Al Moltke, one of the founders of the Pilot Rock Lumber Company, wrote a booklet about the early history of the company for a union get-together in 1954. He told Virgil Rupp of the East Oregonian in a June 1977 interview that it was a chicken dinner in the “wild and wooly cowtown” of Ukiah that brought him, Elmer Kerns and R.B. Fields from Wenatchee, Wash., to Eastern Oregon in 1939.
The three men, who worked for Wenatchee Box Corporation, were looking for a new field of operations because their timber supply was running out. Kerns had already made an initial trip to the area near Pilot Rock, and reported that not only was there a stand of virgin timber worth drooling over, the cattle also roamed the area in grass up to their bellies. Moltke took a look with Kerns in the fall of 1939, and liked what he saw. But it was the 50-cent all-you-can-eat chicken dinners in Ukiah that sealed the deal for Fields.
Moltke was a little disappointed with Pilot Rock at first, however. He was expecting “a picturesque Columbia River port,” not realizing that the rock for which the town was named was a stony butte that had been used as a landmark for early settlers.
But the forests impressed the trio, and Kerns set about tying up 300 million feet of timber that Merritt Griswold and the Eastern Oregon Timber Syndicate had tried to exploit as early as 1906 but gave up on during World War I. And while the 55-mile haul over Battle Mountain was a daunting prospect, Moltke envisioned a day when big diesel trucks and trailers would solve the problem.
The Wenatchee men negotiated with Newt Toyer, Rupe Erwin and George Carnes to develop a mill site in Pilot Rock, which broke ground Feb. 19, 1940, and opened June 19, just four months later. The Kerns Co. remanufacturing plant opened in June 1943 to make ammunition boxes for World War II. It converted to peacetime commodities such as ironing boards and furniture parts at the end of the war in 1945.
The original mill is still in operation today, under the ownership of Louisiana-Pacific Corp.
Renee Struthers is the Community Records Editor for the East Oregonian. See the complete collection of Out of the Vault columns at eovault.blogspot.com