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Local timber-industry pioneer dies

MEDFORD — Eugene Burrill, whose family's wood products and land-development firms have played a major role in the economic life of Jackson County for more than a half-century, died Thursday morning.

The 89-year-old Burrill died at his residence at Waterford at Three Fountains in Medford, family members said.

Burrill was at the forefront of trying new equipment and methods in the wood-products industry. He wisely invested in land around his mill and beyond. He was an ardent supporter of Rogue Valley Medical Center and an avid aviator.

"He and guys like George Flanagan were builders and they built companies," said former Boise Cascade area manager Dick Rudisile. "At that time, the timber industry was a very vibrant group and active. They had a can-do attitude about getting things done."

During the Great Depression, his family left his native Washington and traveled to California's Central Valley to pick fruit. At 13, he got his first job earning $1 a day on a nearby farm pulling strawberries, tending turkeys and chopping wood for $1.50 per cord.

As a precursor to his 55-year career in the timber industry, Burrill was a high climber and a rigging slinger for a small logging outfit in Hood River while he was in high school. He proved well-suited for the dangerous endeavor and postponed graduation for several months in favor of continuing this line of work.

After graduating from high school, he worked for the Alaskan Railroad, repairing track and replacing ties, then spent the next three years working for small owner-operated sawmills in the Columbia River region.

Burrill invested $250 in a cast-off portable mill in spring 1941. He spent weekends restoring the mill and launched Eugene F. Burrill Lumber Co. in September of that year. One of his first contracts was sawing railroad ties for the Cheney Lumber Co., which owned timber rights throughout Washington and Oregon. That connection eventually led to relocating the company and its 10 employees to Prospect in 1942.

He was drafted into the service in 1944. He was assigned to an engineers unit and spent the rest of the war in Washington state teaching soldiers how to run a sawmill.

After the war, Burrill and his wife, Gladys, returned to Prospect. He bought another portable mill and began working with Svinth Lumber, one of the largest stud mill operators in the world at that time. At that point, he began producing 2-by-4s, which eventually earned the company a national reputation.

During the 1950s, Burrill owned both a logging business and stud mill, producing more than 10 million board feet of lumber. The company employed about 50, paying its workers better than a union starting wage.

Encouraged by Pacific Power & Light Chairman Glenn Jackson, Burrill moved in 1953 to the former Camp White area as it transitioned from a military post into the county's industrial hub.

"He started from zero and he built everything he has, which is a substantial part of the community," former state Sen. Lynn Newbry said. "He was at the forefront of converting Camp White into an industrial site."

The plant off Avenue G was built largely from scrap metal from Alaska and Portland and a defunct Oakland planing mill. It primarily processed white fir and Douglas fir studs and had more than 190 employees at its height.

In 1960, a national decline in lumber prices led Burrill to exit logging. The company managed to survive well into the 1990s by aggressively seeking new timber sources. By 1990, it employed 190 and produced 100 million board feet annually. Two years later, however, production was reduced to 1965 levels.

The plant was closed in 1998 and the family turned its attention to real estate development in White City and along the Highway 62 corridor in northeast Medford. His son, Mike Sr., and grandsons Mike Jr. and Curt have carried on development activities.

"It was tough for him to see the sawmill shut down because he had given his entire life to it, but he realized the necessity," Mike Burrill Jr. said. "He realized the importance of diversifying."

Jim Wright, former LTM president, said Burrill was both fair and charitable.

"He had such a commitment to employees, suppliers and the community that he ran that mill longer than he should have," Wright said. "He just didn't have a heart to lay off people. He was a big, big man, but he had an even bigger heart."

Whether it was building community airports or hospitals, Burrill actively pursued improvements. He served on several boards, including Mercy Flights, the Prospect School Board, the Jackson County Airport Commission, the Rogue Valley Medical Center Board and the Rogue Basin Flood Control and Water Resources Association.

"He was one of those people that built a foundation the rest of the businesses in Southern Oregon are still building on today," Wright said. "He did so much quietly."

Eugene F. Burrill was born Dec. 6, 1919. On Dec. 16, 1939, he was married to Gladys O. Johnson, who survives.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Mike, Medford; four daughters, Celeste Sweat, Central Point, Sandra Knudson, Medford, Gina Ostman Burrill, Camano, Wash., and Helen Ashley, Keizer; and 17 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by a son, Kevin, in 1985.

(See correction note below)

A memorial service in early January will be announced.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

Correction: The original version of this story excluded a reference to this son. This version has been corrected.

Local timber-industry pioneer dies