By Dom Cioffi
Back in 1887, two young men named Robert Long and Victor Bell decided to form a business partnership. They initially set out to sell hay but quickly realized that the amount of wood needed for the transport wagons and storage barns made the venture untenable — especially since wood was in such high demand. So, they tore apart their wagons and barns and sold the wood for a profit.
Thus was born the Long-Bell Lumber Company.
The duo moved their head- quarters to Kansas City, Missouri, and began harvesting nearby timber from acquired land purchases. Over the ensuing years, the company branched out to control all aspects of the lumber business, from sawmills to retail lumber yards.
Through expansion, Long-Bell moved south to acquire holdings in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana before finally deciding to head west to Washington state.
In 1918, the company sent a young man named Bill Ryder into the Great Northwest to search out marketable timber. After scrupulous research, Ryder insisted that the virgin forests surrounding an area called Cougar Flats would be an exceptional location to build the modern sawmill operations the company had planned.
In order to attract a reliable workforce to the isolated area, building commenced in 1923 on the construction of two planned communities to house both the timber workers and their families as well as a state-of-the-art mill and shipping center. The locations were called Longview and Ryderwood (after Bill Ryder, of course) and were the largest planned townships ever built with private funds. In fact, Long-Bell spent $1.5 million to build Ryderwood alone, and that was before any timber was ever cut!
Traditionally, logging camps were for bachelors and were too hostile for women and children. Long-Bell looked to change that by bringing families in to form sustain- able communities. The towns were envisioned as permanent centers rather than temporary camps, which had always been the norm.
While both towns had the same amenities (a mercantile, a community hall, a school, a church, a theater, a hospital and a hotel), Ryderwood was considered the lesser location to its more glamorous counterpart up the road. Interestingly, neither town had alcohol available (which must have made the hard work and long hours even more difficult).
At its peak, Ryderwood would have 400 single-family homes, reaching a maximum population of nearly 2,000 people.
Everything progressed swimmingly until 1953, when modern timber harvesting technologies changed the course of the industry. That’s when Long-Bell looked to sell the town of Ryderwood, which was dwindling in company residents.
For the price of $96,000, the town was purchased by a group called Senior Estates with the goal of turning the area into a retirement community for elderly pensioners.
And thus was born an entirely new industry.
Ryderwood is now considered the first retirement community ever conceived in the United States and the idea that paved the way for a massive explosion of like- minded communities across the country over the ensuing decades.
Currently there are over 275 privately held houses in Ryderwood with deeds that limit occupancy to those over the age of 55 — a common stipulation of most retirement communities. Drive into the town and you’ll see a large sign announcing where you are with the slogan, “Life is what you make it.”
Nowadays, retirement communities are a mainstay of all states, although the southern locations have the majority of major operations. The Villages of Florida is the world’s largest retirement community. At approximately 32 square miles, it’s nearly twice the size of Manhattan, with a population approaching 123,000.
What makes The Villages so popular and successful is the wildly fun and active infra- structure that the developers built into the community. However, as this week’s film “Some Kind of Heaven” points out, even with a Disney-like atmosphere, residents cannot escape the harsh realities that accompany aging.
This was an intriguing documentary that focused on several retirees who inhabit The Villages, all of whom relocated there to live out the remainder of their lives in active comfort. Unfortunately, what they each discover is that growing old will always have its challenges no matter where you escape to.
Check this one out if the idea of retirement has ever drifted into your head. There are no ugly revelations, but the realities presented by this film will definitely have you thinking about your second act.
A lumbering “B” for “Some Kind of Heaven,” available for streaming on Hulu.
Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at [email protected]