Landmark 1939 building will be home to forest, fire workers

Grayback restores Seneca lodge

SENECA - The old Seneca boarding house is returning to its roots as housing for workers in the forest industry.

"We're restoring it to its original purpose, when it was a home for millworkers and loggers," said Dave Hannibal, Grayback Forestry Inc.'s base manager in John Day.

With the final inspections set for this week, the building this month will become home to Grayback workers who fight fires and work in the woods on thinning, piling, burning and other projects.

Hannibal said he expects to have about 25 workers living there nine months of the year. It could accommodate up to 40 at peak use.

"Our national crew - 5 Bravo - will be stationed here," he said.

The building was built in 1939 as worker housing for the Edward Hines Lumber Co. Since the closure of the mill, it's been mothballed, sold, transformed into a residence and informal bed and breakfast as the Bearcat Lodge, and shuttered again.

The building was a vacant foreclosure property last year, when Grayback officials began looking at it. The Merlin-based company, one of the largest private firefighting companies in the nation, was busting at the seams at its John Day base and needed to expand.

The addition of the Seneca property made sense, and company owner Mike Wheelock was enthusiastic about the possibilities.

"It's very central to our work for at least the next five years," Hannibal said.

Grayback is seeing a lot of work on the south end of the Malheur Forest as its Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program funding kicks in. Grayback also partners with Iron Triangle for work in the 10-year stewardship contract, participates in the Blue Mountains Forest Partners collaborative group, and does work for the Silvies Valley Ranch.

Hannibal said the shift in forestry and the accelerated pace of restoration stemming from collaboration are significant.

"Without the collaborative on the forest, this would not be happening," he said of the lodge revival. "Businesses have to have reasonable expectations that the work will go on into the future."

Hannibal said the company did its due diligence in Seneca and came in with eyes open as to the amount of work the building needed. The deal closed last fall.

The John Day property will continue to house Grayback's local headquarters and main base of operations, but Hannibal expects to have about one quarter of his workforce stationed in Seneca.

"It will give us some breathing room in John Day," he said.

Grayback has put some $250,000 into the building to bring it up to code, clearing water out of the basement and installing fire sprinkler and alarm systems.

The building had no insulation - "in Seneca, no less," Hannibal noted - but in the old days, the mill provided abundant heat through its output of steam.

To insulate the building, they had to drill more than 3,000 holes in the outer walls and then plug them when the job was done.

Still to do is one major project: re-siding the building. In addition, a porchlike enclosure once noted as home to the former owners' bobcats will be refurbished and screened off as an outdoor picnic area for the crews to use.

Inside, the lodge has mostly single rooms but some dormitory-style rooms to hold four people; the latter will be used to transition in new employees or at fire season peaks.

While modern amenities - microwave ovens, small refrigerators and TVs - have been added, Hannibal said he's trying to maintain the flavor of the building's history.

For example, floors throughout the building have been sanded and retreated, but the work carefully retained the distressed surface bearing the pockmarks of loggers' caulk boots - "corks" - from years past.

Also retained are the original transom vents over the doors.

Hannibal said the beds will soon have peeled pole frames, manufactured on site.

A room used by the former owner as a bar is being transformed into a training room, and there will be a large area for communal dining. The crews will eat firehouse style, with cooking duties rotating among the hands. Hannibal said the rent will be affordable, but "a fairly large set of behavior rules will go along with this."

"This is not going to be 'Animal House,'" he said.

Helping to ensure that will be the presence of the site manager, Darrin Lucas, and experienced crew bosses who will bunk down at the lodge.

The building also has offices for administration, and a larger bedroom suite for use by the owner and other visitors.

Hannibal said he's tried to have as much work as possible done by contractors from Harney and Grant counties - although some projects, like the alarm system, required an outside firm.

Hannibal said that while the crews will be relatively self-contained at the lodge, he expects the gas station market and the restaurant in Seneca could reap economic benefits from their new neighbors.

Grayback, like other forest-related businesses in the area, is continually hiring. Hannibal likes to hire locally, but said the need exceeds the capacity of the local labor force.

He's pleased that over the years some workers from elsewhere have settled here to raise their families. And other workers come with deep roots in the community.

"We have some people whose dads and grandfathers worked from this building," he said.

  

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