The Sohner-Phillips Legacy
(As Told by John M. Phillips)

Roger Sohner began his career with trees on or about the time he attended the Davey Tree Surgery school (1917).  This was probably in Ohio, which has been the center of Davey Tree since its inception.

From there, he moved out to the west coast and spent time working on trees at the Huntington Estate in Santa Monica.   It was not uncommon in those days for two men to keep busy on one tree for a long time performing “tree surgery”.  This was the meticulous removal of decayed wood and then replacing it with steel and concrete.

During the time Roger was working in Southern California, he met Alice.  They were married in 1925.  Soon after, they moved back to Kansas, which is where they were both from originally.  Their first daughter Marilyn was born in 1926, to be followed by Roberta.

Tree work was not enough to support the family, so they tried various forms of farming, including rabbit husbandry.  But the interest in trees never waned.  So in about 1930, they moved back to So. Cal. looking to continue.  In 1931, Roger officially started his tree service business.

Times were still too marginal for full-time tree work.  In between, there were fruit picking jobs.  After a stint with oranges, the family headed north to Oregon to pick apples.  Along the way, he stopped to visit a tree friend on the S.F. peninsula.  At this visit, it was suggested Roger go to Marin Co. as there might be opportunity there.
In the 1930’s, Marin Co. was pretty unsettled.  There were some large estates, but there was also a lot of farmland and open space.  It looked inviting, so the family settled in.  After living in several places, they were able to buy a one acre tract in downtown San Anselmo.  And that is where shop was set up for the next 50+ years.
As the 40’s and WWII came along, it was necessary to take advantage of every opportunity to make pay.  Roger got a contract to lay sod at Hamilton Field AFB as it was being built.  He began his first association with PG&E doing weed spraying at substations as far away as the Sierras.

After the War, daughter Roberta met, and eventually married John C. Phillips (Jack).  Both began working for the tree business.  Their first son, John, came in ’49. 
The association with PG&E progressed in the 1950’s.  There was still weed control, then insulator washing and finally line clearance.  This work demanded equipment that could reach higher, faster.  Surplus materials and workers with fabricating experience were abundant after the War.  Combining these resources with some inventiveness, Roger created lift trucks for cutting and spraying.

Like many other parts of the country, the 50’s was a time of rapid economic expansion.  Marin Co. experienced dozens of new subdivisions into oak woodlands.  This created an opportunity for tree services.  It was the beginning of a heyday in residential tree care that would continue for a long time.
Since the very beginning, trees were more than just a business for Roger.  He was very interested in promoting the professional aspects of the trade.  In order to do this, he got together with like-minded tree people.  He was a charter member of the California Arborists Association whose mission was to advance the skill and knowledge of those who worked in and with trees.

At the same time, Roger got involved with the National Shade Tree Conference (later to be named the International Society of Arboriculture or ISA).   Alice and he traveled all over the country, attending annual meetings to learn about trees and share experience with other tree enthusiasts.  Motoring on the old two lane “highways” in their panel truck, they always brought home a load of rocks and other treasures.

The culmination of Roger’s professional association came in 1958 when he served as President of the Western Chapter (NSTC).   It is likely that he would have gone on to many more years of service in the professional organizations, but he died a young man not long after that.  The Marin Art and Garden Center placed a memorial plaque on their grounds for him, appropriately as Roger F. “Trees” Sohner.
The early efforts of Roger were taken to the another level by his son-in-law Jack when the business acquired an expanded contract with PG&E.  What was once not much more than one county in the 1950’s became six counties, from Sausalito to just south of the Humboldt line.  This contract was continued for two decades and became the main support for the company.

Jack was also involved with the trade associations.  He served on many committees with both the ISA and the National Arborist Association.  For his efforts, he received the Award of Merit from the Western Chapter ISA in 1979.

In 1973, son John went to work full-time for the company.  Beginning on the ground, he worked his way up into the trees and began to get a taste of just how much “fun” tree work could be.  Three years later, at about the time his apprenticeship matured, John was given the opportunity to move into a management position. 
During the 1970’s, John’s brother Robert also joined the company full-time.  Robert, fresh out of college, came with a whole new set of ideas for improving the business.  He was also a gifted athlete that enabled him to excel in tree climbing.  This he took into the Tree Climber’s Jamboree, the tree man’s rodeo.  Many years and medals later, the effort of Robert, and other colleagues, has become what is now known as the International Tree Climbing Championships.

The ‘70s was a time of transition.  Not only was another generation of tree people coming into the arena, but also new information about trees was emerging that would set the stage for some big changes in tree care practices.  A large part of this information was being developed by Dr. Alex Shigo out of the USDA Forest Service in New Hampshire.
This caught the attention of John, who had been presented with many unanswered questions about tree biology as he spent more time looking at more trees with more people.

After much correspondence, John was able to arrange a meeting with Dr. Shigo in 1979.   Not only did Shigo have a whole new way of looking at and into trees, he had a style of presentation that captured people’s interest.  It was the beginning of an association that would continue over the next two decades.
The company suffered a major setback in 1982 when the PG&E contract was awarded to Davey Tree. It is ironic that the place where Roger Sohner started is the place that it ended.  Or almost.

Much reduced in size, the company hung on for a few more years doing only residential work.   By the 1980’s, there were dozens of tree companies in Marin, many of which were started by guys who got their training at Sohner.  The competition was stiff and the market crowded.

Jack was nearing retirement; the boys were finding difficulty considering the consequences.  Much to Robert’s chagrin, the business was sold in 1987 to the Bartlett Tree Expert Co.  Both Robert and John went to work for the new company, Robert with some reservation, John with a very full plate.

Along with selling the business, the homestead of Sohner was sold.  Both John and Jack had homes on the property, which meant they had to move, and on very short order.  Jack and Roberta had a place to go; John had to find one.  The pressure was compounded by the imminent arrival of John’s second son and the additional (volunteered) assignment of organizing the program for the 54th WCISA annual conference.  All of this took place in a few months. 

While the conference was very successful, it made John realize that he didn’t want anything further to do with the government part of the trade organizations.  Perhaps he was just too much of a maverick to have the patience necessary to work within that kind of system.  This independent attitude may also have played a part in ending his stay with Bartlett.

After about a year and half, John decided he would do what he had been wanting to for a very long time:  move north into a less populated area.  It was another big move, but an exciting one.  It was reminiscent of his grandparents when they left SoCal for the wilderness of Marin.
John, with his wife and two young sons, found their home in Mendocino Co.  He had no intention of continuing tree work.  Farming was his dream.  But there can be a rude awakening when the reality of making money sets in.

So it was back to tree work, again by default.  He had first come to the family business because he was broke after failing to get a sawmill venture going in Humboldt.  But this time meant some serious prospecting.

He began meeting people in his new area who wanted to plant and care for trees there.  So they formed the group, “Willits Friends of the Trees”.  They did get some trees in the ground and put on some educational sessions. 

This group then became Mendocino County ReLeaf.  With non-profit status, they were able to receive grant funding to continue tree planting and public awareness.  It was also through this group that John was able to organize three more conferences in the ‘90s featuring his old friend, Alex Shigo.   These helped to spread the new tree information to people beyond the limits of the trade groups.  They were deeply satisfying adventures.

Robert also left the Bartlett Co. early on.  He needed to get out of the confines of a large system to express his way.  While continuing to do tree work in the Bay Area, he began tinkering with new tools and methods for tree climbing.  These he took to tree meetings for demonstration.  Eventually, he was able to offer instruction of the techniques as a service for hire.
In part, it was Robert’s demonstrations that kept him linked to the trade associations.  But he also wanted to “share” his thoughts for improving different aspects of these groups.  So he stayed involved.  Ultimately, he served as President of the WCISA in 2004. 

At the annual meeting during Robert’s term, Alex Shigo was the featured speaker.   It was only through his friendship with Robert and John that he conceded to come.  This was to become his last appearance on the west coast.

Both Robert and John continue in various aspects of tree care as self-employed arborists.  At the WCISA annual meeting in 2008, the Sohner/Phillips family was given a “Special Award” in recognition of their contribution and legacy.

History of Northcoast Tree Care - Sohner-Phillips Legacy

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