Anyone who knows the Seneca community and its history is familiar with John Hicks Saunders Jr.
He’s been called a founding member of the city, and his personal story touched every part of the county for nearly a century.
“John Saunders was an integral part of our community both personally and professionally even before the city was incorporated in 1970,” Seneca City Manager Raamin Burrell told the Eagle.
“He was Papa to all the kids in Seneca,” his wife of 47 years Yvonne Saunders said.
Saunders was born in 1923 in Caverhill, a town that once existed between Long Creek and Fox. He attended high school in Long Creek, where the teacher warned the students not to race their horses home after school. Of course, they did, Yvonne said.
After graduating in 1941, Saunders tried to enlist in the Army but was turned down for bad eyesight. He worked for a time in the Portland shipyards building Liberty ships until he was drafted in 1943. He served with the Navy Seabees in the Philippines and New Guinea during World War II and was discharged in 1946.
Back in the states, Saunders went to work as a cat skinner for the Oregon Lumber Co., skidding logs in forests across Grant County. Two years later, Saunders bought the original Austin House on Highway 7, which was known as the Y Building. He ran the business until 1952.
Two years later, Saunders bought the Bear Valley Store in Seneca, which he ran until he sold the business in 1980. The general store sold food, clothing, hardware, fuel, snowmobiles and boats. It also had a bar and restaurant and an apartment upstairs. He also ran a sawmill behind the Bear Valley Lodge.
“He would answer the door any time of night if someone needed gas,” his stepdaughter Wanda Wenick said.
The store burned down about a year after he sold it, but Yvonne said her husband insisted the new owner carry fire insurance.
Saunders then worked with cattle and took on horse-logging contracts with the Forest Service. He hired on with the city of Seneca as head of maintenance in 1987, retiring in 2014 at 91 years old.
“He was an incredible asset to the city of Seneca for what he contributed to the public works department,” said Josh Walker, the current public works director. “He ran it singlehandedly for 27 years.”
Saunders was involved in numerous community activities. He helped start racing in the early days of snowmobiling in Seneca. In 2013, at 89 years old, Saunders helped prep the race course for the Seneca Winter Classic and even competed.
He was a good snowmobiler, Wenick recalled, but once she fell off while riding on the back of a snowmobile with him, and he kept on going. “You rode with John?” people later exclaimed.
“There are so many memories, so much to tell,” she said.
Saunders always wanted to build a golf course in Seneca, Wenick said. When an opportunity arose in 1991 for Seneca to get free oysters if someone from town would drive up to Washington to dig for them, the annual Seneca Oyster Feed kicked off. Initially the money raised from the event went to the local ambulance and golf course.
Hunting was a family adventure for Saunders, who also took moose-hunting trips to Canada. The mount from a six-point bull elk Saunders shot in 1967 hangs on a wall in the Sel’s Brewery in Canyon City. In 2009, the Whiskey Gulch Gang chose Saunders to be their ’62 Days Parade grand marshal.
Two hundred people showed up at Saunders’ 90th birthday party at the Seneca City Hall, Yvonne said.
“He danced our granddaughter and her friend right off the floor,” Yvonne said.
Wenick said, no matter where her son went in Grant County, he ran into people who knew Saunders.
“He was on the go all the time,” Yvonne said.
“But he always took time for family,” Wenick said. “If the children wanted to go sledding, he took them.”
“He never turned the grandkids down,” Yvonne said. “They were his pride and joy.”