Say the name Bratnober to anyone living on the Sammamish Plateau in the first half of the twentieth century (or say it to a Plateau historian) and their face will light up in instant recognition. Bratnober was one of the preeminent lumber barons of the Sammamish Plateau in the first four decades of the twentieth century, rivaled only by the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. Yet it was Bratnober who seems to have left a bigger impression on the Plateau. This account, written by Sammamish Heritage Society historian Phil Dougherty,reprints Dougherty's article, "Lumber John” (Sammamish Scene, April 4, 2007, pp.12-14), and appears here with the kind permission of the Sammamish Review.
There were actually two Bratnober brothers involved in logging on the Sammamish Plateau between 1906 and 1939, but John Bratnober (1879-1951) was the local brother who made it happen. He was born on January 18, 1879, in Waterloo, Iowa. His half-brother, Charles (1866-1928) -- more typically known as C.P. -- older than John by 13 years, established the first family lumber company, the Bratnober & Ricker Lumber Company, in 1888 with offices in Waterloo and Dunkerton, Iowa. In 1895 C.P. partnered with his friend Harry Waite and established the Bratnober-Waite Lumber Company in Minneapolis.
In 1899 John Bratnober came to Washington state and promptly began buying timberland. In 1900 he established the Bratnober-Waite Lumber Company in Clear Lake (Skagit County), about two miles south of Sedro Woolley. In January 1903 the company changed its name to the Clear Lake Lumber Company, and Bratnober seems to have sold his interest in the company soon after.
But by 1903 John was already pursuing other opportunities. He moved to Seattle in 1903 or 1904, and by 1905 was involved with both the Clear Lake Lumber Company and a separate company owned by Waite, the H. B. Waite Lumber Company. But he was not all business; he married Jessie (ca. 1882-1966) in November 1903, and in February 1908 he and Jessie had their only child, a son, John Bratnober Jr (1908-1941).
In 1906, John Bratnober, brother C.P., and C. S. LaForge of Snohomish bought the Allen and Nelson Mill Company in Monohon. The purchase included 191 million feet of standing timber. The mill was already well established in 1906, having operated in Monohon since November 1889. The Bratnobers and LaForge expanded operations at the growing mill and by 1910 the mill employed at least 94 people. The Bratnober brothers bought out LaForge in 1911, and the mill continued to operate successfully through the 1910s and into the 1920s. By this time John Bratnober was the face of the Bratnober brothers in Seattle. C. P. remained in Minneapolis and ran his operations there, and John eventually bought C. P.’s interest in the Allen and Nelson Mill Company.
In February 1924 the company changed its name to the Bratnober Lumber Company. Then the following year, disaster: Fire destroyed the mill -- along with most of Monohon -- on June 26, 1925. The company reorganized in July 1926 as the Bratnober-Baty Lumber Company under John Bratnober, Guy Baty, and Ina Hunter. (Some historians record his name as Ira, but documents signed by Hunter show his name as Ina.) The mill was rebuilt by June 1928. Through the 1930s Bratnober-Baty both ran the mill and leased it to others; the mill was closed for three years in the early 1930s because of the economic collapse resulting from the Great Depression. By 1939 the company had largely completed its logging operations on the Plateau, and the mill was sold in September 1939.
But John Bratnober also made his mark outside of the lumber industry. He was interested in a breed of cattle known as Milking Shorthorns, a type of cattle bred to produce both milk and beef. In 1918 he founded the “Northwood herd” of cattle in Minnesota, and shipped them west two years later. Then, in May 1921, the Allen and Nelson Mill Company bought the Willowmoor Farm in Redmond from James Clise (1855-1939) for the purpose of raising these cattle. The purchase price is currently not known; the deed records it as “ten dollars,” but this is obviously not the actual price.
Bratnober renamed the farm Northwood, and though he never lived on the farm, he has the distinction of being the longest private owner of the property, owning it for just shy of 20 years. (Bratnober and his wife did use the art gallery, located on the north end of the Clise mansion, to entertain during the years they owned the property.)
When he purchased the farm, Bratnober hired a property manager, George Kenny, to run the dairy and breeding operations at the farm. Although Kenny ran the farm from 1921 until 1937, Bratnober was actively involved in the farm’s operations until the last several years he owned it. By 1930 there were at least 300 cattle in the farm’s herd. According to a 1930 article in the East Side Journal, there were only two or three such herds in Washington state and just a few on the entire Pacific Coast. In 1937 Bratnober’s son took over operations at the farm.
In March 1941 Bratnober sold the farm to Uberto Dickey. Although the deed of trust records the purchase as “ten dollars,” a subsequent owner of the farm, familiar with the terms of the 1941 purchase, claimed that Bratnober sold the farm to Dickey for $56,000. Dickey promptly leased the farm to others, it was renamed Marymoor, and ownership changed hands several times before King County purchased the site in 1962.
Sometime around 1930 Bratnober developed asthma, and it worsened over time. His contemporaries say he became reclusive in the final decade of his life, probably due to his health issues -- his asthma became so chronic that it eventually killed him -- and possibly exacerbated by sadness over the untimely death at age 33 of young John Bratnober Jr., from pancreatic cancer in December 1941.
Not much is known of what Bratnober was like personally. His draft card from World War I says that he was of “medium height and build,” but, aside from raising cattle, little else is known of his interests or hobbies outside of the lumber industry. However, he was a member of the Rainier Club, as were many Seattle gentlemen in the first half of the twentieth century.
John Bratnober died at age 72 on Palm Sunday, March 18, 1951, in the same house on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill that he and Jessie had lived in for over 40 years.