Heinrich Sturm

by Howard Faxon

Copyright© 2016 by Howard Faxon

: A woodsman foresaw the rise of the German WWII war machine and fled. This is his story.

Tags: Historical   Violent   Military   War   Politics  

In a time that nobody remembers, in a place that didn’t happen after the transcontinental railroad went through the railroad companies spread out, buying mountain valleys from New Mexico to Montana to run their tracks. They always followed the rivers which meant there was less need for blasting and there was always growing timber to be had for the sleepers and bridges.

The countryside was so beautiful that somene hit on tourism as a way to make their money back on their investments faster than mere freight haulage would repay them. Compared to the costs of buying the property, the blasting and laying the track the cost of building hotels along the lines was considered trivial.

At first they were quite the moneymakers but as they became just another set of destinations the bloom wore off and the number of visitors shrank. The crash of 1929 put the final nail in the coffin of the railroad hotels.

Skipping ahead to after the close of World War II there was a great influx of disposessed tradesmen from all over Europe, including Germany, the Baltic states and from around the North Sea.

Heinrich Sturm had fled Germany to escape conscription in the Nazi war machine. He’d ended up in Norway, making a living as a lumberjack. After the war such a surge of nationalism took over that he fled in fear for his life. He packed his tools, clothes and money and quickly took passage for America.

Having spent the war years outside of Germany and having served in the Norwegian military there was no question of his being a Nazi sympathizer. A strong young man with skills in timbering was welcome. His name was Americanized to Harry Storm during his passage through Ellis Island, where he also recieved two arms full of immunization shots. From there he was shipped off by rail to an acculturization camp in Georgia, where he learned American English. He was used to living in the dormitories from his time in the lumbering camps, but many others found it very hard. He kept his goods locked up and watched for thieves. Being single he had no chance at the small houses that the families moved into. Still, he was able to find employment in the pine forests, cutting timber for Weyerhauser.

Due to his skills operating the big long-line cable cranes he soon found himself no longer with an axe in his hand but working in the sawmill yards, running timber through the debarking tanks and feeding the plywood mill. As a skilled laborer he made quite a bit more money, but he saved all he could. He wanted more out of life than to work in a lumber camp. Money was the key to his freedom.

Harry found friendship in Lars Petersen, a Swede as big as Harry at over six feet tall. They loomed over the other Europeans like giants. Food had not been so hard to get in the lumber camps of Sweden and Norway while nearly everyone in Germany starved at least two nights a week. Some had it much worse.

While Harry had the timbering skills Lars’ training tended more towards carpentry and home construction.

With the end of the war a lot of army surplus equipment and weapons from both the Eastern and the Pacific battlefields came on the market. a nearly new .30-40 Krag rifle could be had for ten dollars, and the ammunition cost pennies a round when puchased by the case. Both Harry and Lars were familiar with the weapon, having served in the Swedish and the Norwegian military. They compared their experiences in the army and came to the mutual agreement that military rations were an evil sold to the military by the cheapest vendor.

They had teamed up to do their research on where to go. They had their eye on an old railroad motel near Alamogordo, New Mexico called Cloudcroft. It had a two story central lodge and a 20’x35’ kitchen with two wings of twelve big 18’x20’ bedrooms for guests. Harry had written to a realtor in Alamogordo and found that the motel and surrounding eighty acres was available for eleven thousand dollars. The walls were still standing and there was a useable rail spur that terminated deep in the property, once used for logging. All they had to go on was a black and white 3x5 picture of the place with a man standing next to it for scale. It was no wonder that the walls had survived. They were made of twenty eight to thirty inch logs! The builders must have used a steam crane to host them into place.

The men discussed what they should budget. An old abused caboose missing most of its roof and cupula could be had for a couple hundred dollars, and a hopper car on its last legs with several tack-welded patches filled with hard coal would cost about eight hundred delivered to the site. These would give them someplace to sleep, cook and eat. They reached a decision that when they had a communal pot of thirty thousand dollars they would pull the trigger.

By spring of 1954 they had more than enough, and had simply kept working until the rail siding in New Mexico was freed of the winter’s ice and snow. They rebuilt the shell of the caboose, taking care to seal it against the harsh winters that they would experience high up in the New Mexico mountains. Their new home was heated with a two-eye coal-fired potbelly stove. When they discovered that the toilet installed in the caboose was nothing more than a chute dumping out on the tracks below they knew that they’d have to buy dynamite and blasting caps to dig out a vault for their night soil.

By the time they were ready to leave most of the caboose was filled with wood, cases of food, tools, boots and clothes. There were barrels of nails and heavy spikes stored under their bunks. They had bought four Krag rifles that tested out to be in fine shape as well as several thousand rounds of ammunition. Lars suggested that they buy a couple of Remington .22 LR rifles and four bricks of ammunition to kill the foragers getting into their garden. They had hunted for their meat before and expected to eat their kill once in the mountains. The encyclopedia said that there was deer, elk, cougar, mountain sheep and bear to be had. They made sure to stock plenty of pure salt for curing their game and the hides.

By May first they had their deed in hand and their railroad cars were on the property. A simple walk-through of the big lodge showed it to be nothing but a hollow shell. during the twenty-five years that it had been abandoned the roof had collapsed. The men were apalled at the devestation and amount of work that stood before them. Still, the walls were good and all the trash could be dug out, a little at a time. Then the joists could be cut and fit, the rafters raised, the roofing boards set in place and the roof shingled.

First though, they needed to get their garden in! They had over a hundred and seventy pounds of seed potatoes ready to cut into eyes and plant. They hoped that they would have a good crop by the time the frost killed the vines.

They dug up the four outhouse pits for fertilizer. It was nothing but good black soil by then. They worked steadily and hard to clear the fields and plant root crops, mainly red potatoes but carrots, turnips and radishes as well. Pumpkins and winter squash were planted to vary their diet come winter.

Their next task was to build a secure smoke house and an outhouse. Rather than blast and dig a vault out of solid stone as they’d planned, nailing up an outhouse over one of the old pits made much more sense. Each morning they watered the fields before tearing into the demolition of the collapsed floors.

Plenty of rains came in July and August to keep the garden green and growing.

By the end of August they had one wing, the central lodge and the kitchen stripped down to the sleepers. Rather than digging out and using a saw pit to perform the back-breaking labor of making sawn boards they split out thick slabs with axes and wedges. These were drilled for countersinks and spiked into the sleepers to provide a rough floor. Once the rafters were strung and braced in place a line of vertical risers went in, then they were angle braced for stability as well. Two beams were split out and run down either side of the peak to make the frame one solid structure.

After they had a solid frame for the roof in place more slab wood was cut, split, hauled up and spiked in place to act as a base for the shingles. All they had was pine, so they rived and nailed up thick pine shakes. The roof was on over half of the building. The big two-story central lodge presented an entirely different set of problems. They designed and built a hub for the center, and temporarily supported it on a huge tripod. Then six sturdy timbers were cut to fit the sockets in the hub and in the peripheral cap rails topping the walls around the room. When the supporting tripod was pulled the contraption groaned a bit and settled into place. Success! They had a soaring central space. After that spiking down slabs and nailing down the shingles was nothing new. They built a temporary wall to block off the uncleared and un-roofed wing for the winter. It would soon be October.

They realized that they had to work quickly to winterize the structure before the winter snows came. Lars put together his pack and rifle with a large bag of jerked elk meat and a thousand dollars. It was sixteen miles down the rails to Alamogordo where he could order and have shipped cased windows delivered to Cloudcroft. It was a late winter, but still while Lars was gone the first heavy frosts of winter came. Harry had his work cut out for him in forking up the garden before the ground got too hard to dig. He washed all the root vegetables and laid them out to dry on the rough floors they had spent so much time nailing down.

Lars was gone for three weeks, during which time Harry had harvested almost six hundred pounds of potatoes. Once they were dry he hammered together a wall blocking off three bedroom’s worth of space, laid in ceiling joists and put a small coal stove in the room to keep the crops from freezing. The turnips and carrots went into the caboose to store while the squash was sliced into strips, had holes punched through their rinds and were hung on string to slowly dry in the cold air. When Lars returned, together they’d be able to handle splitting more slabs for the ceiling above the larder, blocking it off so that the little stove could do its work. If the windows didn’t come until later then the openings would have to be covered with more slab wood.

One morning Harry was awakened by a train whistle. A short train backed into their siding and dropped off a boxcar. When the door was opened, there stood a grinning Lars. He’d done well in his dealings. He not only had the cased windows that were needed, but also there was a new stove for the kitchen to replace the one that had been destroyed by the collapse of the old ceiling timbers.

It was freezing outside, but not too bad. The wind never stopped though, so the men had to keep bundled up. Enough lumber was cut to roof over their larder, then the trunks were split and spiked into place. That insured that their food supply for the winter would not rot. They had plenty of coal. besides, if they ran out of coal there was a lot of useable wood in the trash pile that they’d cleaned out of the building.

They slowed down for the winter. Sure, they kept cutting timber for the ceiling joists but they weren’t in any big rush like they had been before. With the cased windows nailed in place and puttied in, the building was winter-tight. They moved everything out of the caboose and into the kitchen which was much less drafty and easier to heat. It didn’t take them long to make a heavy kitchen table and a couple of sturdy chairs. Lars showed Harry some tricks on how to build and mount kitchen cabinets. It took both of them to carry in and mount the thick hickory countertop that they’d split out and dragged up from the river valley.

By Christmas the ceiling joists were replaced for both wings, and slabs were spiked down over them by the middle of January.

They planed off the floors and stoned them smooth, room by room. Then they framed and sheathed the walls separating the bedrooms. The hallway to access the rooms ran down the front of the building, leaving a beautiful view out of the bedroom windows. There were several old outbuildings, one of which was a stable. They took care to salvage what they could, including the old kerosene lamps.

With all the easier tasks completed they slowly attacked the cleanup of the second wing. By the time the snows were gone in late March the scrap wood and trash had been separated, the sleepers were ready for flooring.

When everything outside turned to mud there was little they could do. Peeled log mortice and tenon furniture was built in the warmth of the kitchen and stored in the lodge until needed. The front walls of the rooms were framed and sheathed, while the doorways were carefully made to the proportions of the pre-hung doors that were yet to be ordered.

The property covered eighty acres, including four heavily wooded valleys with streams running down them. They were prime hunting lands. Their plan was to advertise. Each room could hold four grown men if they didn’t mind the crowding. The furniture was made to provide two standard beds in each room along with a table and chairs. They had yet to build the closets.

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