A Short History of Christmas in an Oregon Logging Camp

It was a few years before Pearl Harbor in the lush and bountiful Hood River Valley. A few years later, in one of the most amoral events in modern Oregon history, many residents of the area would dispossess their friends, neighbors—fellow American citizens—of their orchards, homes, businesses and identities, and applaud their forced relocation to concentration camps.

That amorality has never been satisfactorily rectified, in apology or reparations, but that is another story to tell and it isn’t a short one.

Before American entered World War II, a married couple from the valley lived inside a canvas tent in the woods. They were residents of a logging camp. He was a tree feller for a gyppo logging outfit. She was the camp cook. She whipped up delicious squirrel stews and fried up juicy elk steaks.

His name was Melvin and her name was Katie. Their last name was Green. They were teenage sweethearts who never attended high school because there wasn’t any need for such higher education. There was a need for workers so they went to work and began their hardscrabble way in the world.

It wouldn’t take long for the Greens to make a name for themselves in the valley. News of hard work gets around. In time, Melvin joined with his three brothers to form Green Brothers Logging. Similar Oregon families from that era, from Glendale to Garibaldi, Bend to Brookings, Mulino to Medford, Coquille to Condon, did the same. They were all prototypes for the Stampers in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion.

Yes, the Greens would flourish, but first they had to survive.

Melvin and Katie lived in the tent for two years, yes winters, too, in the foothills of the Cascade Range in and around the Mt. Hood National Forest, near Timberline Lodge, built by the WPA New Deal boys during the Great Depression. President Roosevelt came out to dedicate it and gave a charming speech.

FDR said:

I am very keen about travel, not only personally—you know that—but also about travel for as many Americans as can possibly afford it, because those Americans will be getting to know their own country better; and the more they see of it, the more they will realize the privileges which God and nature have given to the American people.

So, I take very great pleasure in dedicating this Lodge, not only as a new adjunct of our National Forests, but also as a place to play for generations of Americans in the days to come.

Wasn’t it great when America used to build grand public places like Timberline Lodge? Why can’t America build such places today. That too, is another long story, an endless epitaph of a novel.

Melvin felled trees on public land that were milled in Oregon. There were old growth forests still around back then, millions of acres of gigantic conifers. You know, trees so big that only one would fit on a log truck. Five and Dimes used to sell post cards of the image.

These were interesting, rugged, taciturn men, these loggers from this era, before logging became a mechanized and corporate mass destruction of watersheds and all its creatures. Sometimes for the sheer helluva it, these loggers would leave a remote and ancient grove of cedar, Douglas fir or Sitka Spruce alone, never realizing what those stands would mean to future Oregonians. Go see for yourself in God’s Valley or the Opal Creek Wilderness and admire these living monoliths. There, you might ask why people ever turned away from nature as God and looked to superstitious monotheism and its cruel hierarchies.

The loggers never thought they’d run out of large trees. They did. And the fight to save the last of them would later tear the state apart. The gap has never been bridged.

Christmas was coming to the logging camp and there was no better time for an O Henry “Gift of the Magi” moment for a present exchange between the Greens. Well, nothing except for the Greens were flat broke and had nothing to barter to raise a few dollars to buy simple gifts.

But they both knew something magical would come to them. It usually does when you’re in love, destitute in pocket but not in spirit, and collaborating on a dream.

A day before Christmas Melvin brought down a colossal Doug fir and found a baby spotted owl dazed and confused in a nearby snow bank.

He picked up the owl and warmed it with his breath. He put it in his pocket and headed back to camp. This was going to be Katie’s gift. They’d nurse the owl back to health and then set him free and have a Christmas story for the ages. Melvin named the critter Kris Kringle.

Katie had no idea what to get Melvin for Christmas. She was searching through yarn in her hope chest. Perhaps she would knit Melvin a scarf. She spotted a cherished coil of red satin and instantly changed her mind.

It was almost time for Melvin to return to camp. Katie stoked a fire in the stove, seasoned a venison chili bubbling in a kettle. She lit some bear grease candles around the tent and they cast a flickering glow on the Greens’ tiny Christmas tree decorated with paper chains, strings of popcorn, and wooden ornaments whittled by Melvin. An otter-like elf was Katie’s favorite.

Katie needed only a few minutes to fashion her present. Off went her clothes, on went the present. She had to pirouette to get it all right. Then she climbed under the wool blankets of their double cot and waited for Melvin.

It was now dark outside and light snow began falling on Christmas Eve.

Melvin entered the tent and produced Kris Kringle from his pocket and said Merry Christmas Katie! The owl roused to attention, fluttered up, flew to the tree, and landed on a branch. Katie exclaimed tidings of great joy, but remained under the blankets. As Melvin told her the story, he forked out a slice of venison from the pot, and fed it to Kris. The owl gobbled it up.

It was then that Melvin thought it odd Katie was in bed. She was always preparing supper or tidying up when he returned from the woods.

He asked if she felt okay. She said she did.

Katie threw off the covers with gusto and revealed her naked body wrapped in a red satin bow!

Merry Christmas Melvin! she said.

Melvin didn’t say a word. He just cracked a smile.

It was Christmas Eve in a logging camp in the Oregon woods, and that meant something.

Katie would tell this story for decades and tell it to the family of this author. The author knew one day he would write it up, and luckily lived long enough to do so, only because Melvin saved his life on a joint family camping trip at Lost Lake in the 1970s. The logger saw a neighboring camper’s vicious doberman sprinting toward the unsuspecting author sitting on a stool, whittling. Melvin screamed, sprang into action, grabbed a hatchet, and intercepted the dog before it chomped the author’s face. The dog backed off and Melvin marched up to the neighboring campers with the hatchet in hand. They broke camp and drove away 15 minutes later.