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Smith River’s man of the world

Henry Westbrook fishing on Alaska’s Kenai River in July.
Henry Westbrook fishing on Alaska’s Kenai River in July. Photo courtesy of Westbrook family
Henry Westbrook accomplished a lot during his 83 years

Henry “Hank” Westbrook III, the Smith River entrepreneur whose ambitions turned a family ranch operation into several ventures in international timber operations, dairy,  tourism, a fish hatchery, lily bulbs and real estate development, has died at age 83.

“Hank had an idea a minute. He had a business idea for everything,” said Teal Westbrook, a granddaughter of the family patriarch.

Westbrook’s ventures ideas, often taken on with his brother Robert “Chopper,” would lead to timber offices across the region and even in Japan, the first and only privately run fish hatchery in California, one of the last milk delivery services in the state, and a 156-foot luxury yacht dragged up to U.S. Highway 101 to attract tourists to Ship Ashore Resort.

“He was always on the cutting edge; always investigating new ideas and new ways to do things,” said John Fraser, who worked with Westbrook on several projects as a Del Norte County supervisor in the 1970s.

“Hank Westbrook was an idea man,” said Ernie Perry, who reviewed several of Westbrook’s ideas as Del Norte County planner for more than 30 years.

An entrepreneur to his dying day, Westbrook continued to feel most at home at his office in Brookings, which is where he was when his health begin to fail.  He was transported to Sutter Coast Hospital, where he died Oct. 10.

Raised a rancher

The Westbrooks were one of the first Euro-American families to settle in Del Norte County in the 1850s, and Hank Westbrook grew up on the family’s 160-acre family dairy ranch in Smith River, milking cows, driving tractors, fixing irrigation pipes and mending fences.

In his free time, Westbrook would fish for the large salmon and steelhead known to spawn in the Smith River, introducing a pastime that he would continue to pursue until his death.  

Since his father, Henry “Heine” Westbrook, Jr. represented Del Norte County on the board of the district that built the Golden Gate Bridge, Westbrook was among the group that walked across San Francisco’s landmark for the very first time.

While attending boarding school at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, Westbrook bragged about the monster fish of his home stream and got the nickname “the Smith River Kid” in his senior yearbook.

The town of Smith River was in his blood, and when he went to Oregon State University and studied animal husbandry, graduating in 1952, he always intended to return and work on the family ranch. 

At OSU, he met a Portland girl named Beverly Robbins, who would become his wife of 61 years.

“I had never heard of Smith River and when he tried to show it to me on a map and it wasn’t there, he said, ‘that’s just a bad map,’” Beverly said.

Henry Westbrook at Reservation Ranch in Smith River in the early 1970s with his beloved dogs.
Henry Westbrook at Reservation Ranch in Smith River in the early 1970s with his beloved dogs. Photo courtesy of Westbrook family
Westbrook enrolled in ROTC during college and served in the U.S. Air Force. After his father died at age 51, Westbrook asked if he could be transferred closer to his mother and the ranch and found himself at the former Requa Air Force Station overlooking the mouth of the Klamath River.

After finishing active duty, Westbrook started working the  ranch with his brother Chopper, but he soon found out that they could produce more milk than they could sell to the local cooperative creamery, which was started by their father.

To solve this, in 1955 at age 25 he and Chopper started Country Maid Dairy — the last milk delivery  service north of the Bay Area and the first of several business ventures the Westbrook brothers would tackle throughout their lives.

A 1955 headline in the Curry Coastal Pilot read: “The best milk news since the first cow landed on the coast.”

Farmer to global capitalist

Just as the Westbrook brothers began to make Reservation Ranch and Country Maid Dairy profitable, the town of Smith River was hit with the Christmas Flood of 1964, covering their fields with several feet of water.

The Westbrooks fed the cows  by drift boat instead of tractor.  All of the fences were wiped out, not to mention the majority of Country Maid’s customers in Del Norte and Curry counties. When the water retreated, revealing fields covered in silt, Westbrook began to take notice of all of the timber that had washed onto his property and started salvage logging.

“That’s how he jumped — more like cannonballed — into the timber industry,” said Beverly.

“Before ’64, he was a sleepy little farmer, but for some reason he decided to go global at that point,” said his son, Henry “Hal” Westbrook IV.  “At that point he wasn’t satisfied with being a dairy farmer in Smith River.”

Within 10 years, Westbrook’s working circle expanded from Smith River to several mills, log yards and wood product facilities in Northern California and Southern Oregon; offices in Alaska and Japan; 80 logging trucks, more than 100 pieces of logging equipment, helicopters, dozers, more than a 1,000 employees — you name it. Westbrook had become a well-known timber baron, a force to be reckoned with.

Dan Brattain, who directed the Westbrooks’ timber operations at one point, said that they were contributing 80 percent of the Port Orford cedar in the industry, exporting most of it as whole logs to Japan.

After the Oakland firestorm of 1991, government officials were keen to remove eucalyptus trees, which Brattain said fueled much of the fires, from other places in the Bay Area, and the Westbrooks seized on the opportunity.

They started logging eucalyptus trees, including all those on Angel Island, and shipped the trees to Japan from the Port of Sacramento, Brattain said. 

“Here’s a guy in Smith River that came up with this concept, made it work and came out with millions of dollars in business,” Brattain said.  “He was a real visionary; always looking to expand and embrace new ideas and people with new ideas.”

‘Guts of Hank Westbrook’

Westbrook epitomized the do-it-yourself mentality that flourishes in rural regions like Smith River.   With a life-long passion for fishing, the Westbrook brothers were receptive when they were approached about building a fish hatchery on Rowdy Creek, a main tributary in the lower Smith River. 

“It was a miracle that it ever got going,” Fraser said. “Hatcheries were never put together by local people or organizations — the state always did that.”

When Hank Westbrook disagreed with something, like a levy on the Smith River built by the Army Corps of Engineers, he often took matters into his own hands. 

“Don Clausen (former Del Norte congressman) called me one morning and said, ‘Jesus Christ, John. That goddamn Hank went out and changed the whole direction of the levy,’” former Supervisor Fraser recalled. “He didn’t give a damn about the details or the possibilities. He was just a guy that went to do what he thought was normal and proper.

“The guy from the Corps said, ‘Well, Mr. Westbrook, we’ll get back to you,’ but they never did because they realized he had fixed it,” Fraser said. “That gives you an idea of the guts of Hank Westbrook.”

Passionate outdoorsman

Living on the Smith River, Westbrook’s children were often treated with a short fishing trip in the morning, going out to catch a salmon before heading to school, Beverly said.

After joining a friend for a salmon fishing trip on the Kenai River in Alaska, Westbrook was hooked on the large chinook salmon that filled the mountainous stream and soon bought a house on the Kenai that he would use to entertain friends, family, and business associates during the summer.

“He had a piece of paper in his pocket all year long for who was coming to Alaska,” said Teal. “It gave him more pleasure to catch see someone else catch a fish then catch one himself.”

Westbrook spent four to six weeks on the Kenai every summer for 31 years, including just months ago.

Salmon fishing derbies on the Smith River that serve as fundraisers for Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery are named after Hank and Chopper Westbrook. For years, the Hank “Raider” Derby attracted ex-Oakland Raider football stars.

The derbies have been hosted at Ship Ashore Resort at the mouth of the Smith River, which the Westbrook brothers had acquired and expanded by building a motel and restaurant. To attract more tourists off the highway, Westbrook decided to drag the 156-foot S.S. Castle Rock yacht up to Highway 101.

“It was their Paul Bunyan,” said Steven Westbrook, Chopper’s son, who still owns and manages Reservation Ranch and Ship Ashore.

Always the entrepreneur

When logging started to dwindle in the 1980s, Westbrook had less use for the airplane that had been flown by Brattain to inspect and purchase new logging equipment.  

Instead of selling the plane, they decided to start an air ambulance business: Cal-Ore Life Flight, which Brattain later bought and continues to operate to this day.

When the Westbrooks saw the lily bulb industry booming in Smith River, it was only a matter of time before they got involved.  Until 1976, the Westbrooks were partners in Dahlstrom & Watt Bulb Farms, and Hank Westbrook even attracted the future owner of the operations to Smith River.

“He was very visionary,” said Bob Miller, who ran the lily operation for years and whose son co-owns the business today. “He saw the expanding lily business as an opportunity and we were able to capitalize.”

In 1993, when Chopper died in a plane crash during what would have been his first fishing trip in Alaska, Westbrook got out of the ranching business, turning it over to his nephews and nieces.

He started to focus more on real estate development. In the 1990s, he built The Beach subdivision near the state line in Smith River and lived there with his wife until his death.

A constant support

Westbrook was known to be opinionated and was quick to tell his friends, family and employees if they were doing something wrong and how to do it better.

But those who knew him well didn’t see it as a fault, but a way that he tried to push people to do better.

Westbrook threw many friends and family into “sink or swim” situations, piling on more responsibility than they were comfortable with.

“He was always interested in seeing people like myself thrown  into a situation over their head to see if they could make it work,  and he always wanted to see people succeed,” Brattain said.

“He always challenged us to think about what we’re doing before we made a decision,” Steven Westbrook said. “He would always make you think about all sides of an issue.”

He was a support in a more typical grandfatherly way as well. Even though his grandchildren lived several hours away, granddaughter Teal said that Hank and Beverly would drive to almost every one of her basketball games, from Grants Pass to Ashland to Roseburg. 

That unconditional support was not limited to the family either. Since Westbrook passed, several individuals have told stories of when he provided a place to stay and a car to drive for a woman struggling through a divorce. Or he might charter a plane  to help a friend visit an ailing family member in a distant hospital.

Westbrook never slowed down, even in his waning days. He washed the windows of the entire house the morning before he died, and he had a hunting trip planned for the following week.

“Retirement would never enter his equation; he went directly from his office to the hospital,” Steven Westbrook said.

 Reach Adam Spencer at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

An obituary in Saturday’s edition will include service information. 

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