Merrill's Mill
 
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Merrill's Mill, Owl Creek, Mariposa County, Sierra Nevada (1935-1947)

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The earliest memories of my life are of living at Merrill's Sawmill.

I remember the mill was on the north side, and the cabins where we lived were across the road that ran down the hill, across Owl Creek, and out to The Point on Windlass Ridge.

I remember my mother keeping milk or other perishables in a screened- in box in the creek.

I remember someone putting a big fish he had caught in a little stream that ran through the site (probably for both preservation and showing off).

I remember, when I was a bit older, the drive to the mill, over a rough mountain road with a steep drop-off on one side. I was afraid I would fall out of the car and roll down  the mountain. Unfortunately, my first tendency was to hang on to the door handle.

Considering that we lived at the mill the summer I turned three (in 1942), it is amazing I remember anything. But I know these are real memories, not things we talked about later, as many childhood "memories" often are.

For 12 years starting in 1935, my father worked at the mill every summer but one, and because I was at a most impressionable age during the latter part of this time, Merrill's Mill looms large in my life history. Throughout this time, and well after the mill was destroyed by fire in 1947, our closest family friends were the Merrill’s: Roy and Ruby, and their sons and their families.

My father, Bob Estel, and his parents, Frank and Mabel, came from Ohio to Pasadena CA in January of 1935, part of a great migration seeking work and warmer weather in the still-Golden State. Their destination was chosen because they had relatives there, the only other Estel's I remember knowing, Fred and Harley Estel and their sister Florence (Flossie) Estel Hemphill. The three were cousins of Frank and the children of Augustus Estel, a German immigrant who moved west from Ohio to California about 1910.

In Pasadena dad, grandpa and grandma stayed at Flossie’s home. They played the part of tourists, going to the ocean, seeing the southern California sights, going to the movies, and enjoying warm sunshine at a time of year when they had normally experienced the snow and below freezing weather of northwest Ohio.

The Estel cousins were not the only people with Ohio roots that my father and grandparents knew in California. One of my grandfather’s boyhood friends, Roy Merrill, had been in California since the 1920s. In 1928 he and Ruby had moved from San Diego to Mariposa, a tiny town in the Sierra Nevada foothills. On February 1st Dad and his parents headed for the Merrill ranch, about 300 miles north, where they spent a week, making their first visit to Yosemite. This was their first sight of the place where my parents were to spend the rest of their lives.

During their time in southern California Frank and Bob worked at whatever odd jobs they could find, such things as delivering handbills. Grandma’s diary for March 5 notes that they worked all day and made $3 each.

In April of 1935, Roy visited the Estel's in Pasadena, on his way to Long Beach and San Pedro to shop for machinery. He told Frank and Bob that he was thinking about starting a sawmill, and if he did, he’d give them a job. (Dad had  previously worked in a mill in Ohio sawing custom barn timbers.)

On May 28 they left Pasadena early in the morning, arriving at Roy’s place about 6 p.m. At that time the Merrill's lived in Bootjack, about five miles east of Mariposa, at what is now the corner of State Highway 49 and Silva Road.

The men, including Roy’s two sons Marion (Molly) and Dean, immediately began work building the mill, a project that took about six weeks. The base of the mill was three huge cedar logs, mortised into posts. During construction they stayed in tents at the mill site. The construction site was along Owl creek, at the 5,000 foot elevation, between Footman and Windlass Ridge, and the mill was often referred to as Owl Creek Mill.

The mill ran on five steam engines, a big one for the saws, with others on the greenchain, carriage, and pump. They were fueled by wood, and had to be fed by hand throughout the day until a way was devised to feed sawdust from the mill directly into the burner.

With the mill in operation, some of the families moved into the little tent city that had sprung up in the forest. Grandma’s diary notes that on Saturday, June 22, 1935, they moved up to Owl Creek.

A breakdown in early August apparently gave Bob and Frank some free time, and on the 2nd they started building the cabin in which they eventually lived.

Grandma seemingly was the camp cook, at least for the men there without their wives. On August 15 she wrote, "I had two new men to cook for, Mike and Hiram, making ten in all." (This was probably Hiram Branson.)

On August 20 they moved into the cabin. While they certainly did not live a life of opulence in Ohio, it was far more civilized and settled than the wild Sierra of California in the 1930s. Grandma’s feelings were probably best expressed by her entry of September 30: "Hip hurrah! Left Owl Creek at 8:30." Nine days later they arrived at her parent’s home in Ohio.

There had been good times, too. They went to Yosemite on July 14, and grandma wrote on August 28, "About 20 around the camp fire...lots of music."

The mill was located in Mariposa County, CA, at the  5,000 foot elevation, between Footman and Windlass Ridge, and was often referred to as Owl Creek Mill. Access was by a dirt road that wound up over the first ridge just north of Jerseydale Ranger Station. The Merrill Ranch was in Bootjack, about ten miles away and 3,000 feet lower in elevation. The lumber drying yard was located at the ranch, and the Estel's (senior and junior), eventually both had cabins on the ranch. 

Later the Merrill's moved to property on Triangle Road, closer to the mill, where all three of their families (Roy and sons Molly and Deane) had their homes. Bob built a house about a mile from the original ranch, on property he purchased where Pegleg Road joins present day Highway 49.

Winter conditions in the Sierra Nevada required a seasonal shutdown, so throughout his career with the mill, dad did something else in the winter. They made several trips back to Ohio, and in 1938 what he did was marry my mother, Hazel Mason. Immediately after their marriage in April 1938, they left for California, which became their permanent home.

The elder Estel's ended up in southern California, eventually settling in Ventura, where both Frank and Bob spent some time working in the defense industry at Port Hueneme during World War II. Frank did electrical work for most of the rest of his working life, while Bob returned to the mill, working seasonally for local mines and for the Pacific Gas & Electric Company.

This era came to an end when the mill burned down in 1947. The cause of the fire was never determined, although Roy suspected arson. However, in a site with several wood-burning steam engines, there were plenty of opportunities for fire, and there was no evidence one way or another.

Today the Owl Creek site is silent. There is little evidence of the bustling industry and residential activity that started three generations ago. Wild blackberries have covered the place where the mill stood, but if you can brave the thorns, you will find a small concrete platform where the boiler stood. You’ll also find a substantial sawdust pile, though people have hauled it out in buckets and trucks. The young men who worked there when it began are in their 80's, and the older generation is gone--but none are forgotten.

Ruby died in 1963 and Roy in 1968. Deane was killed in a logging truck accident in 1976. Deane's wife Edith died in 2009. Bob Estel died in 2005 and Hazel in 2007. Mollie's wife Addie died in 2006. Mollie, the last of his generation, died in May, 2012. There are now only one or two people still living who were there in the beginning days of the Owl Creek Mill.

--Dick Estel, December 2000; updated July 2006, June and August 2007, February 2010, July 2012

    

  

Click on the pictures for a larger view (pictures open in a new window)

   
Roy Merrill, Ed Wilkenson, Deane Merrill, 1937 Mill, sawdust pile in background Roy Merrill and his pride and joy, 1937
Roy Merrill, Ed Wilkenson, Deane Merrill, 1937 The living area was behind the cameraman. The beginning of what would one day be a  huge sawdust pile can be seen behind the mill

Roy Merrill and his pride and joy, 1937

   
Log rollway Mill tail end After three weeks of construction, July 1935
Log rollway, 1935 Mill tail end, 1935 After three weeks of construction,
July 1935
   
Boilers (used to generate steam to run mill) Clarence Mowery, Merle Isaacs, Burl Mowery, 1937 Ed Wilkinson & Dean Merrill
Boilers (used to generate steam to run mill) Clarence Mowery, Merle Isaacs, Burl Mowery, 1937 Ed Wilkinson & Dean Merrill, 1937
   
Billy Lewis & Jimmy Carlton Owl Creek Drainage, next to mill Devil's Gulch, east of mill
Billy Lewis & Jimmy Carlton, 1939 Owl Creek Drainage, next to mill, 1935 Devil's Gulch, east of mill, 1937
   
Lumber truck (You would not want to drive one of these over the road in and out of the mill site!) Marion (Molly) Merrill, 1937 Chevy truck, 1938 Molly with semi-truck load of lumber
Lumber truck (You would not want to drive one of these over the road in and out of the mill site!)

Marion (Molly) Merrill, 1937 Chevy truck, 1938

Molly with semi-truck load of lumber
   
Molly Merrill and Bill Elliott with load of fence posts International truck The unbalanced load
Molly Merrill and Bill Elliott with load of fence posts International truck The unbalanced load
    
It happens with lumber too Bob Estel and big sugar pine log Bob Estel & Clarence Mowery, 1939
It happens with lumber too Bob Estel and big sugar pine log, 1937 Bob Estel & Clarence Mowery, 1939
   
End of greenchain, June 1941; big log on the carriage in the background Still in Ohio: Frank, Bob, Mabel Harley & Fred Estel in Pasadena, 1938
End of greenchain, June 1941; big log on the carriage in the background Still in Ohio: Frank, Bob, Mabel, 1935 Harley & Fred Estel in Pasadena, 1938
   
Roy and the 1946 Chevy that eventually became my first car Bob & Hazel Estel, Frank Estel, Reva & Mills Brown, Ruby & Roy Merrill, Burton Brown, July 1939 Grandma's kitchen at the mill cabin
Roy and the 1946 Chevy that eventually became my first car (purchased from Roy's son Molly for $75) Bob & Hazel Estel, Frank Estel, Reva & Mills Brown, Ruby & Roy Merrill, Burton Brown, July 1939 Grandma's kitchen at the mill cabin
   
Ruby Merrill & Mabel Estel cooking at the mill Frank & Mabel at their cabin on the Merrill Ranch, Bootjack, about June 1939 Frank, Mabel, Hazel and Bob Estel (standing) by lumber
Ruby Merrill & Mabel Estel cooking at the mill Frank & Mabel at their cabin on the Merrill Ranch, Bootjack, about June 1939 Frank, Mabel, Hazel and Bob Estel (standing) by lumber
   
Deane bringing in new boiler, 1939 Roy & Ruby at Santa Barbara, 1947 Roy Merrill, class of 1911, Fulton (Ohio) High School
Deane bringing in new boiler, 1939 Roy & Ruby at Santa Barbara, 1947 Roy Merrill, class of 1911, Fulton (Ohio) High School
   
Molly and Dean One log, one load Addie & Molly Merrill; Bob & Hazel Estel, June 2004
     Molly & Dean, about age 12 and 7 One log, one load Addie & Molly Merrill; Bob & Hazel Estel, June 2004
      
Article about mill burning down Article about recycling sawdust Mill location map
Article about mill burning down Article about recycling sawdust Map showing mill location (not accessible to passenger cars)
    
Jackie Callan on the sawdust pile, summer 1962 Sawdust pile in 1987... ...and in 2013
Jackie Callan on the sawdust pile, summer 1962 Sawdust pile in 1987... ...and in 2013
   
Three of Roy's grandchildren, Kathy, Susan and Marvin, April 2013 Other than sawdust, this is about all that is left of the mill in 2013 Planing mill building at Triangle Road ranch
Three of Roy's grandchildren, Kathy, Susan and Marvin, April 2013    Other than sawdust, this is about all that is left of the mill in 2013

Planing mill building at Triangle Road ranch

   

Photos courtesy Merrill Family, Estel Family, Bill Elliott, Fulton Co. Ohio Research Web

    
Read about early day logging in Nelder Grove
Read about the Pine Logging Company mill at Dinkey Creek
  

 

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Updated July 13, 2017