The Demaris Family
By Steve Lent, Museum Historian
Early small sawmills provided the lumber necessary for homesteaders and settlers to build homes. Most of the early sawmills provided lumber for local consumption and several mills were scattered across the landscape of Central Oregon. The Demaris family was one of the earliest to begin logging and milling operations in the region.
John Henry Demaris was born on February 28, 1864, near Walla Walla, Washington. His parents Enoch and Almeda Demaris had just crossed the plains by wagon the preceding year. The family moved to Mill Creek east of Prineville in 1876 and began ranching operations. John worked at small sawmills operated by Henry Birdsong and Sam Compton. Eventually John purchased the Compton mill on Mill Creek about 1895. John partnered with Henry Birdsong and the mill became known as the Birdsong-Demaris mill.
By 1900 plans were made to rebuild a new mill as the old one burned in 1904. A new steam engine was shipped to Mill Creek by freight from Shaniko. Ed Eastman was hired to construct the mill and Homer Barney, a local homesteader with sawmill experience, was hired as a sawyer. A wooden chute was built to deliver logs to the mill pond from the nearby hill tops. The chute was so steep that when the first log came roaring down off the slope that it planed across the pond and demolished a bunkhouse and barely missed part of the crew standing by watching the spectacle. The chute was shortly abandoned as being too steep and dangerous.
Demaris continued in the partnership until 1908 when he traded his homestead and mill to Arthur Decker for a ranch on McKay Creek. John had married Cynthia Jane O’Kelley in October 1883 and they had nine children. John and four of his sons, Walt, Bert, Dude and Jess established a mill on McKay Creek after the move in 1908. John died in 1917. Son John Walter “Walt” Demaris later operated a mill on Allen Creek. Walt married Minnie May Birdsong in 1904 and they had six children. He partnered with Ernest McKenzie in the Allen Creek mill in 1920 and it was known as the Demaris-McKenzie mill. The mill on Allen Creek burned and it was later moved to McKay Creek near Walt and Minnie’s ranch where it again burned and operations ceased.
Walt then moved to southern Oregon and became involved in the lumber industry but later moved back to Prineville. Walt died in 1972. Several generations of the Demaris family worked in the logging and mill industries in Central Oregon. The lumber industry later was to become one of the largest employers and major industries in Central Oregon for many years. The large operations of the 1930s and 40s in Prineville had been preceded by many small mills that met the needs of the local population and the Demaris family played a key part in the development of the industry.