Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler

‘Everybody on that street knew everybody.’ Wildfire destroys historic Black section of Weed

WEED, Calif. — It was a company town, anchored by a lumber mill and a nearby neighborhood populated by Black workers recruited from the South a century ago to work in the mill.

Now both have been devastated by wildfire.

The Mill fire tore through parts of the Roseburg Forest Products mill Friday afternoon in Weed and destroyed much of the Lincoln Heights neighborhood, a tight-knit working-class community that sprang to life in the 1920s to house Black millworkers.

“Everybody on that street knew everybody,” said Daudi Etter, 50, a lifelong Lincoln Heights resident whose home was destroyed Friday.

Standing on the outskirts of the neighborhood early Saturday, he said, “It looks like a bomb went off.” For 45 harrowing minutes Friday, Etter, who’d been at work in Mount Shasta when the fire started, didn’t know whether his 11-year-old stepdaughter, Amaya, had survived the fire. He later discovered that someone had evacuated her safely.

Others weren’t so lucky, Etter said, including one elderly woman he had heard didn’t have time to make it out. She was believed to be dead, he said.

Smoke rose from the homes that were little more than piles of rubble and twisted metal. Destroyed cars were sitting in pools of aluminum from the metal wheels that had melted. A small dog wandered aimlessly through the wreckage.

While the cause of the fire remains unknown, Mayor Kim Greene told The Sacramento Bee on Friday that it appeared to have started in the vicinity of the Roseburg mill. A company spokeswoman confirmed that a portion of Roseburg’s property burned Friday, although she had no information on exactly where and how the fire started. One major building on the Roseburg site was a smoking ruin early Saturday.

The fire marked a catastrophic chapter for this city of 2,600, which was named for timber tycoon Abner Weed, who emigrated from Maine and bought a small lumber mill for $400 in 1897.

Ironically, he picked the location after discovering “that the area’s strong winds were helpful in drying lumber,” according to the city’s website. Witnesses said fierce winds helped drive the Mill fire through the city.

By the 1920s, the facility was owned by the Long Bell Lumber Co., which recruited Black workers from its mills in the South, paid their train fare and moved them to Weed, according to an account by James Langford, a retired school teacher from Weed who has researched the city’s history.

The newly arrived workers mainly lived in company-supplied housing in a nearby neighborhood called the Quarters. Years later it would be renamed Lincoln Heights.

Langford, who was Weed’s first Black schoolteacher, said in an interview that Long Bell ran Weed as a company town. Millworkers were expected to buy their groceries, clothing and other necessities at a company-owned store called the Mercantile. The building still exists as an indoor shopping center.

“You could get anything you wanted.”

Long Bell — known to some as “Ma Bell,” according to Langford — kept the community racially segregated. The mill was no different. Whites worked inside, while Blacks were relegated to manual labor outdoors.

“Outside work was the harder work,” said Langford, who moved to Weed in the 1970s after finishing college in San Francisco. A decade ago, he helped produce a documentary about the neighborhood, “From the Quarters to Lincoln Heights.”

The Black community in Lincoln Heights eventually diversified, he said, and until the fire was home to a mix of whites, Asian Americans and Latinos. “Lincoln Heights was getting to be totally integrated,” he said.

Etter said the neighborhood has always been tightly knit. “Everybody helped everybody else; everybody on that street knew everybody,” he said.

“A lot of people went to the Bay Area, and stuff like that, but everybody always came back home,” he said.

Long Bell eventually became part of International Paper Co. and later the mill was taken over by Oregon-based Roseburg.

However, relations between the mill and the city haven’t always been friendly. For several years the two fought in court over control of a water supply known as the Beaughan Waters, which the city had been using for 100 years. The dispute was settled in March 2021, after the two sides signed a complicated settlement agreement that provided the city with the water.

The mill was heavily damaged in the 2014 Boles fire but reopened. With a staff of about 140, it remains one of the city’s largest employers.

“Jobs are hard to find unless you’re in the mill,” Langford said.


Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.