By Marjorie Woodfin
Pilot staff writer
When Walt and Iva Thompson, Grand Marshals of the 2005 Azalea Festival Parade, moved to Brookings-Harbor in 1951, the population in the logging, flower-growing community was only about 1,200.
Prior to the move, they purchased the property currently occupied by their Driftwood RV Park at the Port of Brookings Harbor, with plans to build a sawmill, which they ran until 1965 when they closed it to build the RV park that opened in 1968.
Walt said he had plenty of time to visit with the early settlers while he was digging the acre log pond and setting up their sawmill.
He explained that Iva and the children didn't move from Eugene until 1952, so he was on his own.
Walt already knew plenty about the logging business. He had spent most of his adult life in the business, felling, hauling, sawing, and milling logs while employed by others, until 1943 when he and his older brother opened Thompson Brothers Lumber Co. He and Iva bought his brother's interest in the business 1945, and ran several milling plants, through good times and bad, until their move to Brookings-Harbor.
The romance that led to their marriage began as friendship when they were just tots. Walt Thompson and Iva Putman grew up together in Corvalis. Their families became friends when his family first moved to Corvalis from Alberta, Canada when he was only 5 years old. They have old photos of the two of them taken when they were in the same Sunday school class, even though Walt was an "older man" two years her senior.
He was born June 23, 1918 and she was born Sept. 30, 1920.
They were friends all during their school years but didn't begin courting until Iva was 16. "The first birthday present I ever gave her was for her 16th birthday," Walt said. When asked if they were going steady, Walt said, "No, I didn't go completely with her at that time, but we went together five years before we were married."
Walt said he had his father-in-law's quick approval to marry Iva.
"She went with some other, better looking, smarter boys, but he liked me because I could shoe horses, and he had horses," Walt said, recalling that he used to hitch rides on the back of his future father-in-law's wagon when he was only five years old.
The Thompsons were married in 1941 during their senior year at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University).
"We were married in Longview, Wa. and that night I went back to my job on the green chain. I piled 100,000 feet of 2x4s to buy her $35 ring," he said. "She made more money than I did, picking hops. At 40 cents an hour I had to work 13-hour days to keep up with her."
They were in the same college graduating class in 1942. He earned a bachelor of science degree majoring in wood products and business administration and Iva's degree was in home economics and physical education.
After they were married Walt continued working in the logging industry, but Iva continued with her education, working on a master's degree in education with a 4.0 grade point average, while taking care of Betty Jean, the first of their four children, and working part time in a children's summer recreation program.
"We started out with nothing," Walt said. They purchased their first home in Eugene when Iva looked at a house and said, "That's where I want to live." Walt had saved $100, his brother had $200, and the bank loaned him $1,500 to pay for the house.
However the banker told him he had to install an inside toilet before he could get the loan. He started digging a hole for the septic tank.
"I'd come home from work and dig until dark," he said. "And Iva hauled away the 5-pound buckets." He said he used a little dynamite, but gave that up when it caused a bit of trouble with the neighbors.
Iva was offered a teaching contract, but Walt told her, "You send that contract back and come work in the business with me," and she did.
She said, "If I had taken that job I'd be retired and have a pension by now."
By this time Walt and his older brother had started Thompson Brothers Lumber Co. They decided to buy a portable mill and go into business for themselves after Walt had a job offer to run a mill.
He applied for a job as a lumber buyer. During the interview, the mill owner told him that with his logging and milling experience he apparently knew more about making lumber than buying lumber and offered him a job running a mill at $250 a month, plus half the profits.
"It was strange, here I was a college graduate working in a lumber mill for $1.25 an hour, and I was the high pay man."
Walt thought about the offer and decided that if he was going to run a mill it might just as well be his own, and he and his older brother started Thompson Brothers Lumber Co. in 1943. In 1945 he and Iva bought out his brother's interest in the business.
Iva did help out with the business, as her husband had suggested, taking over the bookkeeping and even driving a truck, with Betty Jean in the seat beside her. She lost a load of lumber in downtown Eugene one day and told him she would never drive the truck again if he didn't secure the logs better.
After being flooded out, and burned out twice with no insurance, Walt told the banker, "All I've got is bills and a burned out mill. What am I going to do." He said the banker told him, "You're going to buy another mill and work your way out." That's all it took to convince the Thompsons to pick up stakes and move to the Cottage Grove area in 1947 to buy another mill that they owned and ran until 1951 when they moved to Harbor.
For the Harbor mill Walt built an acre log pond and began buying fir logs and manufacturing lumber in the beginning. "Later we bought mostly second-growth redwood from Crescent City," he said.
The population began to grow slowly. "It didn't grow very fast for a long, long time," Walt said, "From 1960 to 1970 Brookings grew 6 percent and Harbor 18 percent."
When the RV park opened in the summer of 1968, rates were $2 per day. "We were never troubled when we took in $10 in a day," he said.
With income from the RV park, they began scraping the roads for Driftwood Estates 24 years ago. "Over the years we have borrowed very little," he said. "Income from the park financed Driftwood Estates."
As they look back at the changes in their lives over the 64 years they have been married, and the more than 80 years they have lived, Walt and Iva agree that they have had wonderful partners over the years.
Having done everything from felling trees, bucking logs, and every job in the mill, Walt looks back on the changes in the logging industry. "I've donkey logged, and logged with horses as well as logging with a big cat," he reminisced.
Iva remembers keeping the books for their businesses, and raising four children, while participating in community activities including garden clubs, American Association of University Women and those involving the schools.
In addition to the RV Park and the mobile home park, the Thompsons own Driftwood Tack and Western, where they work every day, plus other real estate.
"Real estate has been very good to us," Walt said. "I don't know how to fish or hunt or play cards, and the longest vacation we've ever taken was a three week trip to Alaska. We just work. We like to work."
They are proud of their four children, Betty, Roger, Janet and Susie, who all went through school in Brookings, and their 11 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren.
They are looking forward to seeing and greeting family and friends as they lead the Azalea Festival parade.