Stihl in America – Blog 10 – The First Flying Stihl Distributor
It’s possible that Gordon Williams met the chainsaw legend of Hood River while visiting the Oregon chain plant during his days at Estate Equipment. If the two hadn’t met, Gordon most likely knew of the reputation of the owner of H&D Logger Supply, Virg Hatfield. Virg’s parents had migrated to Oregon from West Virginia. It’s possible they were trying to get as far from family as possible since during the time of the migration, the Hatfields and the McCoys were bent on killing each other—some say over a disputed pig, while others claim the feud was a remnant of the Civil War. Both families had sided with the confederacy with the exception of one member of the McCoy family, who’d fought for the Union. No matter, lots of them died during the nearly thirty year feud. The Hatfields were the more affluent of the two families and fortunately for Virg and his decedents, able to escape the carnage.
Gordon and Virg maintained a professional respect for each other but it’s thought that Virg never cared much for Gordon or anyone at Tull-Williams, Stihl American, or Stihl Parts. It’s conceivable that Virg, naturally given to holding a grudge, like so many Hatfields, knew of Harding Smith’s relationship to the locomotives in the Civil War’s great locomotive chase, a valiant move on the part of brave union volunteers and soldiers for whom many were awarded the first Medal of Honor, albeit posthumously, by President Lincoln. Even though the Great Chase raiders were heralded as heroes by the north, they and anyone connected to them were considered traitors by the south and post-war southern sympathizers.
While Virg’s disdain for the eastern elite likely stemmed from southern sympathetic notions, dealing with them posed a concession of sorts but the Mason-Dixon divide likely wasn’t the only compromise mulling around in his mind. The Great War with Germany had ended little more than a decade earlier and Stihls were made in Germany. Compromises are easier when the gain of doing so is advantageous and when it’s clear that others are facing a similar dilemma. Once Virg learned that the principals of Tull-Williams, Gordon and Harding, had fought for America in Germany during WWII, Gordon a machine gunner, and Harding a bombardier, he realized he was in good company by promoting the world’s finest tree felling machine. Wounds heal quickly when it’s to one’s advantage that healing occurs. Stihl was anxious to sell saws worldwide and a lightweight, powerful, dependable saw appealed to America’s premier loggers—they didn’t care about the country of origin, many of whom who’d also served in the European theatre during WWII.
Virg was well known and highly respected throughout the northwest big-timber region, and for good reason. While serving in the US Navy, he’d spent most of his leisure time boxing, the remnants of which was a crooked nose, which provided him a vexed and menacing look. Following the Navy Virg worked with a logging crew outside Roseburg, OR, the timber capital of the nation, situated in southern Oregon in the Umpqua river valley. He harvested trees using both chainsaws and the labor intensive cross cuts until an injury ended his career as a fulltime logger, at which time he purchased a service station in Hood River, some 250 miles away. It’s possible Virg, no longer able to log, wanted to get away from logging all together. The filling station routine didn’t suit Virg and in 1952 when a saw shop came up for sale he sold the filling station, purchase the saw shop, named it H&D Loggers Supply, and began selling saws, the next best thing to logging.
After having been in the saw business for a few years and selling a variety of brands including McCulloch and Remington, he responded to a Tull-Williams advertisement about selling Stihl. Virg was already familiar with Stihl saws, possibly more so than Gordon or Harding, owners of Tull-Williams. Although rare, older models of Stihls had trickled into the northwest, but the parts availability was virtually nil. Since Virg was a veteran saw man, he was likely aware that many features utilized on American made saws had been copied from Stihl.
Knowing Virg’s reputation and potential, Gordon sent him a saw to demo. After trips to logging camps, felling trees himself and demonstrating both the Super Lightening and his prowess as a logger and then getting the demo into the hands of respected loggers, Virg had proven himself and the saw to the most hard headed and stubborn, America’s northwest woodsmen. Virg knew then he wanted to play a major role in getting Stihl re-introduced in America’s northwest. Virg exemplified the phrase, “If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly.”
Even though Hood River, Oregon is thousands of miles from Eastern Kentucky, the mentality of the people and geographical terrain is similar. Maybe that’s why Virg’s ancestors chose the northwest; it was like home without the bodacious relatives. Virg’s natural tendency was to find a solution to a problem rather than complain. He was known to grumble but the grumbling was generally a conversation he was having with himself during the solution solving process. And Virg’s foreboding appearance inhibited anyone from questioning the growling murmurs.
It’s not unusual for people from the east coast, particularly the northeast to think of all states being geographically similar to that of New England, relatively small and condensed. It’s possible that with that frame of mind, Gordon agreed to Virg’s distribution coverage area to include: Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas. While distributors in the east made use of the most efficient and sensible method of transportation in their area–cars, vans, and pickups, Virg chose the most efficient and sensible mode of transportation in which to travel the mountainous and river strewn northwest, an airplane.
One of Virg’s Stihl customers was also a crop duster with an airplane for sale. When Virg learned of this the solution to a problem he’d been mumbling about came into view. Virg agreed to purchase the plane, a Piper Super Cub, so long as the crop duster taught him how to fly it. A few flying lessons later and Virg was the owner of an airplane, and possessor of a student permit, which technically allowed him to fly legally, without passengers. Technicalities were never an obstacle to a genuine Hatfield.
Virg used the plane to make trips by air within minutes in which by road would take hours. Selling chainsaws in the northwest was different than most other parts of the country. Rather than saw users going into dealers to purchase a saw; those wishing to sell saws had to go to the customer, the giant logging companies. Since most of the logging camps had their own landing strips or gravel roads that served the same purpose, Virg would strap saws into the passenger seat of the two-seat Piper Cub and fly into the camps. Selling saws to a logging concern required agreement on the part of the sawyer using the saw, the camp superintendent, and company management, a long and arduous ordeal. Converting users of the well-known and respected brands such as Homelite, McCulloch, and Remington was slow. The rugged Hatfield problem solving mentality persisted.
It was the combination of Virg’s widespread reputation as a sawyer and the wiz kid’s technical expertise that averted near disaster. Along with the increased number of Stihl Super Lightnings in the woods came increased number of Stihl’s getting crushed by trees that didn’t fall as intended. Logging camp mechanics at Weyerhaeuser, Georgia Pacific, and other camps had begun cannibalizing crushed units, including the mixing and matching of crankcase housing halves. An unintended consequence was the conversion of finely balanced and relatively vibration free Stihl’s to units that nearly caused an epidemic of white finger and widespread dissatisfaction among the fearsome loggers. After a few flying trips to the camps with the most units exhibiting the severe vibration, Rainer Gloeckle quickly diagnosed the problem, but that solution only created another problem. Logging camp mechanics had routinely mixed and matched housings on American made saws with no noticeable increase in vibration. Only with Virg’s endorsement was Rainer able to convince the camp mechanics, one at a time, that the Super Lightnings were able to operate with significantly less vibration than American made saws only because of the German precision, which required matched crankcase housings.
After visiting the area, Gordon reached the conclusion that the area was simply too vast for one company and one man; Virg didn’t necessarily agree, but then, Virg, wasn’t the agreeable type. The two eventually settled upon a solution; the appointment of additional distributors throughout the area: Towner, ND, Weippe, ID, and Phillipsburg, MT, Portland, OR, and Juneau, AK, with Virg representing Stihl America to these distributors. Gordon and Harding agreed to place an inventory of parts and saws at Virg’s Hood River location for shipment directly to the northwest distributors. Eventually, Virg moved the joint venture to Chehalis, WA, a location better suited to serve the vast northwest, hired a salesman who was also well respected in the logging industry, and renamed the operation, Interstate Distributing.
In spite of the additional territory, responsibility, and manpower, Virg continued to personally make the complex sales calls, taking prospective customers hunting, flying to and landing on small islands to hunt for clams, and cramming the Piper Cub with parts and saws and flying them into remote logging camps. Virg tried everything he could think of in an effort get the loggers working for the biggest companies to use Stihl, including sicking the wiz kid on them. Finally, Weyerhaeuser agreed to take seven new Super Lightnings if the renown whiz kid would devote a month of his time to tend to the saws and keep them running. Before knowing the full details, Rainer agreed, probably because Gordon didn’t give him much of a choice.
Virg delivered the saws to Weyerhaeuser and then shuttled Rainer from camp to camp. It was during one of the trips that the Piper Cub’s engine burped, spluttered, and stopped. Silence and sweat overcame both occupants in the cramped plane while Virg searched for and found a place to land. Without an engine, the landing options are strictly limited, particularly in the rugged northwest—a potato field was the best option. It’s said that a good landing is one in which everyone can walk away and a perfect landing is one after which the plane can be used again. Virg’s landing was good, but not quite perfect. Since a forced landing was sure to arouse curiosity, and possibly the local authorities, Virg asked Rainer to make himself scarce until a ride arrived. It was then that Rainer learned that Virg didn’t have a pilot’s license, making it illegal to carry passengers and possibly a crime to crash with one. It was also the day that Rainer decided to begin taking pilot lessons, possibly for self-preservation, since he was likely to be spending a great deal of time with Virg.
The narrow escape didn’t diminish the relationship between Rainer, the wiz kid, and Virg, the persistent pilot, or if not technically a pilot, at least a flying Stihl distributor. Hatfields don’t get hung up on technicalities. Rainer learned to appreciate and admire Virg’s tenacious selling approach and his uncanny ability to improvise and visualize solutions.
The advent of more powerful saws by Stihl and others created problems elsewhere, particularly in guide bar wear. Premium guide bar manufacturers had begun using stellite for guide bar noses. Stellite alloy is a range of cobalt-chromium alloys and carbon designed for wear resistance and very difficult to integrate onto a bar and ‘supposedly’ impossible to repair—except for Virg. Virg, not dissuaded by the complex composition of the bar nose material, developed a technique whereby he could quickly repair the stellite material on the nose of the long and expensive guide bars. This complex technique, possibly known only to him and no other chainsaw repair shop, saved the loggers a significant amount of time and money. Rather than wait for a new guide bar and being out the expense, Virg would repair the old one quickly and for less money. This greatly endeared Virg to the loggers and helped expedite their acceptance of Stihl. Virg shared the technique with his best Stihl dealers but few were able to master the art of stellite tip repair.
In another instance he and Rainer collaborated to suggest a gear box so that the lightweight but powerful saws could handle the long bars necessary to cut the giant trees of the northwest. The design change was implemented by Stihl on multiple models but it was short-lived as more powerful saws with no need for a gearbox were soon developed and introduced into the market.
Virg’s unceasing desire to improve the Stihl and his constant communication with Stihl Germany through Rainer endeared him to the loggers but equally important he had the respect of Stihl’s engineers, particularly the chief engineer and inventory of the chainsaw–Andreas Stihl. Virg is one of the very few distributors to have had the honor of hosting Andreas and Hannelore at his home. Andreas, having had an eye on the big timber country since his legendary trip nearly thirty years earlier, must have been very pleased to visit Virg and see his saws in the hands of world renowned sawyers being used to harvest the world’s largest trees.
Preferring to call on logging camps and large companies, Virg was reluctant to develop a widespread retail dealer base. While Gordon appreciated Virg’s success in getting Stihl into the hands of the professionals, he continually challenged Virg to develop dealers who would appeal to the casual user. Virg, not wishing to change his selling strategy, and Gordon, insisting that he did, eventually ended the once successful business relationship.
One of Virg’s larger customers, located nearby in Chehalis was known to Gordon. Bill Warren was appointed the Stihl distributor for much of the area previously handled by Virg. At the same time, Stihl American began dealing directly with those distributors previously under Virg’s responsibility. Virg had served a vital role in the re-establishment of Stihl in the great northwest. However, times were changing and Virg was not.
Bill Warren became a Stihl legend in his own time and for many years the largest Stihl distributor in America, building on the foundation laid by Virg Hatfield, the first flying Stihl distributor. Bill will be featured in a subsequent blog.