Westwood, California sits nestled in pine trees on the southeastern slope of
Mount Lassen. A fox, scared by the gunfire of dove hunters, scampers over a stone wall at the edge of town. Alex de Martimprey stands in front of Westwoods community center. From here he can survey the entire town, from the two-pump gas station all the way down to the tavern three blocks away. De Martimprey is the owner of the local hardware store, a ski instructor,
a teacher of 35 homeschooled children, a soccer coach, inventor of a technology to cut steel with cold oxygen, and the inspiration behind the 28-foot redwood statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. The Bunyan statue is reputedly the largest wood statue in the world carved in one piece from a single tree. In 1988, De Martimprey convinced the Chamber of Commerce to commission the statue from a chainsaw artist at Burlwood Industries to celebrate Westwoods 75th birthday. The statue holds an axe in his left hand and a long saw blade in his right. He wears a red and black plaid shirt, sports a luxuriant mustache, and bears a striking resemblance to Tony Orlando.
We, more than any other place, have the right to call this Paul Bunyans home town, De Martimprey says. As he points out, without Westwood and the marketing genius of the Red River Lumber Company, it is likely that Paul Bunyan would have gone the way of John Henry in American myth.
In 1912, the Red River Lumber Company crafted Westwood from the remote Robbers Creek wilderness in a frenzy of building. T.B. Walker, then the fifth richest man in the world and owner of the Red River Lumber Company, had cleaned out the timber stock in Minnesota and purchased nearly 750 million acres of virgin pine forest in Northern California to feed the mill town he planned to create. Over the next few years sprang up an opera house, a hospital, a skating rink, scores of bunkhouses, and all the businesses needed for Westwood to be self-contained, including a town bakery Westloaf, the toast of the town. Central to the town was a massive pine mill. In the 1930s, the Guinness Book of World Records cited Westwood as having the largest pine timber mill in the world. Ripleys Believe It or Not featured the mill as having the worlds largest pile of sawdust, used to fuel Westwoods central boilers for steam heat. Before long, more than 10,000 people lived in Westwood.
With low crime rates, year-round work, and guaranteed health care, Westwood must have indeed seemed a paradise or at least an anomaly in the timber business. The conservative Methodist Walker family oversaw Westwoods growth, managing everything from church attendance to liquor consumption. Eveline Walker left a bowl of change outside her front door so that no resident of Westwood would go hungry. While the opera hall ultimately failed to draw well-known acts, Mrs. Walker was usually good for a few hymns on a slow weeknight.
The Walker family hired a cousin and former logger, William Laughead, to lead marketing for the Red River Lumber Company. In 1914, Laughead made Paul Bunyan the companys mascot. He elaborated on the stories hed heard about Bunyan in timber camps and printed them in pamphlets sent out with shipments of lumber. Laughead named Bunyans ox, Babe, and invented Johnny Inkslinger, Sourdough Sam, and many other characters. He combined the face of a local foreman with the mustache of one of the French Canadian cooks at the mess hall to create the portrait of Bunyan he used to illustrate the stories. Besides a poem written about Paul Bunyan for a Detroit newspaper two years earlier, no known written record of Paul Bunyan existed before Laughead put Bunyan to work as a shill for timber.
By 1940, the Red River Lumber Company had printed eleven editions of Paul Bunyan stories, totaling tens of thousands of copies. People wrote to Westwood from around the world requesting the stories. Laugheads work publicizing Red River Lumber was so successful that a minister of propaganda in the Soviet Union reportedly requested copies of the pamphlet to use as a model for his own work.
As the Walker family had created Westwood, so it engineered the towns death as well. When the opulent stands of sugar pine surrounding Mount Lassen had nothing left to give, the family sold the mill to a fruit-crate-making company and left town. Two years later, the cardboard box was invented, throwing the crate company out of business. By 1957, Westwoods population had plunged from 10,000 to fewer than 200 people. Families picked up and moved, boarding up houses and abandoning dogs. Once again Westwood made the record books as the Guinness Book of World Records cited Westwood as the town with the most dogs per capita.
Some observers of Westwoods history are not as generous as De Martim prey about the towns bucolic past. They mention 1917, when 50 million board feet of pine went up in flames, rumored to be a casualty of an I.W.W. protest. They point to the 1938 riot, when hundreds of men took picks and axes to each other on the towns wooden sidewalks and gravel streets in an effort to join the union and resist a 17.5 percent pay cut. It may have been difficult for the immigrant workers relegated to the shanty Pinetown bordering Westwood to ignore the Walker Mansion with its trophy room festooned with the spoils of African safaris. It may have galled some of the towns workers to be asked to clear a wide strip of timber up the mountain so that the Walker family would have a clear view from their sunroom of Mount Lassens eruption. Some residents of Westwood may have resented being paid with scrip which was only accepted in Walker-approved businesses carrying Walker-approved merchandise at Walker-approved prices.
But Walker cynicism is a minority view in todays Westwood. Today the towns 2,000 inhabitants rely on tourism, the state prison in Susanville, and the mill in Chester to provide their livelihoods. And each summer Westwood holds a Paul Bunyan festival with blues music and logging competitions.