You’d think after more than 65 years in the logging business, a quiet retirement would be in order — not for Howard Hammer
Howard Hammer is willing to concede his body is beginning to slow down a little, but that hasn’t stopped him from doing things some people wish they could do in the prime of their lives.
Hammer, who turned 85 in May, said his mind is the biggest reason why he hasn’t been able to kick back and take it easy. It keeps coming up with things for him to do.
“There have been many instances where I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep because my mind won’t shut off,” Hammer said. “I feel blessed that I can do things that I want to do, and I don’t want to waste any time not doing it.”
Hammer is responsible for creating the business and industrial parks on East Bakerview Road between James Street and Hannegan Road. He bought his first parcel of land 55 years ago — 30 acres around the ARCO AM/PM gas station on the corner of East Bakerview and Hannegan roads — by scraping together $7,000. Today the area is estimated to be worth $609,000 per acre. At the peak of his real estate dealings, Hammer had 208 acres in that area.
“There were a few people wondering what in the world I was doing, buying so much undeveloped property so far away from town,” Hammer said. “I just had a feeling the growth of the city would come this way. At the time, the railroad was going through the area, and I thought roads would eventually be built.”
Today he has sold all of his Bakerview property except for seven acres of industrial property where Baker Creek Storage is located, and even though this parcel is currently for sale, it doesn’t mean he’s resigned himself to a quiet retirement.
Hammer keeps himself busy, whether it is handling real estate deals in Stanwood, Wash., and Lake Havasu, Ariz., where he has a second home; dabbling in thoroughbred horse racing (he currently has five race horses, three brood mares and two foals); or zipping around on ATVs with his wife, Dee (recently they hopped on to their ATVs for a 46-mile excursion into the Arizona desert to check out old mines and the surrounding scenery).
“I’d like to do a little more traveling, but I’m still too busy working,” Hammer said with a chuckle.
None of Hammer’s latest adventures appear to surprise Theresa Chambers, who has been Hammer’s employee for 23 years.
“He truly is the Energizer Bunny; he can still put in a day’s worth of work on his property before he comes into the office each morning,” Chambers said. “He’s always been like that.”
Right to work
Hammer figures he has been having a difficult time kicking the habit of working because it’s what he’s done his entire life. At age six his mother put him to work milking cows on the family farm before and after school. As he got older his list of chores on the farm increased as he helped support a family which would eventually have 13 children.
After working at various farms until he was 17, Hammer got into the logging business, which he started by using horses to log out areas such as Mosquito Lake, near Deming. It wasn’t a good time to be a logger in the 1930s, as the economy was even worse in the Pacific Northwest that elsewhere, Hammer said. At one point, Hammer subsisted on horse feed and water for three weeks, because he didn’t have any money.
By the 1940s, Hammer tried to get into the Army to serve in World War II. Ironically, even though he had spent most of his life to this point hiking around the mountains, logging trees and working on the farm, he wasn’t fit for military service because his spine was not aligned properly.
Since the Army refused to allow Hammer to enlist, he went back to logging, even though it was still a difficult way to make a living.
“The economy was tough in this area into the 1940s and 1950s,” Hammer said. “Bellingham’s economy was like a snail for a long time. It took quite a long time to get things done. What amazes me is Bellingham’s economy today. There is so much more money out there, so you can accomplish things so much more quickly. When I first started investing, you had to have patience to be successful. That’s not the case today.”
Patience pays off
In 1950, Hammer started making bigger investments in logging and in real estate. He began purchasing land in the Hannegan/Bakerview area, and founded Hammer Brothers and Dawson in 1950, with Ken Dawson.
“I’m not even sure where I was able to get enough money to start buying property, but I was convinced this area would develop,” Hammer said.
Hammer was able to grow his logging business as it went through name changes and new partners, and by 1964 he purchased three companies — Washington Loggers, Washington Crushers and Forest Sales — with several other partners.
Hammer was in charge of the logging and rock-crushing companies. In 1965 Washington Loggers processed 86 million board feet; Dee Hammer estimates Howard and his companies have logged more than one billion board feet of timber. Hammer finally stopped logging in 1993, at the age of 73.
“I guess you could say I started slowing down a bit when I stopped logging, but it gave me more time to spend on real estate investing,” Hammer said.
Hammer said the Bakerview area has grown much more than he ever expected when he first started investing in 1950.
“These are the kind of businesses I expected to see here, but there are just more of them,” Hammer said. “About 30 years ago I wanted to put in a pipe and the local water district said that I had to prove there would eventually be 500 people working out here. That seemed like a big number at the time, but this area has far exceeded that.”
Hammer enjoys seeing what has happened to Bellingham’s economy and in some ways wishes he could continue doing so now that deals and developments happen more quickly.
“When I was making investments, I was also struggling to make a living,” Hammer said. “I don’t know how I’d do now, though. It is much more difficult to make a good profit on something, because prices are so much higher now. There aren’t as many good deals out there as there were when I first got started.”
What he feels most fortunate about is his health. Hammer did have a stroke in January 2004, but was able to make a full recovery. The only other health problem he’s had was one injury he sustained early on in a logging accident.
“I think being as busy as I have has helped me stay healthy,” Hammer said. “Work is the healthiest thing there is, as far as I can tell. I’ve been fortunate, too, not to have many injuries, but keeping your body going through work has been the key for me.”
Not an easy life, but a good one
Howard Hammer’s youth mainly consisted of hardscrabble work wherever he could find it — logging and farm work, mostly. He recalled one three-week stretch at the height of the Great Depression when he subsisted on nothing but horse feed and water.