John Schnabel, a hard-driving sawmill owner and developer who became a gold miner and achieved national fame as a reality TV star, died March 18.

Schnabel, 96, suffered heart failure at Mercy Retirement Home in Oakland, Calif. A community celebration of his life will be held 4 p.m. Saturday, April 2 at the fairgounds’ Harriett Hall.

A former City of Haines Mayor, Schnabel was a towering figure in the history of the town in the second half of the 20th century, taking on large projects and waging political and legal battles while shifting from careers in business and wood products to ventures in tourism and entertainment.

A logger when he arrived here in 1939, Schnabel became one of the valley’s largest private landowners and arguably its most prominent citizen.

“He was a very vital person, and he also had the capacity to change. He remained intellectually curious his whole life,” said former Haines Borough Mayor Fred Shields, a one-time political enemy of Schnabel’s who became a friend.

Most recently Schnabel starred as “Grandpa John” on the Discovery Channel show “Gold Rush,” a program on gold mining that highlights the work of grandson Parker Schnabel, whom Schnabel taught to mine.

Ed Gorsuch, the show’s producer, said Schnabel was a natural. “From the TV standpoint he was an interesting character. He was an Alaskan to the core. He was the real deal. His experience, his wisdom, his demeanor were all we could want, then we met Parker and had a story…We’d call him America’s Grandpa because he became that for all of us on the crew.”

Schnabel worked in the timber industry for 43 years, operating mills in the woods and at Jones Point before building the Schnabel Lumber Co. mill on Lutak Inlet in 1967. Including stevedores, millhands, loggers and others, Schnabel employed as many as 120 workers at full operation, said Tom Quinlan, a longtime business partner.

“When John made up his mind to do something, he did it. He was very diligent. There was no wavering,” Quinlan said.

Schnabel’s ascent coincided with the heyday of the local timber industry, when loggers were falling up to 50 million board feet of timber annually from local forests, said retired Haines area forester Roy Josephson.

Also during those years, Schnabel operated a hotel, lumberyard and hardware store, and built Main Street’s Gateway and Haislers buildings as well as the building today occupied by the Parts Place. “I think that John was very much responsible for making Haines a thriving, blue-collar town,” said daughter Debra Schnabel.

In the 1970s, Schnabel fought environmentalists in court for access to timber on state and federal lands. His victory over the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council for a long-term timber contract with the State of Alaska enshrined the “Schnabel law,” a section of state statutes that allows negotiated sales for local manufacture of wood products.

But Schnabel maintained the victory came too late, as timber markets had softened by the time it was resolved. His Lutak mill shut down in 1983, when Schnabel came up $900,000 short on financing for its steam-plant electric generator, a requirement after wood-waste “teepee burners” were prohibited.

Schnabel blamed government regulation and environmentalists for the closure, but shifting world markets and demand for higher-grade timber played the larger role, said Larry Beck, foreman at the Chilkoot Lumber Co. mill that operated at the former Schnabel mill site from 1987-1991.

Costs increased, including for logging road construction, Beck said this week. “You had to put a gazillion dollars up front, and logs that passed muster in the 60s and 70s didn’t in the 80s. The same grades simply did not make export quality…The market standards changed considerably by the 80s. Even to export cants was challenging. The standards kept getting higher and higher for the same grade and we just didn’t have anything that high quality.”

By the early 1980s, Schnabel had earned a reputation as a tenacious industry advocate and a tough businessman.

In a 1983 Chilkat Valley News interview, he said: “You’ll probably find instances of cruelty in my life, but it’s the price you have to pay when you run a huge company. You have to try to consider the good of many people, rather than the cost to the few. When I do something, I get into it wholeheartedly. And when I give up, I give it up. But I think I’m always consistent.”

In the interview, Schnabel said he had been instrumental in helping establish a sanctuary for bald eagles, but said he thought the 50,000-acre preserve was excessively large. People tend to get carried away with what they want because everyone has their own special interest, he told the CVN.

“Sometimes I get too vocal,” Schnabel said. “But some things are so unfair and I just have to respond. Maybe I do get carried away, but of course, we never know how we look to others,” Schnabel said.

John Sandor, a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the Tongass National Forest regional forester from 1953-1984, said Schnabel was “a strong advocate for sustainable harvests in the Tongass…He often spoke of the Tongass as a really good opportunity to provide sustainable jobs and support smaller communities.”

George Figdor, a Lynn Canal Conservation member, said Schnabel was gentlemanly and approachable toward people who held opposing views. “He was always happy to sit down and talk. He’d take me back to his house for lunch and tell me where my thinking had gone wrong, very politely. He was very patient and thought I had a whole lifetime to change my view.”

After the sawmill closed, Schnabel established the Oceanside RV Park on Front Street, developed his Big Nugget mine in the Porcupine into a tourist attraction, built the Weeping Trout Sports Resort on Chilkat Lake and won a lease to house state offices in his renovated Gateway Building.

That Schnabel tangled with the state for two years to secure a permit to take a bulldozer across the Tsirku River was a sign of his mellowing at the time he was building the golf course, said former forester Josephson. “John took a little pride in battling the bureaucracy and the system. But in the old days, he just would have gone ahead and done it.”

(By daughter Debra Schnabel‘s account, John routed Lutak Road around his sawmill site without seeking permits or permission.)

Figdor and Josephson each said they saved Schnabel’s letters, which typically ran for pages. “Whenever I got a letter from him (about a land or forestry issue), I saved it because he was such a good writer,” Josephson said. Schnabel wrote letters to the editor regularly and wrote to state and national leaders.

“John knew so much about what was going in Juneau and Washington, D.C. He was so well informed on everything, it was a delight to have a conversation with him,” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said this week.

Despite his wealth, Schnabel dressed in thrift-store clothing, drove old trucks and lived in a modest home. He was proud to send his children to college, and to be able to afford food and shelter, said son Roger Schnabel. “Beyond that, money was never a motivating factor for him.” 

“To understand John, you have to know his story,” daughter Sandra Schnabel said this week. “Dad came from total poverty, but you look at those old photos and you see his smile. He was going to do something about that, and he did.”

  John Joseph Schnabel was born Feb. 11, 1920 on a farm near New Almelo, Kansas. His father, Frank J. Schnabel, was a moonshiner and the family fell victim to the Dust Bowl.

After a run-in with the law, they moved west and lived in California and Washington before settling in Klamath Falls, Ore. They struggled to find work. John and his siblings were educated in Catholic schools paid for by the parish.  

  But his parochial school education was fortuitous, as John had a natural intellect, daughter Debra said. He devoured books, learned to play violin, French horn and guitar, and wrote songs. He hunted jackrabbits and poached deer to feed his family and at one point lived in a rabbit hutch that served as his bedroom.

After graduating high school and working briefly in a sawmill, John and brother George joined his father and brother James in Haines, where they operated a small mill at Jones Point. John was determined to make it here. “Three moves is worse than a burnout,” he told his children.

Schnabel enlisted in the Navy in World War II and worked as an airplane mechanic and on the crash landing crew of an aircraft carrier. “He grabbed the guys out of the planes before they blew up,” Sandra said. “He said the cockpits were like crematoriums.”

 After the war, he attended Gonzaga University and a Seattle business school to prepare for his future in Haines. He returned in 1947 and started a sawmill business with an old mill he found at Porcupine, setting it up at Jones Point, hunting for markets, securing loans, and building better, and larger mills.

  John married Erma DiRe on Aug. 20, 1950. In 1967, he completed the first of three downtown buildings, a hardware store and lumberyard office on the corner of Main Street and Third Avenue and added an apartment above for his growing family.  

  Roger Schnabel said his father was one of the most skilled mechanics he knew. “These sawmills he built? He didn’t hire engineers. They came from sketches on tissue paper, and they were very productive,” Roger said.

When a Jones Point mill he built burned down, John took two portable mills into the Kelsall Valley. “The portable mills were clearly where his genius was, and they were his most successful,” Roger said. By cutting trucking and handling costs, and falling trees and milling them on site, he made 50 percent profit, an unheard-of margin.

At age 63, Schnabel started placer mining at the historic gold mining district along Porcupine Creek. To develop a tourist attraction there, he improved the Porcupine Road along the pioneer-era Dalton Trail and erected signs about the area’s historic significance. Mining, he said, was good therapy.

“Physical labor is my one great safety valve,” he said in a newspaper interview. “It replaces the rich man’s golf game. You see a pile of dirt, you move it, you feel good.”

Days before his 80th birthday, Schnabel fell off his cabin roof in the Porcupine while shoveling snow, cracking his ribs and pelvis. Alone at the time, he drove 35 miles to town and attended his party at the Elks Lodge on crutches.

  His spot on national television came by accident, when a Discovery Channel television crew filming a show about an Oregon family’s attempt to strike it rich set up camp at an adjacent claim.  

George Ann Smith, who worked as a bookkeeper in Schnabel’s lumberyard and as a cook in his logging camps, became aware of his celebrity while on a recent flight from Juneau to Seattle. Crew recognized Schnabel and moved him into first class. “He loved it. John always lived on the conservative side, but he sure liked that treatment,” Smith said.

  Schnabel was a skilled bridge player and a 50-year member of the Haines American Legion. He helped build a $200,000 trust to fund Boy Scouting programs in Haines. “He was very concerned over the wave of video games and TV shows that seemed to hypnotize youth,” said Scout leader Greg Podsiki said.

Daughter-in-law Nancy Schnabel said John’s life taught her an important lesson. “The person that John was on ‘Gold Rush’ was the person he was the last six years of his life. He was not the same as he was in younger years. The lesson he taught us is don’t wait until the last 10 years of your life to be with your family, and the people you love.”

  John Schnabel is survived by wife Erma, who lives in Oakland, Calif .; daughters Debra of Haines and Sandra of Oakland, sons Roger of Haines and David of Palatine, Ill., grandsons Payson of Las Vegas and Parker of Haines, sisters Margaret Lee of Fort Worth, Texas, and Mary Kaye of Oakland.  

Daughter Patty and brothers George and James preceded Schnabel in death.

(Tom Morphet contributed to this story.)