my work wasn’t so far away.”
Daskam is in construction work in Vancouver.
Natives of McKenna think that at last inflation has hit their town. Prices range upward from $100 for a vacant lot up to $5,000 for a large house. One home has been for sale for $4,500 for a long period.
“Too high,” commented a diner at the Virgil Daskam cafe. “That’s why it hasn’t sold.”
When the mill closed many of the workers were in debt to the company store, but they didn’t “owe their souls” to it. Most of them were given a chance to work out their store bills helping Goodwin tear down the mill, clean up the property and guard the company’s holdings.
“The company was good to us,” said an old-timer. “I remember the time a new store manager put up signs stating that it was mandatory for workers to do all their trading at the store.
“It didn’t last long though,” he continued. “The big boss came to town and ordered the signs taken down.”
The “big boss” was Valentine H. May. He established the town about 1908. It was incorporated in 1914 with George R. Biddle, J. T. Gregory and H. R. Rolland as trustees.
May is remembered as “a man who never married, but one who loved everybody.”
Although they probably haven’t given much though to their holdings in the McKenna Lumber Co. of late years, the major stockholders today live in the eastern part of the United States. The estate of the late William E. Boeing, however, owns 60-1000 shares.