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Publication Date: Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Ken Fisher: a passion for local history Ken Fisher: a passion for local history (October 29, 2003)

Ken Fisher fell in love with the Peninsula wilderness as a kid growing up in San Mateo two blocks from Crystal Springs Canyon. "The world was different then," he says. "You could just hitch-hike up in the hills and get lost."

Ken loved the woods so much he decided to become a forester. Forestry studies at Humboldt State College were OK, but a summer job with the Forest Service convinced him he never wanted to work for the government. "Forestry is a lousy career," he says. "Everything about forestry is either for or against the government."

Following in the footsteps of his father, prominent financier Philip Fisher, Mr. Fisher switched his career to finance, where he has thrived. "Finance is more unfettered," he says, " But I still love the forest."

Mr. Fisher continued to roam the hills, following in the footsteps of county historian Frank Stanger, whose book, "Sawmills in the Redwoods," chronicles the sawmills and their operators "mill by mill and gulch by gulch," from Woodside and Portola Valley as far west and south as Santa Cruz County. Mr. Fisher published a second printing of the book in 1992 and contributed a new introduction.

In 1967, Mr. Fisher found his first deserted trapper's cabin in a remote canyon. Drawn by the romance of the earthy days on Kings Mountain when logging was king, the Fishers moved to the hill in 1972. He and his wife, Sherri, and their three sons explored the most remote canyons for old mills and the artifacts that tell their stories.

"It was like walking into a ghost town, and seeing pieces of buildings, and thinking, 'There was life here!'" he says. "It's like looking through a telescope and seeing something, not a long way away, but a long time ago."

Of the thousands of artifacts Mr. Fisher has collected, special ones adorn his home. There are large saws on the porch, old bottles line a window where they catch the afternoon light, and his history room is crammed with pieces of the puzzle. Under the preserved bobcat, racoon, deer, coyote and rare red fox are double iron shoes from the oxen that hauled the logs, old radio batteries, an ebony-handled dinner knife, pulleys, a corner spool that guided cables in Purisima Canyon, and hundreds of bottles, including an opium bottle. "The bottles help me date the mill sites," he says.

Always a businessman as well as a history buff, Mr. Fisher is fascinated about the technological advances since the early Spanish days when they cut down small redwoods with axes, and two men sawed the logs in pits, sawing up and down. Then came water-powered saw mills about the time of the Gold Rush, followed by steam powered mills starting about 1952. Circular saws were introduced in the 1870s, and by the 1880s, donkey engines began to replace oxen for hauling logs up hills and even around corners. "The use of chain saws started in the 1950s," he says.

Mr. Fisher sees the century of logging as a local version of the larger Industrial Revolution that transformed the world. "I've always believed human existence was freed to become innovative by the Industrial Revolution and the power of steam," he reflects. "This area provides evidence of the power of steam engines, in one industry, in one place. Before the steam engine, people lived their lives the way their grandparents did; after the steam engine, that would never be true again."

Meanwhile, Mr. Fisher still gets inspired by the thrill of the hunt. "Just last week I found a whole steam boiler never seen before," he exults. "It will be there until it rusts away."

-- Marion Softky


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