Alaska Life

Counting the ways the 'towering figure' of John Schnabel molded Haines

HAINES — How do you sum up the life of John Schnabel? After he died March 18 at 96, the Chilkat Valley News of Haines called John "a towering figure in the history of the town in the second half of the 20th century" and People magazine noted his passing with a special tribute, because John was also a TV star in his "Grandpa John" role on the Discovery channel's "Gold Rush."

There were about as many Johns, it seems, as days of the week. He grew sweet cherries, swam at the pool, played bridge and sang country songs, but foremost, John was a champion of the Alaska timber industry for more than four decades and an aggressive business leader. He built sawmills in Haines at Jones Point, in the woods, and his largest and final mill, Schnabel Lumber Co., on Lutak Inlet in 1967. Including stevedores, mill hands, loggers and others, he employed as many as 120 local workers. He operated a hotel, lumberyard and hardware store, built four downtown commercial buildings and was one of Haines' largest landowners.

When Fred Shields — like John, a former Haines mayor — ran for the Alaska Legislature in 1990, John pulled him aside saying, "Shields, I'm going to sink your ship," and he did. By the time John died, he and Fred were bridge partners and the best of friends. "John had a lot of life and lot of change," Fred said.

John could be a tad intimidating, but when he smiled, which he did often, he lit up the room. In lots of ways, John was a character out of a John Steinbeck or Ken Kesey novel.

"To understand John, you have to know his story," said his daughter Sandra. "Dad came from total poverty, but you look at those old photos and you see his smile. He was going to do something about that, and he did."

Arrived in Haines at 19

He was born on a drought-stricken wheat farm on the high plains of Norton County, Kansas, on Feb. 11, 1920. His father, a sawmiller from Pennsylvania, was soon caught bootlegging, and the family left for California, Washington, and finally landed in Klamath Falls, Oregon. His parents separated when John was 11, and his father headed to Alaska. John sold papers to buy bread for his mother and four siblings. His bedroom was an old rabbit hutch and the parish paid for his Catholic schooling. He arrived in Haines at 19, reuniting with his father, who had built a small mill here.

When World War II broke out, John joined the Navy air corps, serving as a bomber mechanic in the South Pacific. While he was a proud member of the American Legion, John hated war.

In 1950 he married Erma DiRe, and together they reared five children. One son lives in a home for the mentally disabled and one daughter died young. Debra and Roger live in Haines, and Sandra lives in Oakland, where she helps care for Erma, who is in a nursing home there.

Despite his wealth, John dressed in thrift-store clothing, drove old trucks and lived in a modest home.

In 1983, when The Schnabel Lumber Co. mill closed after he couldn't meet a loan payment, John blamed environmentalists and new regulations. However, history points to a host of issues that soon shuttered the other big mills in Southeast — changing markets, higher logging costs and lower-quality timber. At the time, John told a local interviewer, "You'll probably find instances of cruelty in my life, but it's the price you have to pay when you run a huge company. You have to try to consider the good of many people, rather than the cost to the few."

After that he developed other businesses and went placer mining at his Big Nugget mine outside of town for fun, mainly. He stored his gold in baby food jars tucked in an old safe, selling just enough to pay mine expenses.

John also had a running feud with his one-legged neighbor, "Porcupine Jo" Jurgeleit, who shot at him every now and then, or at least in his general direction. One night on the way out the mine road, John saw Jo's pickup crashed in a ravine. Another miner was already on the scene and asked John to drive her to the clinic in town. John said later that he thought a long moment about leaving her there, "but that wouldn't be the Christian thing to do." They probably saved Jo's life.

Advice for Stephen Hawking

John continued to win bridge games and write to politicians and newspapers well into his 90s. He typed treatises on climate change and the origin of the galaxy. (He mailed that one to Stephen Hawking, "not for his approval, but to assist him," Debra said.) A lifelong Republican, his favorite book was David McCullough's "Truman", and in the last year of his life he read romance novels to learn about love.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski liked visiting with John when she came to Haines. Her final image of him left an impression. They were at Haines Assisted Living and he was holding Erma's hand. "After 66 years together, that moved me," she said.

It's ironic that John's most-public success began by accident when a reality television crew set up camp next door. John initially viewed the made-for-TV miners through binoculars with skepticism before embracing his role.

Of course, "Gold Rush" is not 100 percent real, but the cameras did capture the love "Grandpa John" had for his grandsons Parker and Payson. When he saw them, and smiled that winning Schnabel smile, anyone could see the truth in that.

Haines writer Heather Lende's third book of essays, "Find the Good," follows "If You Lived Here I'd Know Your Name" and "Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs."

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