Hurry if you want to see Armstrong Woods; the new owner intends to chop down the entire grove for timber. Or so the Santa Rosa papers reported in the summer of 1908, when Harrison M. LeBaron bought the last 195 acres of the woodlands from the late Colonel Armstrong’s daughter. LeBaron now owned the entire 400+ acres of magnificent redwood forest, and he knew well its value as lumber; someone was earlier hired to “compute the stumpage.”
(RIGHT: Mrs. Bert Jewett of Forestville and her parents visit Armstrong Woods, c. 1909. Photo courtest Sonoma County Library)
It was no surprise that there was a FOR SALE sign on the grove; after all, Col. Armstrong had tried to get the state to buy it for a park in 1891, and a couple of years later, LeBaron had purchased the largest section from another of Armstrong’s heirs. What was different in 1908 was that the public suddenly cared about its future. Letters to the editor appeared, and at the Guerneville Fourth of July celebration that year, almost all speakers dropped the usual patrotic hooey and pleaded for the trees to be saved. The Press Democrat printed the entire flowery speech delivered by Santa Rosa attorney Joseph Berry (“…towering with all the majesty of an Olympian Jove are 400 acres of virgin redwood mostened with the dews of heaven and mantled with garlands of emerald blue…”) which was notable only in its inclusion of a 227 word sentence (!) and that the speaker asked tourists in the audience to contact their legislators and lobby for it to become a state park.
In October came news that State Senator Walter Price (R – Santa Rosa) had promised to present a bill in the next session of the legislature to purchase the grove, conditional on LeBaron delaying logging. LeBaron had signaled months earlier that he would be willing to wait – at least for a while:
A Press Democrat representative talked with Mr. Le Baron on Thursday concerning his purchase. He was asked if the matter of the purchase of the famous grove could be arranged with the idea of its preservation [if] he could be induced to come to terms. He replied that not only would he be glad to do so, but would assist himself in the project. Otherwise he said it would be necessary to cut the trees up into lumber as the investment was to big to allow it to remain idle.
A later article will show this chapter of the Armstrong Woods saga came to an end in 1909, and without looking too far ahead in the story, LeBaron died about five years later, the grove still untouched and its future still unclear. Why didn’t he follow through with his logging threat? Was it just a bluff to frighten conservationists into lobbying for park status?
Gaye LeBaron apparently covered this history only once, in a January 20, 2008 column – now unfortunately behind the Press Democrat’s pay-per-view firewall – but she wrote with some authority; H. M. LeBaron was the grandfather of her husband. Her view is that ancestor LeBaron was “…the new champion for the colonel’s dream…interested in seeing the Fife Creek forest become a nature preserve…” The 1908 and 1909 papers likewise praised his civic-minded protection of the trees (“Mr. LeBaron is a public spirited man, and he desires the progress of Sonoma county and its betterment far more than he does the accumulation of sordid dollars”).
But it should also be weighed that Harrison LeBaron was an astute businessman, and there was little profit to be made in logging the grove at that time. The U.S. economy was still shaking from the bank panic of 1907, so money was tight and the construction industry was at a near standstill, further depressing the already-low price of lumber. And redwood was not considered a valuable wood – it sold for about the same price as Douglas Fir/Oregon Pine. One of the articles below revealed that the estimated worth of Armstrong Woods as timber was a measly $25,000, which may have been even below LeBaron’s purchase price. As a long-term investment, however, it turned out well for his heirs; the land was finally sold to the county in 1917 for $80,000.
BONUS REDWOOD ITEM: Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley obviously loved it when readers brought natural oddities to his office, and column fillers described things like really big beets, albino trout, and potatoes shaped like ducks. In the midst of the hoopla about the sale of Armstrong Woods, a man brought in a sample of curly redwood, which the PD commented was “a handsome board and makes up into fine decorations.” Some of the trim in Comstock House is curly redwood (photo here) and it is indeed pretty; fine examples can look like tiger-striped oak or have a wavy ripple pattern (the appearance is caused by the tree being under stress as it grows). As the PD item notes, however, it was usually thrown away by the mill, and still is today; it splinters easily, and is notoriously hard to plane into a smooth board.
FAMOUS GROVE HAS BEEN SOLD
Armstrong Grove Soon to be Made into Lumber
The famous Armstrong grove, about three miles from Guerneville, is soon to be but a matter of history. It has been sold by Mr. and Mrs. Walter Armstrong to H. M. LeBaron of Valley Ford and will be cut for timber.
The Armstrong grove as it is familiarly called, is said to be the finest tract of standing redwood of its size in existence today and there have been efforts made for several years to preserve the trees for a park, but the sale of the place to Mr. LeBaron means that as soon as the times become more normal, and building operations are resumed again, the timber will be cut up and placed on the market. It is to be regretted that the grove is to be thus destroyed but the timber is very valuable and the purchase of the property by Mr. LeBaron is one of the largest deals that has been consummated in this county for a long time.
At one time Col. Armstrong offered to deed the grove to the state, and at the Fourth of July celebration at Guerneville this year, the whole burden of the addresses delivered there was for the saving of the great grove. It is thought that efforts will yet be made to secure the forest for the benefit of the public and the place should be made into a great park.
– Santa Rosa Republican, July 30, 1908
H.M. LE BARON BUYS ARMSTRONG GROVE
Famous Redwood Trees in Danger Now of Invasion by the Woodsman’s Axe–Immense Lot of Lumber
H. M. LeBaron, the Valley Ford banker on Thursday completed the purchase from Walter Armstrong of Sebastopol of the latter’s 195 acres of the famous Armstrong Grove of gigantic redwoods near Guerneville. It is understood that Mr. Le Baron paid away up in the thousands for the splendid grove.
The property Mr. Le Baron has acquired contains some of the finest specimens of redwood in the State. It is his intention, when the building business resumes activity, to establish a sawmill in the grove and cut up the monarchs of the forest into lumber. He says that the property is to valuable to let the trees stand.
For years it has been the dream of those interested in the preservation of the redwoods, and particularly this famed beauty spot, that some day the State or possibly the national Government would acquire possession of the Armstrong Grove for the purpose of preserving the redwoods and making it a State or National park. The matter has never assumed definite shape.
A Press Democrat representative talked with Mr. Le Baron on Thursday concerning his purchase. He was asked if the matter of the purchase of the famous grove could be arranged with the idea of its preservation he could be induced to come to terms. He replied that not only would he be glad to do so, but would assist himself in the project. Otherwise he said it would be necessary to cut the trees up into lumber as the investment was to big to allow it to remain idle.
It is not even now too late to take some steps to preserve the redwoods, But time is fleeting, and if no more direct action is taken than that in the past which has largely resulted in oratory and suggestion, the woodsman’s axe will invade the famous temple Nature herself fashioned near Guerneville.
– Press Democrat, July 31, 1908
ARMSTRONG’S WOODS CAN NOW BE PRESERVED
Senator Price Has Arranged So State Can Purchase Same
Senator Walter F. Price has secured an option on the Armstrong Woods, recently purchased by Hon. H. M. LeBaron, and will endeavor to have the state preserve the handsome woods for posterity. For many years past this matter has been discussed, and if the splendid trees are to be spared the woodman’s axe it is necessary to act at once.
There are four hundred acres in the tract, and it contains the largest redwood trees in California. The timber has been cruised and it is estimated that there are 2,500,000 feet of lumber in the grove, which is worth wholesale commercially at least ten dollars per thousand feet clear of all expense. This tract is the largest and best grove of trees in the vicinity of San Francisco, and should be preserved for the future, that visitors may see what wonderful trees grew here in Imperial Sonoma.
Senator Price will introduce a bill in the coming session of the legislature for the purchase of these splendid trees, and convert Armstrong Woods into a state park. It is hoped that the people of the entire state will get behind the measure and see that their representatives are made acquainted with the matter and urged to vote for the passage of the bill. It will be necessary for concerted action, and there is no doubt that Sonoma county residents will lend every assistance in their power to the passage of the bill.
Mr. LeBaron has entered into an agreement with Senator Price on the matter, and will await the action of the legislature in the matter. He has already received an offer for the timer, which would net him more money than he asks for the grove if the state desires to purchase it, but his pride in Sonoma county is greater than his desire for money, and he yields to the wishes of the people if they want the woods preserved. Mr. LeBaron is a public spirited man, and he desires the progress of Sonoma county and its betterment far more than he does the accumulation of sordid dollars. The grove, if preserved, will be a monument to the memory of Colonel Armstrong, and a lasting reminder to the people of the generosity of Mr. LeBaron.
When the woods were purchased by Mr. LeBaron some time since Senator Price was absent from this county. He immediately wired Mr. LeBaron, asking him to hold the matter of a sale of the property in abeyance until such time as he could see him. Senator Price came home as soon as he could, and immediately opened negotiations with Mr. LeBaron for the purchase of the property by the state. Now Mr. LeBaron has consented to the same, and if the property is not purchased by the state, it will be cut up for commercial usages, and one of the handsomest places in Sonoma county will have passed away forever. The people cannot afford to let this property be destroyed and it is practically certain that it will be secured through the energetic action of the people of the state and preserved for posterity.
– Santa Rosa Republican, October 5, 1908
FAVOR THE PURCHASE OF THE ARMSTRONG WOODS
The Ladies’ Improvement Club, in its action looking to the salvation of the Armstrong Woods, is deserving the moral and financial support of the county and state.
Senator Price’s proposed legislative measure favoring the purchase of the grove by the state is the most credible thing to date in the Senator’s political career. Mr. LeBaron’s motive in having the state purchase and set it aside as a park, rather than cut into lumber, marks Mr. LeBaron as a public spirited gentleman.
The Armstrong Woods is the finest body of accessible redwood timber in the state. It is but a short distance from the populous and travel center of the coast.
Like the Yosemite and Big Basin, it should logically, justly, belong to the people, a heritage for all time to come.
Years ago when Colonel Armstrong was alive and well, a small party, myself among the number, made a little journey to these trees. The Colonel himself, together with one of his daughters, piloted us through the grove, calling our attention to the beauty of this tree, the size and symmetry of that, the peculiarity of another. He spoke freely and unreservedly regarding his plans, his desires, his hopes for the success of the scheme. There was to be a gateway of stone, a fit entrance to the grove, and a number of trees native to the state, but not growing in the tract, were to be planted in the scantier places.
He spoke of the fitness of the trustees appointed to help carry out his wishes, Luther Burbank and Robert Underwood Johnson of the Century Magazine.
Unfortunately I had not taken notes of his talk, which, if it could be reproduced now, would be to the good of the measure.
To those interested in the good cause I can reasonably guarantee the support of the most influential body of nature lovers on the Coast, the Sierra Club.
Thos. J. Pilkington
– Santa Rosa Republican, October 23, 1908
Curly Redwood Specimen
One of the interesting sights in a visit to the large redwood lumber mills of Humboldt county is the curly and burl redwood, which not being suitable for lumber is thrown aside. A. R. Waters brought several pieces of the curly redwood home with him from the Minor Mill & Lumber Co. mills at Glenwood, of which his sister-in-law is half owner. One of the pieces may be seen at this office, where it is on exhibition for a few days. It is a handsome board and makes up into fine decorations.
– Press Democrat, July 21, 1908