Light on the Devils, Coming of Age on the Klamath

Louise Wagenknecht was a high school girl in Happy Camp in the years when the timber economy was booming and has written a book about it that is hard to put down./Contributed photo.

By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer

If you hear me boasting about how many books I read, your next question should be: “How many of them did you actually finish? The answer, sadly, is: Not very many of them.

Of course, this makes the books I really had trouble putting down something special and that includes the book Light on the Devils, Coming of Age on the Klamath. It’s a book about the last years of the timber boom in Happy Camp and a story well told by Louise Wagenknecht, who has written it down from the perspective of her high school years there.

Wagenknecht came to town in the early 1960s when her stepfather, a forester and logger in Hilt, switched employers to the US Forest Service. Hilt was a company town and Happy Camp was the Wild West in comparison.

It was the era when logging was king and it was rich as long as it lasted. Charley Thom from Quartz Valley reminisces about an era of many local sawmills and twice as many crowded saloons.

The author’s family might not have been the saloon type but Wagenknecht knows the elements of a good story. She even indulges in one of the best evil pleasures of small town life—juicy gossip served still warm after all these years.

There are risks of dredging up old stories, of course, and a sampling of Happy Campers who read her book showed that half the readers loved her stories and half hated them. A particular sticking point was her opening story about a mill worker who had lost his job as the timber economy faltered. It got worse; his wife left him for another man.

Wagenknecht changed his name but not the outcome: he shot himself.

She uses this story as the metaphor for the end of the area’s timber riches and writes that Stone Forest Industries, the mill owner, “was headquartered in Chicago, and people in Happy Camp, isolated on their stretch of the Klamath River, wondered if the men in the skyscrapers even knew about them. They knew, of course. They may even have cared. But this was, after all, just business.”

She is less sympathetic with the Happy Camp Forest Service, who was her employer in the years after the scope of this book. She outlines how backroom political maneuvers going back into the early 1900s captured the funding to build the haul roads that made logging economically practical in the remote mid-Klamath region.

She writes, “In the beginning, they didn’t even know how much timber they had; in the end they didn’t know how little they had left, or how many other resources had already been lost.”

She had little interaction with Indian neighbors but she was shaken when a middle-aged Indian was allowed to die after a car wreck through the neglect of local deputies. She recalled Indian classmates saying, “The county Mounties don’t care if an Indian lives or dies.”

Her relationship with her forester step-father is explored in all it’s ups and downs. He constantly reminds her to mind her makeup and her nail polish but he also takes her hunting and firewood cutting. Wagenknecht is in step with the feminist yearnings of the mid-1960s and almost forgives him the beauty tips because she was so happy for the time in the forest.

Often, off on a wooded trail by herself, she pauses and just drinks it all in. It is a sweet epiphany that many readers will remember from their own solitary walks in the woods. At the same time, her chapter on the 1964 flood will leave readers nervous every time it rains three days in a row.

The book Light on the Devils is the middle book of a trilogy she is writing. The first, about life in Hilt was published a few years ago. She’s now working on the third book which will cover her years working for the Forest Service. She says it helps that she  always kept a diary. I expect I will read the whole book.

Leave a Reply