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Timber has replaced pastures in Harlan, but only hobby mills remain

By KYLE ODEGARD

COrvallis gazette-times

HARLAN - Gene Cooper's pickup bounced along a gravel path and he pointed to a section of his heavily forested spread off Burnt Woods Road.

"This used to be hayfields," said the 87-year-old retired logger.

When Cooper and his wife Jessie first arrived in Harlan in 1947, ferns and grasses covered many hillsides. Most have been replanted with Douglas fir trees.

Because of the change, ranchers such as Sterling Grant have had to take their livestock out of the Big Elk valley to areas like Alsea and Toledo. "Wherever we can find pasture," Grant said. "The country's changed a lot just in my short lifetime," the 51-year-old said.

With his white paintbrush mustache, Grant even looks the part of the cowboy. But it's gotten harder to earn a buck, so he's been driving truck to help make ends meet.

There used to be commercial mills in every canyon near Harlan in the 1940s and 1950s, Cooper said but, ironically, now that the hills are more covered in timber, those have disappeared.

Cooper said improved roads have been a double-edged sword. The routes used to be pure muck in the winter and dust in the summertime. Getting to town (that's Corvallis he's talking about) isn't an all-day affair anymore. But logs can be easily hauled elsewhere, too, especially with modern rigs.

Now there are only one-man hobby mills, such as Cooper's. He's out there about six hours a day, despite his age and a major saw accident four years ago. Cooper got his leg caught and the saw cut the toes off his left foot. He joked that he "whittled" on himself a bit.

Although he was bleeding and scared, Cooper didn't see much point in waiting more than a half-hour for emergency personnel. So he drove himself to the hospital in Corvallis. "I never considered an ambulance. That's too expensive," he said.

Living in the countryside means locals sometimes have to be double tough.

Cooper's especially proud that he milled the lumber local volunteers used to build the additions for local churches in Harlan and near Blodgett.

He pushed a button and a saw buzzed to life, cutting through a log and spitting sawdust to create a 1-by-12 board, which he placed on a stack.

"Everybody in this country," Cooper smiled, moments later, "has got a few of my boards on their property."

Kyle Odegard can be contacted at kyle.odegard@lee.net or 758-9523.

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