Baker builder, noxious weed fighter, Sid Johnson dies at 89

Written by Jayson Jacoby April 07, 2014 09:07 am

By Jayson Jacoby

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The homes Sid Johnson built in Baker County will shelter families for decades, but perhaps the greatest legacy of his handiwork is a forest.

Johnson, who started one of the county’s larger construction companies, died Saturday at his home in Baker City.

He was 89.

Besides being a prominent business owner, Johnson served in a variety of public positions, including the Baker County Planning Commission and the Weed Board.

One of his great passions, though, was improving the property he and his wife Nancy, whom he married in 1948, owned along Alder Creek about 15 miles southeast of Baker City.

Johnson’s parents settled in that area in 1911 after moving west from Wisconsin.

Johnson, who was born in 1924, lived at Alder Creek until he was a seventh-grader, when his family moved to Muddy Creek in the Baker Valley.

In the early 1970s, Johnson recalled in a 2001 interview with the Baker City Herald, Nancy told him, while they were visiting their Alder Creek acreage, that what she’d like to see a few more trees.

And not junipers, about the only species able to survive in that area where the annual rainfall averages about 10 inches.

“I decided I could plant a few trees and satisfy her requirements,” Johnson said in 2001.

He ended up planting rather more than a few trees.

More like a few thousand trees.

Ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs and tamaracks and even a couple of giant sequoias.

Johnson’s task was considerably more labor-intensive than putting in a couple of shade trees in a suburban yard.

His property, which eventually encompassed more than 800 acres, is not well-endowed with water sources.

Many times Johnson had to lug five-gallon buckets of water to nourish his seedlings until their roots penetrated far enough to tap groundwater.

“I tell ’em I’d even come out and sing to ’em,” he said in 2001, referring to his fledgling forest. “But that’d probably turn ’em brown.”

Today the fruits of Johnson’s four decades of toil paint dark green smudges against the dun backdrop of the sagebrush and bunchgrasses that dominate the Alder Creek landscape.

Besides the trees there was another type of flora that attracted Johnson’s attention, except this one appealed to the gruff aspect of his personality rather than its tender side.

Leafy spurge.

That noxious weed was Johnson’s bane, the target of his tireless efforts carried out through untold miles of hiking in the steep terrain and many hours riding in a helicopter, looking for the telltale yellow patches of spurge in bloom.

“He was a giant in the weed world, and he will be missed,” said Arnie Grammon, head of Baker County’s Weed Control Department.

“He was a man of conviction, and there was no more hard-working weed fighter than Sid Johnson.”

Indeed, Grammon bestowed his annual “weed warrior” award on Johnson several years ago.

Johnson’s campaign against leafy spurge extended to the entire lower Burnt River country, and it started more than 30 years ago, said Dave Clemens, a retired weed department manager.

“He was a tough old geezer — I loved the guy,” Clemens said of Johnson.

For many years, Clemens said, about the most common sight around Alder Creek was a white fiberglass stake. Johnson pounded hundreds of them into the ground to mark leafy spurge patches.

He dealt with as many of those patches as he could, Grammon said.

“He went out there with a backpack and he was spraying well into his 80s,” Grammon said.

David Lindley, a Baker City CPA, said he worked with Johnson for several years when both served on the Baker Industrial Development Commission (BIDC), which promoted the local economy.

Lindley, who had a stint as the group’s chairman, said Johnson always advocated for what was known as the “red carpet committee” — basically a hospitality campaign to encourage people to come to Baker County.

“He always made his point forcefully, but he was always very gentlemanly about it,” Lindley said. “I enjoyed working with him.”

Peter Ellingson, who also served on the BIDC, said Johnson was the “salt of the community.”

“The guy wanted the community to succeed and he did whatever he could to make that happen,” Ellingson said.

Grammon said Johnson summoned him to his office several months ago.

“It was one of those melancholy moments, because it felt to me like he was sort of handing the reins to me, to make me understand how important the leafy spurge effort was to him,” Grammon said.

“It was a neat time, for him to put that kind of trust in me.”

As for all those trees that grace the slopes along Alder Creek, there Johnson’s labors will live so long as his family and other visitors relish their shade and scenery.

“He wasn’t planting those trees for himself,” Grammon said.