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Originally published July 31, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 31, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Old mill town a vestige of the past

In the quiet of this forest clearing, there once was a bustling way of life, with a school, a hotel and a dance hall for hundreds. Bands traveled to town...

Seattle Times South King County reporter

SELLECK — In the quiet of this forest clearing, there once was a bustling way of life, with a school, a hotel and a dance hall for hundreds. Bands traveled to town on Saturday nights to play.

That was back when the woods were loud with logging. Now the sound of Selleck is children scouring the nearby creek for snakes. Parents talking on the porches of century-old houses. A few dozen people, living in a time capsule of a town.

"It's like keeping an old Model T running," said Tim Schaefer, manager of Selleck Inc., a corporation that owns the former company town. "It's a labor of love." The tidy community of Selleck sits at the end of a winding road in southeast King County, its schoolhouse empty, its community hall used for storage. Most of its mill buildings are gone now, but Selleck had enough of its original self in 1989 to make the National Register of Historic Places. Port Gamble, also owned by a timber company, is the only other former company town in Washington state on that list.

Others have simply disappeared without a trace, said Charlie Sundberg of King County's historic-preservation program. The former mill town of Barneston, which stood within a few miles of Selleck, was razed in 1924. The houses of Snoqualmie Falls, owned by Weyerhaeuser, were either dismantled or moved in 1958. The rest of the town was bulldozed and replanted as forest.

In King County, only Selleck stands as a testament to that early industrial time, a mill-town museum with people living inside.

In 1908, when the businessmen arrived, the land around here already had been logged, mined and farmed by surrounding communities.

But the businessmen saw potential. They recruited Frank Selleck, the manager of another mill, to set up a lumber operation, and after a few false starts, Pacific States Lumber boomed and became famous.

It built the world's highest railroad trestle, rising 204 feet above the Cedar River. Production at the mill was so modern that the company landed a contract with Tokyo, trying to rebuild after the "great earthquake" of 1923. The Japanese city shipped over workers and their families to fill the large lumber order.

Selleck rose from the stumps of trees into a community of 900 people, complete with company houses, a hospital, hotel, community hall, school and several mill buildings. It stayed that way for decades, until the company declared bankruptcy in 1939.

Today, there is a white, two-story schoolhouse, empty but for the apartment in the back where Schaefer and his family live. A community hall, standing quiet in the shade of trees nearby. And 20 mostly gable-roofed bungalows, lined up in their original formation, in rows along a loop road. About 90 people live here.

In its current incarnation, Selleck offers affordable housing for working families and seniors. A four-bedroom house here rents for about $800; the average for a two-bedroom apartment in King County last year was closer to $860.

On a recent visit, there were flower beds in front yards and American flags flapping on swing sets. An 11-foot-tall cross stood behind the old schoolhouse, built by a resident and rigged to light up at night. Brightly colored bicycles lay strewn in the fields around town.

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Just last month, when a new family moved in, neighbors streamed out of their houses to help.

It was a scene that would have pleased Schaefer's father, Robert, a general contractor from Renton, who pooled together a bunch of investors to buy the town back in 1971. He'd always wanted to create a model American community — calm, respectful and neighborly.

But truth be told, when he invested in the property, he was hoping for so much more.

Obstacles

When Robert Schaefer arrived in Selleck, it was something of a rag-tag community. The town had churned through several owners after Pacific States Lumber declared bankruptcy.

But in his mind, Schaefer saw a wonderland in the wilderness, with paddleboats for families and a train running the perimeter of the mill pond. A logging theme park, staffed by students from the Christian college he planned to build.

"Dad always wanted to build a Disneyland," said Tim Schaefer, who gave up a career as an Air Force pilot to work by his father's side. "It was in his blood."

But time and again, the Schaefer family ran into rules and regulations. No restoring the mill pond because it had been designated wetlands. No maintaining a private water system; the federal government insisted they sign on to a community-owned water supply, which the Schaefers considered inadequate. Father and son fought the federal government for three years, then drilled wells of their own.

In the end, government was not the only thing standing in the way of the Disneyland dream. Robert Schaefer was a visionary, but fundraising was never a strong suit. After decades of holding out hope, Robert Schaefer died a few years ago, before he could see what he called "the big picture" come alive.

Dogged by rumors

To the children of Selleck, who visit elk in the forest and catch snakes in the grass, this place is a wonderland already. There are so many exciting things about it, they hardly know where to start.

Twenty acres of town, and open fields everywhere. Hills to roll down. Paths to carve out by bike. Nothing like Four Corners, the commercial center several miles away in Maple Valley, where McKenna Gallup, 9, lived until recently with her family.

"It was like a cage," she said. "We couldn't really go outside."

Walk a minute away from any house in Selleck, and there's the creek — clear, cold and quiet, with its colored rocks and those tall, mossy trees giving shade. On his way to the town tree house the other day, Noah Voelker, 8, stopped midstep to listen to the whir of woodpeckers, his favorite.

Selleck looks idyllic enough by day. But night, some residents say, is another thing entirely. The town is dogged by a rumor, spread over the Internet, that ghosts have come to haunt. Teenagers race their cars along the loop road at 2 a.m., honking horns, throwing eggs at the schoolhouse.

Schaefer sees an obvious way to stop it: Put up a gate. But the county owns the road. And the public has a right to travel county roads. So there, another source of tension, between the county and the former company town.

County officials said they were optimistic something could be worked out. Schaefer said he would hire a lawyer if not. There's more at stake here, he said, than just keeping the peace in Selleck.

That gate could represent the last, best chance of turning the town into a tourist attraction. He could charge entrance admission if he had a gate. Maybe, down the line, renovate the schoolhouse into a museum. Open a bed-and-breakfast.

Alison Gallup, 31, likes the town fine just the way it is: the sound of birds, and children yelling, and the occasional car motoring home, then silence.

"Yesterday, I had five kids on my porch, and they each had a snake," she said, standing on her front lawn, cradling an infant in her arms. "It's definitely not something I expected."

Looking back on it, Gallup said, it's funny how her family lived in the area for five years, drove down Kent-Kangley Road so many times, and never knew there was a former mill town nearby, on a small, splinter road, sitting pretty at the end.

Selleck was so quiet, she said, they didn't even know it was there.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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