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