Make the McKenzie Connection!

Stewart Holbrook preserved the spirit of mid-century Oregon

Ninety-eight years ago, in a logging camp deep in the forests of British Columbia, a logger in a funny hat walked up to a big stump, an ax in his hand.

Taking off the hat - it was a battered bowler, an old-fashioned dandy's hat even in 1923 - he laid it on the stump, set a nail in it, and drove it in.

Then he turned and walked away. Probably he walked straight to the logging locomotive for his last ride into town. Nailing the hat to the stump was a symbolic act - Stewart H. Holbrook was quitting the logging business forever.

For Holbrook, the hat was an especially significant object, and if he'd thought more about it he probably would have realized he really wanted to keep it. He had bought it three years earlier in Boston, where he had found himself at loose ends and with some money in his pocket. He'd used the money to buy two things: The derby (brand-new, from the Jordan Marsh Emporium) and a round-trip ticket to British Columbia. He'd planned on a nice scenic train trip, a little time wandering around seeing the enormous trees he kept hearing about, and another nice scenic trip home.

If it sounds a bit weird to book a cross-continental train trip just to see some trees, well, it wasn't for Holbrook. Timber was practically in his blood. He was born in a timber town - Newport, Vt., pop. 5,000.

This was river-pig country, and every small boy growing up in Newport wanted to be one of the brave, brawny men who worked the great log drives down the Connecticut River. Holbrook was no exception.

In high school, Holbrook worked summers in the logging camps that his father operated. When he was 18, the family moved to Winnipeg, and he didn't bother finishing high school; instead, he took a job as a cub reporter for the local newspaper, played on a minor-league baseball team, and made a little extra money on the Vaudeville stage as a yodeler.

One thing led to another, and a few months later, Yodelin' Holbrook had joined a traveling stock-theatre troupe, the Harry St. Clair Stock Company. Holbrook later characterized this as "the worst dramatic stock company an amused God ever permitted to roam."

It must have been a decent enough outfit, though, because one of the other members was a young Boris Karloff. But Harry St. Clair himself was an old rascal of the first water. He insisted on playing all the male romantic leads himself (although he was 71 years old) while Stewart played supporting roles. It was exasperating and sometimes embarrassing; but, that was the job, and it was a living.

Until one day it wasn't. A year after Holbrook joined, Harry St. Clair dissolved the company through the simple expedient of disappearing in the night with the cash box, leaving his players flat and unpaid to make their way home as best they could.

Shortly thereafter the U.S. joined the First World War, and Holbrook enlisted. Over the next couple years he rose to the rank of first sergeant. He fought in the trenches in France, and between military activities he wrote, directed, and acted in plays for the troops over there.

Back stateside after the war ended, Holbrook achieved his childhood ambition of working as a river pig on one of the last great log drives on the Connecticut River.

That was probably where he got the money that he spent on the derby hat and the tree-viewing ticket, that day in 1920. It would change his life forever.

When Stewart Holbrook arrived in British Columbia, he found his new derby hat was an object of considerable interest among the locals there. Such headgear was common for loggers to wear when coming to town to "blow 'er in" in the Northeast woods, but not on the West Coast.

"I think that at that time, in 1920, it was the only derby hat in all the province," he wrote, in a 1931 article in The American Mercury. "I had noticed people on the street looking at it. It got me the job, anyway."

By which he means, when he interviewed for a job on a logging crew in the B.C. woods, the owner found his headgear so amusing that he decided to offer him the job.

Some time later, Holbrook decided he was here to stay. He rode the logging locomotive on its next trip into town and cashed in his return ticket.

Over the next three years, he did a little of everything: scaling logs, supervising fallers and buckers, setting chokers, serving as camp medic, and so on.

He spent a lot of time in the camp chatting up the loggers, too. Holbrook was the kind of guy who could, and would, talk to anyone. And he used the stories he heard in articles that he started submitting, under the by-line "Hols Holbrook," to various lumber-industry magazines.

By 1923 he was making more money writing than he was logging, and the time it required was cutting into his duties.

The tipping point - the log that broke the camel's back, if you will - came when The Century magazine purchased his article "The Bull-Cook: When He Rings the Gong the Boys Have to Get up" for 100 American dollars. That was the equivalent of a little shy of $1,600 in 2021 currency.

That's when he decided to nail the old derby to a stump and come to town for good.

He picked Portland for his new home because it had the best library, in his opinion, on the West Coast. Plus, it was smack in the middle of logging country.

Upon arrival, he got a job as an associate editor of 4-L Lumber News. This was the official publication of the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen, a government-sponsored loggers' union created during the First World War as an alternative to the more radical International Workers of the World union - the Wobblies.

This job more or less completed the apprenticeship of Stewart Holbrook as the premier voice of the American Mid-Century Timberman. For the next several years, he traveled all over the Pacific Northwest, interviewing loggers and lumbermen, learning about local stories and legends, and channeling it all into Lumber News.

Lumber News didn't pay very well. Holbrook augmented his salary with freelance articles that went out to a growing list of regional and national publications: tony "slicks" like The Century, Sunset, The American Mercury, and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as tawdry "pulps" like Startling Detective. Still, money was always pretty tight.

He became a regular in The American Mercury, a magazine that paid rather poorly but was a true prestige title. "To write for The Merc in the '20s and '30s," he later wrote, "meant that you had Arrived."

In 1924 he married Katherine Gill, the program director for Portland radio station KOIN. This was very early in the era of radio broadcasting, long before the Federal Radio Commission was formed; recordkeeping wasn't very strict, and stations were always hungry for content, so it's very likely some of Holbrook's work found its way onto her radio station.

In 1928 his work started appearing in The Portland Morning Oregonian, and didn't stop appearing there until his death. He never held a staff position there - they paid him as a freelancer; but that seems to have worked out well for him. According to historian Brian Booth, for at least one month during the Depression years he made more money than the publisher did.

A lot of work that Holbrook did for The Oregonian ended up being rewritten, spiced up a little, and submitted to The American Mercury.

By this time Holbrook had more or less found his favorite topic. He was going to write about the people mainstream historians and community boosters found uninteresting or embarrassing. Not the brave pioneers and pious missionaries of the Oregon Trail, or the daring captains of industry, but ordinary people and local characters - loggers, of course, but also steel workers, Wobblies, communists, prostitutes, sailors, shanghaiers, and anyone else who led an interesting life. Holbrook was especially interested in characters whom the "stuffed shirts" found embarrassing.

In other words, as he put it, his was a philosophy of "low-brow history."

In combination with his witty writing style and amazing production rate - he was one of those writers who can belt out 5,000 high-quality words a day - this quickly propelled him to national prominence.

In 1935 he was named editor of Oregon: End of the Trail, one of the Works Progress Administration's American Guide Series, featuring the work of 50 Oregon writers. The project was something of an exercise in herding cats, but it deepened even further Holbrook's understanding of the Pacific Northwest in general, and Oregon in particular.

Stewart Holbrook created his first full-on hardcover book in 1938, nearly 20 years after he first started publishing his work. Throughout those 20 years, he'd been waiting for someone to publish a book about loggers, and he finally realized that someone was going to have to be himself.

The result was Holy Old Mackinaw: A Natural History of the American Lumberjack.

The book was a huge success. Over the years, it went through 17 printings comprising a good 200,000 copies, and it pretty much cemented Holbrook's national reputation as the guy editors looked to for articles and information about logging. Someone coined the term "The Lumberjack Boswell" for him, and it stuck.

He and Kay moved to Massachusetts for a few years so Holbrook could more easily follow up on this new twist on his literary career.

Over the next four years he cranked out five more books: Let Them Live (about industrial accidents); Iron Brew (about the steel industry); Ethan Allen (an irreverent take on the Revolutionary War hero); Murder Out Yonder (one of the world's first true-crime titles); and None More Courageous: American War Heroes of Today (written during the Second World War).

Late in the war years he moved back to the Northwest to run the new "Keep Washington Green" fire-prevention campaign, the first of its kind, which ended up being used as a model for similar programs in other states.

In 1947 Kay died, and a year later Holbrook married Sybil Walker. By that time, he'd moved back to Portland, where he not only lived for the remarkably productive remainder of his life, but became plugged into the community to an unusual degree.

"From the end of World War II until his death in 1964, Holbrook was perhaps the best-known personality in the Pacific Northwest," historian Booth writes. "The press covered his books, his travels, his views on current issues, and the famous people who came to Portland to visit the Holbrooks."

During those years, he published about a dozen more, all full-length, thoroughly researched books.

Lost Men of American History, from 1946, kind of set the tone for his postwar output. It was a collection of profiles of "mavericks, malcontents, unorthodox thinkers - men and women who were going against the wind and tide," he wrote; people who had contributed important elements to history and to America, but whom history had sort of overlooked, or forgotten.

Which is ironic, because Holbrook himself has been largely forgotten by history. When he died of a stroke in 1964, at the age of 71, he was Portland's most celebrated literary figure; people mentioned his name along with those of writers like Lincoln Steffens and Theodore Dreiser, and of humorists like Will Rogers and Groucho Marx. His regular writings in The Oregonian kept everyone well acquainted with his witty, avuncular, eccentric style - historian Booth calls him a "24-carat character." Later in his life, he took up painting as a hobby, and invented a "modern artist" named Mr. Otis whom he claimed he was representing; in reality, it was Holbrook himself, wearing a French beret and painting in a style that was, as Booth puts it, something like a fusion of Grandma Moses and Salvador Dali. These canvases, much to Holbrook's  surprise, soon started selling, and they're highly prized today.

But, within a couple decades of Holbrook's death, Oregon became a different place. The population grew rapidly as out-of-staters discovered it; the timber industry imploded, a victim of a combination of sawmill automation and environmental regulations exacerbated by a legacy of decades of irresponsible overharvesting. Although Holbrook was one of the earliest Oregon conservationists - you can see his influence clearly in the policies of Governor Tom McCall, especially in his notorious "visit but don't stay" remarks - by the mid-1980s he was no longer a perfect fit for a state that had more or less moved into the postmodern era.

But any time a modern Oregonian wants a taste of the Golden Age, Holbrook's books and stories are a pretty good portal back into a simpler time in Oregon. He's preserved for us the life stories and the folklore of ordinary people from a time that's gone, and never coming back.

(Sources: Wildmen, Wobblies & Whistle Punks, an anthology of Holbrook's writings edited by Brian Booth and published in 1992 by Oregon State University Press; The Far Corner, a book by Stewart Holbrook published in 1952 by Macmillan; The American Mercury, March 1931; The Century, July and September 1926)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222. 


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