John McEwen

John McEwen, 83, of Toledo, organizer of Weyerhaeuser Potluck.

For almost four decades, retired employees of Weyerhaeuser Co. who worked in Cowlitz and Lewis counties have gathered the first Sunday in October to visit and recall old times while enjoying a tasty potluck meal.

Now, for the first time, they’re holding the potluck on Saturday instead of Sunday, hoping some of those workers who spend Sundays at church will be able to attend the gathering. The Oct. 5 potluck, which starts at noon at the Cowlitz Prairie Grange, is open to anyone who has worked for Weyerhaeuser — in the woods, the sorting yard, hauling logs as a contractor, whatever. Their spouses are welcome to attend too.

John McEwen, 83, of Toledo, who retired after 32 years with Weyerhaeuser, inherited the organization of the annual potluck this year.

After drought and winds ruined Midwest farms during the early 1930s, Lee and Gladys McEwen packed up their family in Burlington, Oklahoma, and headed west. They settled near Layton Prairie about 3 miles outside of Toledo and established a 40-acre farm, where they raised nine children — four boys and five girls.

Lee McEwen, a retired logger and World War I veteran who helped establish the Toledo Veterans of Foreign Wars post, died in October 1969 at 74 as a result of an automobile accident in Grand Junction, Colorado. His wife, Gladys, a massage therapist, died at 96 in June 1996 at Centralia’s Providence Hospital. Only three daughters and one son, John, are still living.

John, second to the youngest, was nine months old when they arrived at Toledo in 1936. He attended Toledo schools but dropped out in 1955 to join the Army, where he learned to operate a crane in a combat engineers outfit. They operated caterpillars, cranes, shovels, backhoes, and other equipment while building ball diamonds, parking lots, and bunkers in Germany. After his discharge in 1958, McEwen worked as a choker setter and Cat operator for gyppo logger Frank Thayer, who had his own logging outfit in the Toledo area.

In 1961, he started working for Weyerhaeuser the first time. He ran a Cat and set chokers, attaching cables to logs so they can be hauled to a landing and out of the woods.

“It’s a dangerous job,” McEwen said. “You have to watch each other’s backs out there in the brush.”

When the logs start moving, they often turn and can bump other protruding logs and flip them onto workers.

“Maybe a line might break or something,” McEwen said. “It could cut you in two.”

He quit Weyerhaeuser and instead worked for gyppo loggers.

Then, in 1966, he returned to Weyerhaeuser, which he described as a good employer with a good retirement plan, and ran a grader for five years but primarily operated the log shovel. The last seven years he ran a shovel in the Longview sorting yard.

“You had to watch what you were doing so you don’t get any people hurt,” he said.

He had a close call once when a long log swiveled in the shovel, pinning him against the door.

“Didn’t get hurt—just scared the daylights out of me,” he recalled.

McEwen, who retired in late 1997, generally arrives at the Toledo Senior Center shortly after 9 a.m. and works a jigsaw puzzle until his partners arrive for their pool game.

He’s been attending Weyerhaeuser potlucks for decades. Advertisements in the 1990s described the potluck as a gathering for Camp Baker, 12 Road, Sorting Yard, and Kalama employees and they were held in Vader for a time. On Sept. 9, 1992, The Daily News in Longview described the potluck in Vader as the 12th annual event, so it likely started in 1980.

“We had a guy’s birthday party around October I guess and he said, ‘you know, let’s have this every year,’” said McEwen, who has three grown children, three grandsons, and one adopted granddaughter. “So we have it as a potluck. It’s just to get together and visit about the old times.”

Usually more than two dozen people attend.

“We hope to get more people coming now because it’s on a Saturday,” he said.

For more information, call McEwen at 360-864-2779.

 

•••

Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.

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