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Remembering Scotia, the last of the company towns

By Gaye LeBaron

Santa Rosa Press Democrat

October 12, 2008

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Mel Berti, meat manager at Hoby’s Market in Scotia, says townspeople have become more optimistic since Humboldt Redwood Co. took over Pacific Lumber’s timberlands and mill. Photo by Christopher Chung

It was two years ago when I first read that Charles Hurwitz, the corporate raider from Texas whose disrespect of the California redwoods had made him an anathema on the North Coast, was offering the town of Scotia for sale.

My first thought was that I wished I was rich enough to buy it. It isn’t every day one gets a chance to buy back a chunk of one’s childhood.

I spent my early years in a very small town called Red Crest, a dozen miles down the road from Scotia. I was, in fact, born in Scotia in the days when there was a hospital in town — a hospital and a hotel and a theater and a bank and the church where my mother and I worshipped on Sunday morning while my dad read the Sunday paper in the car. And, of course, the mill, stretching along the main street the entire distance of the town.

It was my family’s closest “big city,” and we traveled there regularly — for tap-dancing lessons Saturday mornings at the Winema Theater; for my big brother’s baseball games at second base for the mighty Lumberjacks; for visits to The Sweet Shoppe in the basement of the Scotia Inn for a chocolate-covered ice cream bar called a Whale, which I haven’t seen since.

MY SCOTIA was a middle-aged company town in the late 1930s and ’40s. The town had formed in the 1860s when access to the area was only by sea. It was a new destination for eastern lumbermen once Paul Bunyan’s North Woods had been logged out. It was called Forestville originally, and renamed by or for the many Nova Scotians who were drawn west in the 1880s by the lure of the tall trees.

Owned by Simon Murphy and his Pacific Lumber Co., it was, at the turn of the 20th century, one of several lumber company towns in the Pacific Northwest — and among the few that survived the Great Depression. The first of the 247 homes for the company’s employees were built between 1910 and 1925.

The Scotia I knew was stable and strait-laced. In the earlier days, when the law actually allowed such things, Pacific Lumber paid workers partly in scrip redeemable only at the company store.

That was illegal by 1940, although I’m sure the greater portion of an employee’s wages were spent at the grocery/meat/dry goods/hardware emporium the company owned. The head man, after 1931, was Stanwood Murphy, Simon’s grandson and the grandfather of Warren, Woody and Suzanne Murphy, who lost what by then was their minority share of the company in the hostile takeover of 1986.

PL, as the company was known, ran a clean town. It was generally known — even to kids — that no liquor could be sold there. No gambling was allowed. Male employees could play cards at the company’s Men’s Club, so long as there was no money on the table.

It was this proscribed austerity that gave rise to Scotia’s northern counterpart across the Eel River. Originally known as Wildwood, it was where the gambling and the drinking took place and where, some say, there were the houses of ill-repute.

The ban on liquor ended years ago, when the Murphy family leased the company store to independent merchants and The Sweet Shoppe became a cocktail lounge.

Wildwood today is a city named Rio Dell, three times Scotia’s size, which has within the past two years conducted an extensive analysis about the possibility of annexing Scotia. While the current plan seems to be the formation of a community service district to tend to Scotia’s water and sewer systems, Rio Dell’s city manager, Nancy Flemming, did not rule out the possibility that the two towns might join in the future.

THE OWNERSHIP now is split. Humboldt Redwood Co. took possession of the mill and the timber, and Marathon Structure Finance Fund the town.

I dropped in for a visit to this last of the company towns last month. I was curious about how it was playing on Main Street. I stopped at Hoby’s Market for a visit with Mel Berti. Mel’s been around Scotia all his life and, as it is with all “Humboldters,” we have several friends in common.

He is a city councilman and former mayor in Fortuna, about 10 miles north, but he’s run the meat market at Hoby’s for nearly 40 years, giving him a front-row seat for the rough-and-tumble politics of the past two decades.

He is optimistic about Scotia’s future. And optimism is something new for Berti after a decade of what he terms “Black Fridays.”

“They (Hurwitz’s Maxxam) went like gang-busters for five years,” Berti recalls, “cutting everything out there. When it stopped, everybody got scared. Every Friday they were laying people off. These people are like family to me. It hurt to see them scared like that. People had to have a garage sale to get enough money to get out of town.”

Now, with the mill running two shifts and the environmental hostilities cooling, Berti has good words for the new company.

“They know timber,” he says. “For the first time since the Murphys, the mill will be run by people who know timber.”

Everybody feels the relief. “I had a guy come in this morning,” Berti said, “who told me: ‘Before, I felt like crawling to work. Now I want to run to work!’

“It’s a very good feeling,” Berti says. “They may put the town back to where it used to be, honoring its roots. People here are concerned about the roots.”

IF I HAD any serious thoughts about one of those neat little redwood houses, I might as well forget it. The sale won’t happen any time soon.

That plan hit a snag when it was discovered that there are no lot lines in the town.

It’s never been surveyed. There was no need. PL owned the land and could build the village wherever it pleased. Apparently, the entire community is built on two parcels.

It’s going to be a challenge.

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