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Original Issue

The Shy Tycoon Who Owns 1/640th of the U.S.

George Weyerhaeuser's holdings (trees on map) may soon expand to 1/400th of the country. Musing on a stump, he ponders new ways in which his vast forests can contribute to conservation and recreation as well as timber profits

If you and your ancestors have cut down more trees in more places than anyone in U.S. history, what do you think about conservation? George Weyerhaeuser thinks a lot about it. He is the president of the Weyerhaeuser Company, which owns 3.8 million acres of beautiful forests, or 1/640 of the land area of the U.S.

The Weyerhaeuser Company owns so many big trees that if they were all transplanted along the Atlantic Coast they would make a forest belt 20 miles wide extending from New York City to Richmond. The company's woodlands in the Pacific Northwest reach from the coast to the summit range of the Cascade Mountains. The company also owns more than 600,000 acres of pine in scattered stands that run 200-odd miles south from tidewater Virginia to the Southern marshes that have never been much visited since Blackbeard the Pirate lived there.

When you drive to Mount Rainier, you pass through Weyerhaeuser forests. Each year in Oregon, when college students take their spring float trip down the Mackenzie River, they float past miles of well-kept Weyerhaeuser trees. The company also owns mountains, like 4,018-foot Jay Peak in Vermont, which it is now developing as a ski resort. A great many steelhead fishermen who take some 350,000 fish each year from Washington rivers fish in Weyerhaeuser woods. Last year hunters shot 14,020 deer and 3,145 elk in the company's forests in Oregon and Washington alone. When George Weyerhaeuser looks over the company's lands from his vantage point he sees an enormously varied terrain in all parts of the U.S. but alike in one respect: its increased use for recreation and some tangible opportunities that presents.

Big as the Weyerhaeuser lands are, they are getting bigger. In May it was announced that agreement in principle had been reached with Dierks Forests, Inc. to buy its properties. These reach from near Hot Springs, Ark. into Oklahoma, about 120 miles west. When this purchase is completed it will add 1.8 million acres, at a cost of $325 million, to the company's holdings. The new forest takes in one of the prime outdoor recreation areas of Arkansas, spread over seven counties in hilly, scenic, largely uninhabited country. If you head a company that buys land like that you have to think about conservation and, along with it, outdoor recreation.

There is, however, another question. What do conservationists think about Weyerhaeuser? Not so long ago the answer was easy. All timber companies were damned as looters of the public domain, despoilers of the wilderness, polluters of the rivers, destroyers of wildlife and conscienceless exploiters who ravaged the country. Nothing in American history so spoiled the looks of the country: the worst modern blighted area of highway junkyards and slums is a sylvan park compared to the ruin left by the loggers. Back in 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt laid aside his prepared speech at a forestry congress to let fly with some spontaneous remarks about people who cut down the forests—"Who skin the country and go somewhere else!" he said. He denounced "that man whose idea of developing the country is to cut every stick of timber off of it and leave it a barren desert.... That man," he concluded, "is a curse!"

He was talking about Frederick Weyerhaeuser (among others), the founder of the company, George Weyerhaeuser's great-grandfather. As a full-time, dues-paying curse, however, old Frederick Weyerhaeuser had his limitations. He did not look like a villain, being round, gray, quiet and painfully shy because of his German accent. His hobby was beekeeping. He went to his small office in St. Paul every morning at 7:15. But he did acquire an enormous fortune, and his love of seclusion led to legends. The Mysterious Octopus was one exposé written about him and in Weyerhaeuser—Richer than Rockefeller a muckraker claimed to have discovered that he was the richest man in the world.

He reached the U.S. from Germany in 1852, when he was 18, prospered as a sawmill operator in Illinois and made industrial history when he combined a number of small operators like himself into an organization that could buy logs in quantities large enough to secure a steady supply and good prices. Two years after he moved to St. Paul in 1891 he bought a house on fashionable Summit Avenue, not knowing that his neighbor was James J. Hill, the railroad builder. They became friends and in 1899, when Hill wanted to sell some of the land awarded to the Northern Pacific as a land grant, he offered it to Weyerhaeuser for $7 an acre. Weyerhaeuser offered $5. They compromised at $6 for 900,000 acres, one of the largest private land sales in American history. It aroused no comment aside from mutterings from Weyerhaeuser's board of directors that he could have gotten it for less. The Weyerhaeusers never made sensational news. The sons of the family went to Yale, trained in the small family-owned lumber companies, supported charities, endowed schools of forestry and lived quietly, even by the standards of St. Paul, which were pretty quiet. Then they moved to Tacoma, Wash., which was even quieter. Their forests were as little-known as they were. Hunting and fishing were prohibited. Camping in their woods was unheard of. And the family ruled them from a seclusion as deep as the forest.

It was George Weyerhaeuser who unintentionally jolted them from obscurity. At 11:45 on Friday morning. May 24, 1935, Miss Berg of Lowell Grammar School dismissed her fifth-grade class for lunch, and George, age 9, ran down the hill into the headlines. When last seen as he went out of sight he was wearing a sweater, brown corduroy trousers and tennis shoes. He was described as follows: "Smiling, handsome face, with no distinguishing marks, average height, dark, curly hair, brown eyes." His teacher added: "An alert, obedient and brilliant pupil."

It was reported that George was supposed to stop at Annie Wright Seminary to ride home with his sister Ann, but that was not true: he had decided to walk. On the way he practiced broad jumping. He wanted to be a track star. He ran through the grounds of the Tacoma Lawn Tennis Club and up a flight of steps to the next street. There a tan Buick was parked at the curb, a man standing beside it. The man grabbed him, put his hand over his mouth, dragged him to the car, dumped him on the floor of the back seat, put an old blanket over him and told him not to move or make any noise.

The car rolled down the hill, out of the quiet residential neighborhood. It passed through Tacoma and disappeared into back roads before George was missed at home.

When the car stopped and the blanket was removed, he saw two men with hoods over their heads. There were trees all around. He could hear the sound of a river. The men told him to write his name on the back of an envelope, which he did. Then he was blindfolded and led into the woods, across a running stream. "I thought they were going to push me in the water," he says.

Beside a deep pit in the woods, his blindfold was taken off. The pit was three feet wide and six feet long, covered with tin, braced with posts and lined with boards. The boy was lowered into it and fastened to a crosspiece by handcuffs, one on an arm and the other on a leg.

One man drove away to mail the ransom note by special delivery. Philip Weyerhaeuser, George's father, was directed to say nothing to anyone, to keep the news out of the papers, to gather 5,000 old $20 bills, 5,000 old $10 bills and 10,000 old $5 bills. When he had the money ready, he was to place an ad in the personals column of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reading, "We are ready. Percy Minnie."

In the evening, just before dark, the men returned to the pit and everyone ate a picnic lunch of sandwiches, cookies and hard-boiled eggs. Then George was again handcuffed and entombed with two blankets and a kerosene lantern for warmth.

The Weyerhaeuser family had come up against a small-town Bonnie and Clyde partnership that had added a tough third partner. The girl was pretty, placid, blonde Margaret Thulin, who, in the course of her wanderings, met and married Harmon Waley, a tall, handsome, 24-year-old Hoquiam, Wash. boy. He had been in and out of jails and reformatories from the time he was 17 years old. In prison he came to know William Mahan, also known as William Dainard and Swede Davis, who was winding up his term for bank robbery. Mahan had five bank holdups on his record, including a $100,000 bank robbery in Idaho.

These three were living in Spokane when Margaret happened to read in the newspaper that John Philip Weyerhaeuser Sr., George's grandfather, had died. The obituary recalled all those stories of the Weyerhaeuser family wealth. Three days later Margaret, Waley and Mahan were studying George's movements as he went to and from school. They had not intended to pick up George when they did. They were merely checking his route when he happened to walk up to the car.

The police had already been called when the ransom note arrived at the Weyerhaeuser home, so the instructions not to call them could not be followed. Philip Weyerhaeuser got the bills together and placed the ad in the paper as he had been ordered to do but added another: "Due publicity beyond our control please indicate another method of reaching you. Hurry. Percy Minnie."

Mahan's planning had a demented ingenuity. He and Waley returned to the pit. Someone in the area shot at something and alarmed them. They moved George into deeper woods to a second pit they had dug for such emergencies.

He was again handcuffed to a post in the pit and left there that night and the next day. The following night, when Mahan had read Philip Weyerhaeuser's answer in the classified ads, George was lifted out of this second pit and locked in the trunk of Mahan's gray Ford coupe. He was driven all night across the state to Spokane, 300 miles east, a hard trip, even in the front seat of a car, in 1935. Mahan occasionally yanked him around; Waley occasionally rescued him. Near the Idaho-Washington boundary he was chained to a tree all day while his captors went into the city. They returned that night with a big Uneeda cracker carton, packed George into it and carried him into their apartment.

George was locked in a closet. Waley slept on a mattress outside the door. Mahan raced back to Seattle, to resume an outwardly ordinary life at the Fir Apartments and collect the ransom. The procedure for this was a harrowing melodrama. Margaret mailed a letter to George's father instructing him to register at the Ambassador Hotel in Seattle under the name of John Paul Jones and wait there for a telephone call. At the hotel Philip Weyerhaeuser got the call, directing him to a point on the highway midway between Seattle and Tacoma. There he found a stake with a cloth tied to it. A note in a can at the base of the stake directed him to a second stake on a dirt road off the highway.

He searched through the night for the second stake but could not find it. At dawn he returned to the Ambassador. The phone rang; he was directed to go home and send a different emissary. George's uncle Rod Titcomb in turn was phoned at the Ambassador the next night and directed to a place near Halfway House, where the Seattle-Tacoma airport was later built. A note at the base of a stake directed him to a second stake on a road by Angle Lake, a deep, mile-long trout lake in the woods.

Here he found the stake and the note, which told him to turn on the dome light of his car, place the suitcase containing the money on the front seat, leave the engine running and walk down the road.

Mahan and Margaret were parked nearby—there was nothing unusual about a couple in a parked car. Mahan jumped in Titcomb's car, drove it to a shack he had rented on the edge of Seattle, hid the $200,000 there and ditched Titcomb's car on a side street. Margaret drove his car to the Fir Apartments. Mahan picked it up there and was on his way to Spokane while Titcomb was still walking back to town. Margaret stayed in Seattle.

As the days passed, George and Waley came to an understanding of sorts. George was let out of the closet when there was no danger of anyone coming by. Waley, still wearing his hood, whiled away the time playing his ukulele. Good treatment ended abruptly when Mahan arrived. George was packed back into the cracker box and locked in the trunk of the car. They reached Seattle that night. Picking up Margaret at the apartment, Mahan and Waley drove to the shack, divided the money and put Margaret on a train for Salt Lake. Sometime between midnight and dawn they stopped the car, got George out of the trunk, gave him a dollar and two blankets and left him beside a woods road. They vanished, and for a long time it looked as if they never would be found.

Rain started to fall. About daylight George picked up his blankets and walked out of the woods.

Presently he came to a shingled house on a lonely knoll. Mrs. John Bonifas, the wife of a stump farmer, was preparing breakfast for her husband and four children. George went around to the back and knocked on the kitchen door. Thus he returned to civilization. "I'm George Weyerhaeuser," he explained.

George Weyerhaeuser these days is an engaging, friendly individual who looks over the Weyerhaeuser woods with the air of a man who wishes that trees grew faster than they do. He became president three years ago at the age of 39, the youngest in the 68-year history of the company. It is a slow-paced business, one in which you plant now and plan to cut down the trees 60 years from now. Or perhaps never. Some of the Weyerhaeuser land is in wilderness so beautiful that it may be worth more for outdoor recreation with the trees growing on it than the trees would be if they were harvested.

Around Tacoma people will tell you not to ask him about the time he was kidnapped. As the head of a company with annual sales of $1.2 billion and with 37,000 employees, George Weyerhaeuser is not particularly happy to be identified as someone who was held for ransom at the age of 9. Besides, he shares the desire for seclusion that has distinguished the family. He graduated from Lowell Grammar and Mason Junior High in Tacoma, went on to Taft and to Yale, enlisted in the Navy at 18 during World War II while he was in college, graduated with honors after the war, worked as a pulp mill laborer, became a supervisor and finally superintendent of a Weyerhaeuser subsidiary in Oregon. He married Wendy Wagner, the beautiful daughter of a family of pioneer lumbermen. In the family tradition, he lives quietly with his wife and two sons and four daughters in the pleasant Tacoma suburb of Gravelly Lake, close by the homes of many other Weyerhaeusers.

But he has departed from the family tradition in a couple of significant ways. One is that he has revealed a willingness to make decisions himself instead of relying on the long, slow methods of family-plus-experts consultation of the past. The other is his awareness of the need for space for outdoor recreation. But otherwise, say his friends, he is a typical Weyerhaeuser, reluctant to discuss things in personal terms; don't ask him about the kidnapping.

"No, I don't mind talking about it," he said to me "I don't think it bothered me unduly." When he became president there was some talk as to whether his independence stemmed from his desire to prove himself individually, just because his kidnapping and court appearances made him so famous as a 9-year-old. He doubted it. "A 9-year-old boy is a pretty adaptable organism." he said. "He can adjust himself to conditions in a way no adult could. It didn't affect me personally as much as anyone looking back on it might think. But a family—I think a kidnapping is one of the worst things that can happen to a family."

What about that pit in which he was buried?

"That was quite an excavation."

And that ride across the state in the trunk of the car?

"I was just glad to get out of that hole in the ground. I slept most of the time. I had blankets and it was warm back there."

His sport was boxing in high school and he fought in training-camp bouts in the Navy. He frowned at any mention of it—all he would say was, "I tried a little boxing in the Navy." In the early stages of a conversation with him one gets the impression of feints, fast footwork and lightning jabs, not unfriendly, merely exploratory taps to determine what sort of a sparring match it is going to be.

Being kidnapped may not have bothered George, but it jolted the Weyerhaeuser empire. As a first tentative friendly gesture toward the modern world Philip Weyerhaeuser, who had become president, opened the company woods to hunters and fishermen.

Next Miss Helen Leonard, a kindergarten teacher in Longview, Wash., wrote to Philip Weyerhaeuser and asked him if the company could also open campgrounds for people who wanted to get out in the woods. "I got a nice answer the next year," Miss Leonard said. Things still move relatively slowly in an enterprise geared to the speed of growing trees. The first camp was cleared on the banks of the Toutle River, a great steelhead stream. No improvements were added, beyond a sign reading WELCOME and a request that visitors be careful about fires. It was an informal beginning of an important historical development. Campgrounds are now scattered throughout the Weyerhaeuser woods in the Northwest. Last year they were used by 161,000 campers. Miss Leonard, who still teaches kindergarten at Longview, sometimes takes her class on picnics at the original Toutle River camp.

A far bigger innovation was the first tree farm. The most important contribution to conservation in the history of the lumber industry, the Weyerhaeuser tree farms also brought about the greatest improvement in the appearance of the landscape. In the past, roads in the timber country ran through miles of bleached stumps and bony snags as devastated as the battlefields of World War I.

The first tree farm, as an experiment, was intended to provide a steady supply of logs for Weyerhaeuser mills in the future—not merely next year or next decade, but next century. A tract of 120,000 acres that combined virgin timber, second-growth stands and logged-off land was set aside. The logged-off area was planted with fir seedlings, and no more timber was taken from the tract than was replenished by new growth. It was a stair-step operation: 60-year-old trees, in 20 years' time, would be ready for cutting, by which time the 40-year-old trees would be 60 and the seedlings would have grown to substantial size. That involved constant planting and cultivating, the thinning of dense stands as the trees grew and the cutting of only small tracts at a time. It incidentally left the country green again, the streams clear and the wildlife multiplying.

Primeval forest contains little game. Big trees block out the sunlight from plants that provide forage; the sort of undergrowth that flourishes has little food value. The terraced growth of tree farms, with clearings and different stages of tree growth, provided an ideal range. In the area that was later set aside as the St. Helens tree farm, for example, hunters shot 326 deer in 1937. Last year they shot 9,130 there.

The success of the first tree farm marked an epoch in American forest history; by 1967 there were 32,000 tree farms scattered throughout the U.S. One result is that conservationists usually except Weyerhaeuser from the criticism leveled at most timber companies. As one of them said, "They have the best-managed timberlands in the country." A scholarly work called Timber Concentration in the Pacific Northwest appraised the Weyerhaeuser work soberly and justly: "This family has been and is the most important in the American lumber industry, and as such the Weyerhaeusers' contribution to our culture should be discussed in general historical terms."

To get back to the original question: What does George Weyerhaeuser think of conservation? It appears to be a principal part of his work. If you plant trees that are going to be harvested in a hundred years it is only logical to think of other things that may be happening then or in the foreseeable future—to use one of his favorite phrases. Among these foreseeable developments, far less than a century distant, is an increased need for space for outdoor recreation. Last year he set up a recreation department in the corporate structure to study all the Weyerhaeuser forests and appraise the recreational possibilities they contain. "Our approach to outdoor recreation is going to be positive," he said, "not a negative reaction to increased population pressure. In the future, as recreation needs grow, we will develop recreation as a primary land use. So will all other responsible timber companies."

The success of the company's venture into the ski resort business at Jay Peak led to expansion—the original complex of ski lodge, chalet, restaurant and tramway is being expanded to include a golf course, with $10,000 homesites around the course, and two condominiums, with the apartments selling from $18,000 to $54,500.

Current projects include an area for group camping in the Weyerhaeuser woods near the Snoqualmie River. Also in the works or planned are a wilderness camp where the company's forests run along an ocean beach; a convention center in some highly scenic rural backwoods; a water-sports center on a chain of lakes; a campground area for handicapped people; a fee-hunting and fee-fishing program in which, in selected areas, sportsmen would pay the cost of replacing the fish they catch and the birds they bag.

The company is part of a group of builders trying to persuade the city of Seattle to make its new domed stadium (already authorized) of wood. On Weyerhaeuser property at Clear Lake, 65 miles from Seattle, the company is selling forest homesites. A herd of 425 elk (protected) roams the woods, the lake is famous for rainbow trout and the view of the mountains is free. A total of 240 sites have been sold at prices from $2,500 to $12,000. In the south, where ticks, snakes, red bugs and other discouragements prevent such developments and camping is rare, the company has followed another policy. Two years ago it began leasing its lands to hunting and fishing clubs, and now leases acreage in Mississippi and Alabama (where it owns 600,000 acres of pine woods) to 78 of these organizations. In North Carolina the company is developing residential parks, emphasizing such attractions as deep-sea fishing and trails for horseback riding. And there are still a few million acres whose hidden attractions have scarcely been glimpsed.

George Weyerhaeuser takes it for granted that people will always want to get out in the woods. The company's policy on recreation, embodied in a weighty document called Policy No. 60.1, Procedure 60.14, begins with a statement that the forest lands are managed to provide a continuous supply of raw materials, but where recreation needs are compatible "the lands shall be made available for public enjoyment.... Under specific circumstances the recreational values may exceed the value of any other land use.... Sites of historic interest or outstanding scenic value shall be preserved for the public enjoyment."

Weyerhaeuser was not directly involved in any of the major conservation battles that pitted timber companies against the Sierra Club and other embattled conservationists. But as the head of the most influential timber company of them all, he weighs his words on such matters. "I think I feel the way most people do when some area they value is threatened with economic change." he said. "I recognize the need for economic progress, but if the specific place involved is one I have known and loved I hate to have anything happen to it. When my brother and I were boys, my father used to take us duck shooting—this was still good duck country in those days—widgeon, green-winged teal, mallards and some pintails—and when some development affects the places where we went, I have to make allowances for my personal feelings influencing my opinion of the value of a commercial development there.

"But I think we have to distinguish between one-time projects and those with more lasting effects. Some are major developments, altering the country for all time; once they are made, it can never be brought back to the way it was before. And when the change is for all time, and involves a unique physical asset, I think we have to weigh it very, very carefully to see what price we are going to have to pay for economic progress. But others do not permanently alter a region. It can be brought back to the way it was before the change was made.

"It seems to me that as the population increases, there will be increased conflict over areas that are set aside for recreation. The need is to strike a balance between the economic impact and the recreational need. That balance will be more needed in the future when the economic impact may be greater than it is now. How it can be achieved I do not know. But I say to myself there are probably different zones, gray zones, intermediate areas, where the lines are not so sharply drawn, areas where forest management can be followed without affecting the major recreational area that should be preserved."

So far as the Weyerhaeuser forests are concerned, it is not a matter of using the lands for either commercial timber growth or for recreation. "We can have both," he said. "Recreation and forest management are compatible. Forests and wildlife go together. Fishing is not inconsistent with our economic operations nor is hunting.... Land along watercourses may be better used for summer cabins than for commercial timber. We regard recreation as a business opportunity of increasing potential. We intend to develop workable combinations of fee and free recreation to meet population needs as they are identified."

From the perspective in which Weyerhaeuser sees such problems, human villainy falls into some sort of proportion with the growth of trees. "Ninety-eight percent of the recreationists do not cause us any trouble," he said, "and we are not going to let the other 2% stop us from doing what is right."

His kidnapping did not darken his notions of human behavior. As a footnote to criminal history, his kidnappers almost got away free. The ransom bills were not marked, but during the long delay while George was imprisoned in Spokane, the numbers of as many bills as possible were recorded. It was an apparently hopeless chance; the bills were of different dates and with no sequences. But when Margaret Waley went to buy a pair of stockings in Salt Lake City she used one of the recorded bills. Arrested, she confessed and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Waley getting 30 years. Mahan was trapped in Butte, Mont., escaped, kept on the run for two years and was finally caught, tried and sentenced to 60 years.

Waley wrote to George Weyerhaeuser from prison and Weyerhaeuser answered him. Not long ago Waley finished serving his 30 years in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kans., and through a friend there Weyerhaeuser helped him get a job, keeping his part in it secret. "Why did I do it?" he asked, looking annoyed. "I went through all sorts of sensations when I was kidnapped, from fear and concern to the point where I felt sorry for him. I guess I thought he had paid his debt.... No, I don't want to say that," he said in exasperation, meaning that he did not want to use a stereotyped phrase. George Weyerhaeuser sometimes ends a discussion with a sudden finality that makes you realize he was a pretty good boxer. It is as the people around Tacoma say, don't ask him about the time he was kidnapped. At least, don't ask him too much.




At 9, George Weyerhaeuser told of kidnapping in court.


Seclusion ended for George's parents when he vanished.


Helen Leonard asked Weyerhaeuser for a camp for her pupils.