by Dottie Smith
Phillips Brothers Mill
The story of the Phillips Brothers Mill:
When Edmund Phillips was a towheaded lad of five, his father, Isaac Phillips, took him to visit the Myers Mill which was located on what would now be the Thomas Road east of the Oak Run Post Office. The boy was spellbound with the mill--its wheels, rollers, levers, and the shrill whine of the saw biting through logs. These were things he never forgot. Years later in 1897, when he was twenty-five, he bought the iron head plates from the dismantled Myers Mill for $25.00 each to make the log carriage for the sawmill he was building on North Cow Creek. These same head plates have been used in each progressive stage of the Phillips Mill -- from muley wheel (overshot water wheel) -- to Pelton wheel and pen.
Ed learned blacksmithing at an early age from his father. This highly developed trade has been passed down through successive generations in the Phillips family. Ed's great-grandfather brought the craft from Scotland during George Washington's second term of presidency, about 1797. This progenitor settled in Virginia Shores, a settlement on the peninsula-like strip of Virginia, where Issac was born in 1826. He grew up, however, in Kentucky, and came to California during the Gold Rush, becoming one of Shasta County's earliest settlers.
Ed Phillips's first saw mill, begun in 1897-98, was built and operated in a true pioneer manner. Timbers for the framing were hand-hewn logs cut in the nearby forests with a two-man crosscut saw. Their tools were axes, wedges, handsaws and cant hooks. An overhead flume supplied waterpower to operate a huge jigsaw type vertical saw. The first board was cut May 4, 1898. This mill was run on day and night shifts by Ed and one of his brothers, Frank Phillips. Old kerosene lanterns hung on beams and brackets furnished the light. Frank cut by night and Ed sorted and stacked by day. They changed to Pelton wheel and penstock in 1905. Several years later a twin mandrel was installed using two saws, one above the other. This greatly increased the speed and output on larger logs.
Early logging was done entirely with horses. Ed Phillips, a great horse lover, was likely to fire anyone who abused or mistreated his horses. Twelve to sixteen horses were used daily. Several methods were used to get the logs to the loading zones where they were loaded and hauled on handmade wooden trucks to the mill yard. As the name implies, "big wheels" was a two-wheeled rig with wheels ten feet in diameter and five-inch rims which was used in rocky and low brush areas. A team of two to four horses, according to log size, was backed over the log end which was then hoisted by a pivoted bar centered on the wheels' axle. Thus the suspended log could be skidded or wheeled over rough and roadless terrain a mile or more. Most of those primitive Ponderosa pine, sugar pine and red Douglas fir measured "thigh high" in the logger's vernacular. Another method used by the Phillips was a chute made by laying peeled logs to form a trough. Five to seven logs could be conveyed down a steep mountainside using a team of ten to twelve horses pulling alongside the logs with long chains attached to the rear log.
A disastrous accident occurred on their chute where a curve had been made on a steep part of the hillside. The horses strained and stumbled over rocks with their burden, snagging and catching as the chute made the turn. Suddenly, a log jumped the trough and plunged downward entangling the frightened horses with chains and crashing logs. Seven horses were killed, including Ed's favorite, Big Vick (a large black horse) that had once moved a thousand pound log when snaking in the woods. Years later the children used this chute for a slide by swabbing the poles with tallow and using lids, old bread pans, and discs for seat savers as they plunged down the hill, landing on a heap of snow or sawdust according to the season.
Fire destroyed their first mill on May 3, 1913. At this time the partnership was dissolved between Ed and Frank, and Frank eventually moved to Chico. The following year the mill was rebuilt as a portable mill when Dan, another brother, became a partner. They shipped a 1910 Best tractor from Chico to Bella Vista and Dan drove it from there to the mill site on Cow Creek. This steam tractor, built in San Leandro, California, was used in the Phillips mills from 1914 until 1938 when it was replaced by a caterpillar tractor. Even so, it was occasionally used for demonstrations and odd jobs until 1957. This steam tractor made a complete changeover in logging by eliminating entirely the "horse logging".
The first little logging truck which had been built in 1905 was now supplemented by a larger truck to haul tandem loads. This truck, like the first, was constructed by hand of native black oak in Ed's blacksmith shop. Wheels were cross sections of Ponderosa pine forty-two inches in diameter, fifteen inches thick at the hub and curved with a spokeshave to ten-inch rims. Handmade squared and sharpened pegs of red fir ten inches long were driven closely into the wheels to strengthen them. Axles were made of iron shafting purchased at the Bella Vista Box Factory and the hubs were cast by the Redding Iron Works.
During World War I the portable mill was moved to two sites: the Flat Woods in the Big Bend area, and to Bullskin Mountain to do cutting on contracts for heavy construction and buildings.
A courageous step was taken August 19, 1923 when Ed Phillips with his four eldest sons, Clayton, Clifford, Edmund Jr., and Arthur, took over the entire operation of the waterpower mill on Cow Creek. Even the four younger boys as they grew older had special jobs to do with beaver-like enthusiasm after school hours, Saturdays, and vacations. David and Lewis ran the cutoff saw for firewood. Norman and Elmer pushed carts loaded with slabwood on a long tramway. This wood was stacked in the millyard and used for firing the tractor.
In the summer of 1933, the four older sons (now grown men) decided to move to their other section of land on the Oak Run Road where they established a steam powered mill. Two springs supplied water for a cookhouse, log pond, and the steam mill. Their first boilers were two traction engine boilers fired with slab wood and powered by a reciprocating engine.
In World War II the four brothers entered the service and the mill was shut down for the duration. After the war they plunged into expanding their mill business. A machine shop was built and also a box factory including nailing machines for the box output. This box factory made use of the entire tree: good boards for dimensional lumber (houses, etc.), irregulars for box material, and scraps for cleats. Waste and sawdust were used to fire the boilers. These boilers were the buckstrap type, much larger than those used in the mill. A large Dutch oven, eight feet by ten feet, burned the sawdust and shavings that fired the boilers. Because the extreme heat there was neither smoke nor cinders and no pollution.
The present operation includes the saw mill, machine shop -- fully equipped to do all their construction, maintenance, and repairs -- and a box factory. It is the last fully steam powered mill in America and is still operated by the family.
During the early 1980's, the emphasis on the production of lug boxes began to shift towards the production of wooden gift boxes. This occurred when their nephew Gary Hendrix recognized the need for these more profitable boxes. It was a time when wooden fruit boxes were being fazed out in favor of cardboard shipping containers. At first gift boxes were made for a number of Oregon wineries. In 1991, Gregg Hendrix, son of Gary, began to work full time for the brothers, and moved to the mill with his wife Molly where they began raising their family. Gradually more customers sought out their beautifully branded boxes. Boxes were now being made for a wide diversity of products including honey, wine, beer, candy, sausage, nuts, distilled spirits, and audio books. Lug boxes were completely fazed out.
The Brothers, while they were still alive, having no children of their own, instilled the love of their forest lands, steam technology, and lumber production into the minds and hearts of their brothers' and sisters' children. The seven children who were chosen by them to inherit their estate worked closely with them while they were alive to insure that their legacy would never be lost.
With the encouragement of their nieces and nephews, the brothers decided to place a conservation on the property. The easement with Pacific Forest Trust insures that the 920 acres of forest lands will be protected in perpetuity as a sustainable, bio-diverse, multiaged forest.
Gregg Hendrix, Gary's son, who from the time that he was a young boy had studied steam technology, lumber production, and forest management with his great uncles, was appointed operations manager of both the mill and the forest lands.
After the brothers passed away, members of the first descendants of the Phillips Family trust, contacted the National Archives. People from the National Archives came to the mill and conducted an in-depth study of the site. 110 historical machines, the sawmill, and associated buildings were documented and listed in the archives. In August of 2002 the Phillips Mill was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Family members are currently working on the creation of a non-profit organization. It would assume the responsibility for the preservation and restoration or historic logging and mill related equipment, insuring that this working technology will not be lost to future generations.
Isaac Phillips family, 1896
Sawmill in 1975
The museum quality steam engine affectionately known as"Susan Puffer". Taken in 1975.
"Susan Puffer" in her garage, 2009.
Gary Hendrix and his recently restored old 1941 Dodge mill truck.
Box factory sign