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Old lumber town balks at independence

The Wall Street investors who own the last company town in California want to return it to the people.

Many of the people don’t want it back. They like Scotia just fine the way it is — a North Coast paradise of pastel saltbox homes and lush lawns, where the company keeps everything spick-and-span and residents don’t have to worry about budget deficits and zoning spats.

“People who live in town aren’t political. They don’t know about planning commissions and all that malarkey,” said Mel Berti, who has tended the meat counter at the local grocery for 35 years. With independence, he said, “Who the heck knows what’s going to happen?”

Photos: Scotia at a crossroads

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Scotia, 30 miles south of Eureka, was built in the 1880s by Pacific Lumber Co. to house the lumberjacks and mill workers who harvested the thick forests of this isolated region.

The town was named for the Nova Scotians who came here for work, and who reported for duty on the lumber company’s whistle, bought groceries at the lumber company’s store and lived in the lumber company’s houses.

But the tree-cutting business, shrinking for decades, finally tanked as the housing boom petered out, and Pacific Lumber filed for bankruptcy protection in 2007. Its largest creditor, a hedge fund called Marathon Asset Management, obtained the town in bankruptcy proceedings.

Now, Marathon is preparing to unload Scotia and is giving the 800 residents a choice between taking the place over themselves or seeing it sold to the highest bidder.

On Aug. 30, voters will decide whether they want Scotia to become an independent community services district within Humboldt County. On the same ballot, they’ll be asked to choose five board members to run the area. A majority “yes” vote is needed for Marathon to subdivide the 300-acre town and sell it off in parcels, and to ensure that there is a government to oversee sewage, fire protection and other public services.

If the nays prevail, Marathon says it will sell the town lock, stock and barrel, since Scotia cannot be subdivided without a governing body in place. Company executives say Scotia then could wind up in the hands of a movie studio, a religious sect or the developer of a retirement community.

If the entire town is sold, Scotians probably would have to leave the community where many of their families have lived for generations — especially if the collection of old, outdated homes doesn’t fit into the new owners’ plans.

That residents could balk at independence might seem surprising in light of the history of the company towns built near coal mines, textile mills and steel factories a century or more ago.

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In that era, “company town” often meant corporate tyranny. Employees and their families were quartered in cheap company housing and were typically paid in scrip that could be redeemed only at the overpriced company store. At its worst, the system resembled medieval serfdom.

The labor movement and the automobile helped end many of the estimated 2,500 company towns across America. Some were abandoned, but many evolved into cities of their own.

Lowell, Mass., became a commuter suburb. Hershey, Pa., boasts an amusement park for chocolate lovers. Port Gamble, Wash., a timber town like Scotia, became a tourist destination.

William Stephens, 68, thinks Scotia can have the same happy fate. Stephens, a nurse practitioner who is a candidate for the board of the community services district, envisions a new, better Scotia, with a gas station and bike trails.

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“I have zillions of ideas,” he said. “This town has some real potential.”

Pacific Lumber started converting Scotia into a community services district in 2003. It’s taken eight years to jump through the necessary hoops, and all that remains now is the vote.

For many Scotians, the case for taking a private town public is no slam-dunk.

“It’s going to change too much,” said Jason Calkins, 21, who has lived in Scotia his whole life. His father — who claims to be the last baby born at the Scotia hospital — was once a lumber grader, evaluating the quality of the redwood logs that came through the mill.

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Calkins’ life in Scotia is simple now: It takes him just 30 seconds to walk from the blue gingerbread house he shares with his fiancee, Brandy Green, to the hardware store where he works, but he’s not sure he wants to stick around.

It’s not just the prospect of a takeover by a religious sect or movie studio that worries residents. It’s the inescapable reality that there will no longer be a benefactor presiding over the town, keeping the workers happy and the ruffians out.

“They’re going to let just anybody in,” said Green, 19. “It used to be you could only get in if you know someone.”

The town’s quiet streets, surrounded by trees sheathed in layers of fog, feel frozen in a bygone era. Outside the small grocery store, a code of conduct instructs residents not to yell, sing, deface property or sit on trash receptacles, and reminds them that “loitering, delaying, lingering or remaining idle” are prohibited.

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The mill whistle still goes off three times a day, at 7:30, noon, at 4:30. Marathon wanted to turn it off, but residents protested. Drivers keep their cars in converted stables because many of the houses were built before the automobile.

Lisa Baney, a voice-over artist for audio books, moved to Scotia from San Francisco in 2009 and was immediately struck by residents’ passivity.

“People here are used to getting up and going to work every day when the first whistle blew, and letting the company tell them what to do,” Baney said. “They’ve never had to confront the fact that they have civic responsibility. They’ve never had to grow up.”

Indeed, residents seem used to having the lumber company making decisions for them. They wave at the maintenance men who deal with their plumbing problems and cheerily mow the lawns in the common areas. It’s as if they’ve lived in a storybook world where people didn’t have to nag their local government to fill potholes and maintain parks.

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Many say they didn’t even know there was a vote coming up.

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Frank Bacik thinks he can persuade Scotians to take charge. As president of Town of Scotia Co., the Marathon subsidiary that runs the place, Bacik is responsible for taking Scotia public.

Bacik arouses the suspicion of some Scotia residents because he was general counsel for Pacific Lumber Co. through its painful bankruptcy. But the stout lawyer with a neatly trimmed white goatee exudes a childlike glee over the novelty of ushering a 19th century relic into the 21st century.

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He’s started putting signs throughout town: “Vote YES for an Independent Scotia,” in red, white and blue. He pitches the transition as a way for the town to become re-energized.

“There are cities that had no reason for being, where weeds started growing in the streets,” he said. “We have been spared that, but no one knows what will happen here.”

To bring the town up to code, Marathon is spending $12.7 million on improvements, including an updated sewer system and insulation for the many houses that lacked it.

Bacik has sold the power plant and is looking for buyers for industrial lots and the Scotia Inn, a stately hotel with a bar and restaurant valued at $3 million. He’s recruited outside businesses, including a water-bladder manufacturer and a brewing company, to diversify the economic base.

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Residents will have the option of buying the town’s 270 homes, which they now rent. Houses vary in size but come in only five colors; prices would probably start at around $180,000 for a 1,100-square-foot model. Bacik is seeking buyers for the shopping center, built from old-growth redwoods, that houses the grocery, hardware store and pharmacy.

Nine people have signed up to run for the five-member board of the community services district. They are both new residents and people who have lived in Scotia for generations — a cast that includes a onetime cowboy, former lumber company workers, a truck driver and a pharmacy technician.

“We’re moving along towards independence,” he says. “But to keep it as a town, it has to change.”

That change is what’s causing turmoil among native Scotians. They feel ambivalence about the future because they were treated so well by the lumber company in the past, said Hardy Green, a New York-based history professor and former journalist who wrote “The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy.”

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In some company towns, goons assaulted union sympathizers, and private detectives infiltrated the ranks of labor. Scotia, by comparison, was a “pin-neat, saloon-free Shangri-La amid redwood forests,” Green wrote.

“This was an amazing place,” said lifelong resident J.J. Johansen, 30, as he guided his towheaded son through the vegetable aisle of the grocery store. “All the houses were nice, all the yards were nice, but now, people don’t care as much. It’s going downhill.”

Ronda James, 49, feels the same nostalgia.

“They were so good to us. We were spoiled,” she said. Her husband worked at the mill until he was laid off seven years ago; she used to rent a beauty salon in town until costs became too high.

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Some new residents have brought drugs and wild parties, James says, and others just aren’t friendly. Back in her childhood, families knew each other because they worked together at the mill.

But even utopias have to end, James said, sitting in her cheery kitchen as a light rain drizzled on the roof.

“What kind of real town can keep undesirables out?” she said. “You just can’t.”

Photos: Scotia at a crossroads

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alana.semuels@latimes.com


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