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California and the West

Company Town Will Be Going, Going . . .

History: Coastal village that was long home to lumber workers is to be auctioned off. Saddened longtime residents fondly recall better days.

September 08, 2000|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAMOA, Calif. — Perched on a narrow spit of land between the Pacific and Humboldt Bay, forlorn under a blanket of North Coast fog, this lumber-mill town is up for sale--all 100 houses and a whole lot of history.

For better than a century, Samoa has served as home to generation upon generation of millwrights and sawyers and shift superintendents, and their wives and kids. But come next Friday, the 60-acre village will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The current owner, a Seattle-based timber firm that does not want to be a landlord, is getting considerable interest.

To many of the community's 300 or so residents--all of them renters, half of them remnants of Samoa's faded era as a thriving company town--the sale seems like the death of elderly kinfolk, an economically inevitable tragedy to be met more with sad resignation than anger.

Lost forever, they fear, will be the sort of small-town intimacy missing behind the gates and automatic garage doors of modern suburbia. In Samoa, most folks still wave from front porches, kids still walk to school and nobody can remember the last time a crime took place.

"It's been a lumber town so long I just hate to see it go that way, up on the auction block," lamented Dolores Weatherbee, 70, a Samoa resident for the last 55 years. "It used to be like one big family around here."

But community leaders along the North Coast, where the flagging fortunes of timber and fishing have kept the region's economy teetering for two decades, see hope for a rebirth of sorts with the sale of Samoa.

Some think it just might be remade as a sort of "new economy" company town.

Surrounded by moribund industrial land, located right across the bay from the reviving city of Eureka and 7,300-student Humboldt State University, Samoa is being promoted as a community where firms could put down roots just steps from a historic housing enclave that resembles a quaint New England fishing village.

"What we could end up with is the resurrection of the old company-town concept," said Kirk Girard, Humboldt County planning director. "If we can pull off something good in Samoa, it would have a tremendous impact around here."

Interest has been keen, with 75 requests for bid packages, said John Rosenthal, president of Portland, Ore.-based Realty Marketing Northwest, which is handling the auction. A minimum purchase price has been set at $1.75 million, but most folks figure the town will go for more.

Though the mill is largely dismantled, the winning bidder will get an aged but authentic lumber town.

There is the ornate 24,000-square-foot commercial building known as the Samoa Block. Once home to company headquarters as well as a soda fountain and general store, the two-story structure is being pitched as a spot for artists' lofts or small professional firms.

Just up a hill is an 11-room Victorian hostelry that for years has served as a guest house for visiting timber executives and might live again as a choice site for a bed and breakfast.

And on a knoll overlooking the harbor is the renowned Samoa Cookhouse, an authentic lumber camp chow hall that in recent decades has become a tourist trap serving 115,000 rib-sticking meals a year.

There isn't much else to the town. It has no mayor, no stores. The gas station closed decades ago. The lone centers of community life these days are the tiny post office and the 90-student Peninsula Elementary School.

That's a far cry from its heyday, when Samoa was among scores of company towns that thrived across the country, from the timberlands of the Pacific Northwest to the coal fields of Pennsylvania and hydro-plants of the West.

Though originally promoted by land speculators in 1893 as the Coney Island of the Pacific, Samoa quickly turned to timber. Hammond Lumber presided over the mills through the Depression and World War II, then sold the town to Georgia-Pacific. Samoa then spun off to Louisiana-Pacific in 1973.

Two years ago, Simpson Timber Co. acquired the town almost as an afterthought while purchasing a huge swath of redwoods from Louisiana-Pacific.

"We more or less backed into owning it," said Tom Elfers, controller for Simpson's timber operations in Northern California. "We were negotiating on 70,000 acres of timber, and the town became part of the deal."

Elfers said the Seattle-based company isn't in the business of running a town and quickly came to appreciate the complexities of such an operation.

Though all the houses are rented out and returning more than $500,000 in annual income, Simpson has been hit by big bills. The company spent more than $400,000 getting the town unhitched from the electrical grid feeding a nearby wood pulp mill, a setup that had caused periodic blackouts in Samoa--and scads of phone calls to Simpson offices.

Facing other hefty costs, such as getting natural gas lines into town and upgrading the antiquated sewer system at a cost of more than $1 million, the company decided to sell.

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