The Standard Crew: Little Mill Town’s History of Friendship

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls December 15, 2014 11:50
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Four of the Crew are among nine friends shown. All are former Pickering workers. Back row: Robert McBride, Larry Freeman, Don Noonan, Bill Camacho, Bob Williams and John Hazelton. Front row: Henry Gonzales, Gary Salazar and Tom Barajas.

There once was a little mill town along the two-lane road that connects Highway 108 and Tuolumne Road a few miles east of Sonora.

This was the town of Standard, and it was the center of the universe for a group of boys who became lifelong friends – known then and now as the Standard Crew.

They grew up together during the 1940s and ’50s in and around what was a company town, its houses built for employees of the Standard Lumber Co. Together the boys went to Curtis Creek School and Sonora High School, hunted and fished, worked in the mill, raised the occasional ruckus and even entered the service.

The town, at least as it once was, no longer exists. But the Crew’s eight members are alive and kicking – and remain fast friends. Those who still live in the area get together for lunch or dinner once a week, and the whole crew gathers at different locations for annual reunions.

“We talk about what we did as kids,” says Tom Barajas, 79, one of the keepers of the flame.

Barajas and John Hazelton still live within a couple miles of Standard. Fellow crewmen Jewel Kelly and Robert McBride have also stayed in the county. Four of the old friends strayed farther: Merlin Fouts lives in far Northern California, Bob Williams in Idaho, Charlie Grossi in Oregon and Glenn Usrey in Washington.

All are within a couple years of Barajas in age, and all worked in the mill or the woods at one time or another. Time and economics took some of them to other locales and other jobs, including construction, mining and propane delivery. Williams and Usrey stayed in the lumber industry, though not in Standard.

Wives are included when the Standard Crew gets together, but they march to their own drummer.

“The guys get together, and the girls disappear,” said Barajas’ wife, Edna, the Crew’s unofficial historian and an avid collector of Standard memorabilia.

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Curtis Creek classmates, late 1940s

Tom Barajas’ family came to Standard in the early 1920s and lived there until a mill shutdown brought on by the Depression. The family returned about five years later and stayed until 1975. In 1974, Fibreboard decided to shut the town down rather than incur the high cost of maintaining the old houses, updating water and electrical systems, and having the homes hooked up to a new regional sewer system.

The houses were snapped up for bargain prices and then trucked away to various locations – most notably Blue Bell Valley off Tuolumne Rd.

It was a sad time for the Crew members, who carried happy memories of “a nice town, a fun place to grow up,” Barajas says. “Everybody knew each other.”

“Those were some of the best years of our lives,” Williams agrees. “Back in those days we didn’t have what kids have today, but there were no unhappy kids in Standard.”

Some of the buildings still stand. The mill’s old office is now a restaurant, the railroad depot is an organic food store, the fire house is a coffee bar and the company hospital – where McBride was born – houses a flooring center and a nonprofit agency.

The old community hall, a bit north of the office building, was torn down years ago and the adjoining post office and grocery store burned down. The community church building is still in use by a congregation.

But there used to be more … much more.

“We didn’t need to go into Sonora,” Barajas says. “We had everything we needed right here. We had our own store, post office, barber shop, doctor, restaurant and car wash … we’d wash our cars with our girlfriends and drink beer.”

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Barajas with Standard memorabilia

The well-stocked company store even offered scrip to tide families over if they ran short of cash. The store also, according to Hazelton, would shanghai the occasional worker.

“I was walking past the company store one day,” Hazelton recalls, “and the guy inside said, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ‘Seventeen and a half.’

“He said, ‘You’re 18, and you now work for the company store.’ And so I did … 95 cents an hour, six days a week, nine hours a day.”

The town also had a mechanical repair shop, a boarding house for mill workers, and a community hall that doubled as a union hall. Houses lined Standard Road, and more were on dirt back streets that still are visible among the weeds and trees. A small blue community wading pool also survives, although decades have passed since children splashed away summer days there.

“Most people don’t even know there was a town there,” Barajas says. “Most of the people here are new people. They think it was always just what it is now.”

The mill and its town lived through strikes and fires, and even survived the Crew’s own hijinks. To a man, Crew members invoke their right against self-incrimination, but admit to a few boys-will-be-boys incidents in those much simpler times.

“They used to have beer at the union meetings and the Boy Scouts would also meet at the union hall,” McBride recounts. “We’d steal the beer, and when we had enough beer, we’d take a little camping trip.”

Grossi remembers the occasional foamy faux pas, too. “We’d go out on the back roads, and sometimes the cops would come and pour out our beer,” he says. “Or we’d have a couple six-packs, and they’d keep it. They’d tell us to go home and take the girls home and ‘don’t let us catch you out again tonight.’  ”

Barajas says law enforcement didn’t always prevail. “There were only three or four highway patrolmen in Tuolumne County then (in the mid-1950s), and they used to chase us once in a while, but most of the time we were able to get away.”

Hazelton recalls one particularly ill-fated expedition. “We went up to Lambert Lake (off Tuolumne Road), and somebody threw a bunch of .22 shells into the fire. You talk about ducking. We never went camping with that guy again.”

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Tom Barajas (center) in box factory, 1950s

Barajas remembers hopping a logging train with his pals and riding up to Ralph’s Station (at Tuolumne and Soulsbyville roads), then walking home. He says his late brother, Robert, nearly fell off once but was saved by a class ring that caught on the railcar hardware.

Hopping from log to log in the millpond on weekends was another popular, if inadvisable, pastime. “I fell off one time and couldn’t swim,” Barajas says. “Some older kids pulled me out or I would have drowned.”

During the Crew’s tenure in town – although no responsibility is admitted – company gas containers were siphoned, grapes were stolen from Mr. Cavalieri’s vines out near the highway (“He’d sic his dogs on us,” Barajas says), Standard Road was blocked with garbage bins, and street lights were shot out with BB guns and peashooters on Halloween.

“It’s a wonder we survived, some of the dumb things we did,” Hazelton says.

Life in Standard wasn’t all pranks and adventures. There were dances in the community hall and, Williams says, “We did a lot of family things on weekends.”

Still, the Crew gained a reputation over time, deserved or otherwise. “You didn’t trust anybody from Standard to go out with your girls,” laughs Hazelton.

“People said stuff about us … I was totally amazed,” McBride grins. “I didn’t know I was that bad a guy.”

“It was probably blown out of proportion,” offers Kelly.

Eight women nonetheless consented to become the Crew’s better halves, and they now chuckle at the memories.

Edna (Edmonds) Barajas: “I heard how wild they were and not to have anything to do with them. I said, ‘You’d never catch me dead with one of them.’ ”

Carole (Garrett) Hazelton: “I moved up from the valley and didn’t know, and I married one of them. He was the first one I went out with who could dance.”

Barbara (Burford) McBride: “I married him against everybody’s better judgment, but it’s been good.”

Caroline (Baker) Fouts: “I was told absolutely not to marry anyone in logging, and I’ve done 52 years – plus a year-and-a-half of going together.

“They’re better off,” she adds, “because of their women.”

The nature of the town may have given the Crew its name.

“They’d be called a gang today,” Carole Hazelton says, “but the lumber company had the crews.”

Crew members graduated from Curtis Creek, at the time a two-story building near what is today the north entrance to the current school, in 1950 and ’51, and from Sonora High, where they played a variety of sports and stuck together like glue, in 1955 and ’56.

“When we got to high school, we were the guys from this little mill town,” McBride says. “We were pretty small guys, and we bonded together for self-protection.”

Not long after high school, some of the crew joined a National Guard unit posted at the time to Columbia.

“We got drafted because we missed too many meetings,” Barajas recalled. The rest of the Crew, plus a few more buddies, joined the Army the same day and were sent to Fort Ord near Monterey in December 1956.

After the Crew’s town was scattered to the wind, Edna Barajas, who worked at Curtis Creek Elementary School for 32 years as an aide and custodian, became determined to preserve the legacy of Standard.

“I had to keep it alive,” she says.

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Part of Edna Barajas’ collection

In the Barajas’ hilltop home north of the town, she keeps the “Standard Wall.” On it are photos of old Standard buildings and logging trains, plus curiosities like Pickering ashtrays, company scrip tokens, pay and receipt books, a Pickering office stapler and an old sign from the cashier’s window at the company pay office.

She has books of class photos from the Crew’s years at Curtis Creek, a copy of a specialty newspaper called the “Standard Issue” detailing a notorious town murder, and her husband’s helmet and badges from his time with the town’s volunteer fire department. She has acquired these treasures in various ways, including browsing at out-of-town antique shows.

“People say I should stop, but it’s hard for me to stop collecting,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed the hunt.”

Members of the Crew fondly recall their time in Standard, and continue to appreciate each other’s company all these decades later.

“It was a good place to grow up … we had a lot of fun,” McBride says. “We’re just real good friends. We’ve been friends our whole lives.”

 

Standard’s Hardworking History

The town of Standard, five miles east of Sonora, has roots that go back more than a century. Already the operator of mills in Sonora and in the mountains to the east, the Standard Lumber Co. in 1909 bought the Fassler Dairy and began building a company town that would accommodate its new lumber operation.

According to archaeologist and Standard researcher Shelly Davis-King, a post office was established the next year, and by 1912 the company had built 30 cottages, plus a two-story apartment house for bachelors, to accommodate the sawmill’s growing workforce. More houses were added as the years went by, and during the company’s heyday in the 1920s, there were more than 100.

The Standard operation was bought by Pickering Lumber Co. in 1921 and eventually grew into a comprehensive operation that included a plywood mill and a factory that turned out wooden boxes for fruit growers throughout the West. At its height, nearly 800 may have worked at Pickering’s various divisions.

During the Great Depression, the mill shut down for several years, but reopened in 1937 with an improving economy. Tom Barajas estimates that 400 to 500 people lived in Standard while he was growing up there in the 1940s and ’50s.

The operation has changed hands several times over its 115 years. Jim Costello, an executive and manager at the mill from 1971 to 1995, detailed the chain of ownership: Pickering sold to a consortium of Fibreboard Corp. and the Yuba River Lumber Co. in 1965. Three years later, Fibreboard bought out Yuba River’s interest and became sole owner.

In 1978, Louisiana-Pacific acquired Fibreboard and took over. But a decade later, L-P spun off Fibreboard as a separate corporation that included the Tuolumne County plant. Sierra Pacific Industries, the current owner, bought the operation in 1995.

Davis-King reports that Standard had 73 houses when ownership passed to Fibreboard in ’65. Both she and former Curtis Creek School teacher and administrator Dave Mortensen say 54 of those houses survived when the company in 1974 decided to shut down the town. The homes were sold at $500 apiece to anyone able to move them off the site.

Mortensen chronicled the move-out with a Curtis Creek School photography class in 1974-’75.

Homes that didn’t sell, says Davis-King, “were splintered and burned.” By November of 1976, she adds, the town’s former residential area “was basically open pasture.”

Today a new Standard has emerged. Some of the old buildings have been repurposed for commercial use, and new buildings house other businesses and offices, including the Area 12 Agency on Aging.

 

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls December 15, 2014 11:50
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3 Comments

  1. Pete September 7, 09:08

    My father , Pedro Ybarra, and my uncle Silvano Maciel worked for Pickering and lived in Standard. My dad would tell me stories about the men ( Harry Hill, Camacho, Barajas, Perez) . We moved from their in the 50’s. My uncle worked their until he retired.

  2. Pete September 9, 09:25

    My dad, Pedro “Pete” Ybarra died in 1997 and my uncle, Silvano Maciel died in 2006. Are any of the men pictured or their wives still living?

  3. JR August 17, 21:46

    I found a Pickering Lumber Ashtray at a local thrift store in WA state. I plan on selling it on my Etsy shop very soon. Let me know if anyone is interested in it.

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