Biography: Gust Scheidau

The Man and The River by Dot Gray

Curry County Reporter – Rogue Coast May 21, 1997

Flowing waters, whether they come from a natural hot mineral spring, a lovely waterfall, a placid lake or rushing river, have always had a healing effect on humans.

People are drawn to water, turbulent or tranquil. Souls are lifted, sorrows and troubles seem to wash away… and life goes on.

Living a lifetime near flowing waters is a dream most never experience. Creating a paradise alongside a river called the Rogue was what one man set out to do about 75 years ago after first setting eyes on 12 acres of riverbank on the north bank of the Rogue, about 8 miles from its mouth at Gold Beach.


Whispering Waters

Gust Schneidau named his property Whispering Waters Ranch. His first home sits alongside the road in front of TuTuTun Lodge. Orchards were planted, vegetable gardens, shrubs, trees and many varieties of flowers installed to nurture both the soul and the family to come, which included three children.

Part of the property was sold in 1945, that which now belongs to the lodge. Original plantings were removed, for the most part, however some of the original trees and shrubs remain scattered throughout the acreage. From Four Seasons Resort, the Utter property, Gust’s second home and on to the property of his grandson, Lee and Susan Snook, mature plantings still flourish.

His granddaughter, Lila Thorp, lives in Gust and his wife Jennie’s home, surrounded by fabulous shrubs and flowers.

Gustaf Von Schneidau emigrated from Sweden to the United States when he was 11. He later changed his name to Gust, dropped the Von, and became one of the country’s top light heavyweight wrestlers. He made his way to the west coast, where his fame as a wrestler became known throughout the sport’s world.

He was known as the Masked Marvel, a tough competitor for his opponents. However, he quit that business after another wrestler bit him on the arm, and the bite became infected.

Standing six feet, four inches tall, weighing 250 pounds, he was a professional wrestler for 18 years on a circuit which included New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles.

Gust has become a legend in this neck of the woods. A man of many accomplishments, he lived from 1895 to 1989, enjoying every minute of it. He was a gardener, a mink farmer, commercial fisherman and Rogue River guide.

Then Came the Orchids

At the age of 60 he made history as an orchid hybridizer, selling orchids all over the world, and traveling up and down the west coast with his son Norman, competing in shows and selling orchids.

His orchid featured on an American Orchid Society magazine had 53 flowers, 23 buds and was planted in an 8-inch pot! He won the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for orchids, the Butterworth Trophy.

I first heard of Gust several years ago while interviewing two men who had also spent a lifetime on the Rogue River in Gold Beach. At this time we were talking about how the river was full of salmon and fished commercially with nets, both day and night. Several canneries were swarming with freshly-caught Chinook salmon, which was canned and shipped all over the United States.

Salmon fishing was not only a thriving business, but a sport as well, which brought fishermen from all around the globe to fish the Rogue River. From author Zane Grey, movie stars Clark Gable and Ginger Rogers, to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and other notables–all came to fish in a very prolific river.

During those days, after deciding to spend the rest of his life on the Rogue, Gust fished commercially for 11 years, casting out and hauling in huge drift nets, chock full of salmon; unloading at the cannery at the mouth of the river, then turning back upriver for another catch; fishing till dawn when the fog and mist would settle on the river.

One night, Schneidau took 138 salmon out of John’s Hole near Elephant Rock. They fished all night with 40 boats in that hole, all bringing in salmon. It was told later at the cannery that all those boats together brought in 4,000 fish that night…the average weight of each fish was 30 pounds. Now, THAT was fishing!

Artist as Well

Bearing multi-faceted talents, Gust was also an artist. He enjoyed wood carving and was an amateur oil painter. Photography was also a hobby, along with his garden art, evident in the rock walls and paths.

Commercial fishing in the river closed in 1936, so Schneidau began guiding on the lower Rogue. He knew the holes and riffles and how to catch the fish. Time went by, he prospered, bought the land from the Macleays, built his home which still stands, continued to fish and raised a family alongside the beautiful waters.

From Fishing to Orchids

The flood of 1964 devastated his home and much was lost. As the waters receded and hopes renewed, Gust, at the age of 70, finally quit guiding to spend his remaining days among a greenhouse full of orchids, his love since he turned 60.

With plants in his greenhouse from around the world, including New Zealand, Germany, India’s Himalayan Mountains, the Andes Mountains in South America and South Carolina in the United States, his hobby kept him busy.

Knowing the elevation at which each particular orchid grew in its native surroundings was his key element to success. He knew the orchids were very, very particular about night temperature. In the daytime they can stand quite a lot.

His orchids were bought with energy saving in mind, and most could stand 40 degrees. he kept some in the greenhouse which required 60 degrees.

He made a device to keep his plants in traction with fishing lines and lead weights. This idea caught on commercially with companies making plastic spools containing built-in springs which put similar tension on the blooms.

Orchids have external roots that wrap around trees and come in about 54,000 natural species. Some were selling for more than $500 per plant during that time. The only flower family with more species than the orchid is the mum family.

Five hundred cymbidium orchids adorned the tiered shelves in the original greenhouse, 20 feet long and 12 feet wide. As each plant had grown from six to ten spikes, and each spike contained from 12 to 20 orchids, that greenhouse housed literally thousands of the exquisite flowers.

In Harmony

In the center of the aisle was an overstuffed chair where Gust Schneidau sat to talk and sing to his orchids. He was in complete harmony with their beauty, it is said. He sold only what was needed to support his hobby and at the time was considered the best amateur cymbidium grower in the entire northwest.

When he saw his first orchid in 1958, he bought five of the plants, not caring about color, type or variety. He built them a house to live in, with a pool bordered by rock and twisted driftwood. Ferns, begonias and his five orchids were planted, and Gust hit the books to learn all he could about orchid growth and culture.

A fishing client from California, drifting down the river from Grants Pass, stopped at Whispering Waters and saw the miniature greenhouse.

The next fall, when he came north for the salmon run, the boat he was trailering was filled from bow to stern with orchids of excellent quality from award-winning parents. This was the beginning of a whole new venture for the man who went on to raise 15,000 prize-winning orchids a year!

His favorites among the many species were the cymbidiums, which bloom in the spring, occasionally in the winter. Some spikes carried as many as 30 flowers, each four to five inches across in an array of colors.

Schneidau sent his leaves to chemists for culture reports and recommendations for feeding. He was meticulous in mixing his fertilizers and was generous in his advice to other cymbidium growers.

He kept overhead sprinklers on with air temperature from 70 to 80 degrees in the daytime, then allowed it to go down to 50 degrees at night. He felt the fall in temperature was essential for flowering spikes. He had no heating system, but the air circulation was rigidly controlled.

Repotting Table

When a cymbidium had developed 15 to 20 bulbs then were broken apart and repotted. He had a table, resembling a steam table in a cafeteria, where the holes were filled with pots of orchids. Heat under the pots was essential to keep the roots warm. The tops were misted several times a day.

The potting mixture was scientifically prepared to hold moisture and slow-acting plant foods. The new plants would bloom about two years after division.

Gust also developed bulbs that had already flowered and become dormant by putting them in plastic bags with a handful of orchid mixture and hanging them in a warm , dark place. Before 30 days were up, small nubs of new growth would appear. Each of these was potted to turn into another breathtaking cymbidium.

An outdoor nursery adjoining the greenhouse held almost 400 more plants–those too young to flower or which had finished their blooming cycle. The area was covered with saran cloth and kept moist with overhead sprinklers.

The Mink Farm

Daughter Jeanne Snook recalls a childhood filled with helping her parents tend vegetable gardens, orchards full of fruits of all types, feeding mink, and helping her mother with various chores, only to end the summer days with a race across the chilly river to the large rock.

There the children would be joined by their father, who held them on his shoulders as Jeanne and the other kids dove into the river. Life was good to this hard-working, nature loving family. Susan Snook recalls, “Everything they did was nature-oriented.”

The mink production kept all members of the family busy, feeding and breeding from 120 to 130 females, which in good years produced 600 young. These were pelted and sent to the fur exchange.

While Gust traveled to Port Orford to acquire fish heads from the commercial fishermen, the rest of the family, which included daughter Jeanne, and sons Norman and Herbert, stayed home to feed the livestock, tend the garden and maintain the household. Since the mink were fish and meat eaters, this was a very labor-intensive business, Jeanne recalls.

Beatutiful Gardens

After acquiring his land in 1924, Gust built his home and landscaped the barren sand with huge rocks, driftwood, flowers and shrubs. Today the gardens are gorgeous, heavily laden with rock gardens, paths, mature rhododendrons, azaleas, violets, bleeding hearts, lilacs, lilies, platter-sized white clematis growing 20 feet tall, camellias, gardenias, a lemon tree which is loaded, and much more.

A wisteria with huge gnarled trunks, one of which is housed in a new greenhouse, draped across the beams with one branch going through an opening in the roofline to allow it to continue outdoors and up, up and up into a tall tree.

Another old wisteria graces an arbor located on the property now owned by Don and Mary Jo Utter, who love to trim and nurture original plantings, which flooding waters have swept through many times.

Whispering Waters Ranch has remained, in part, in the family throughout the years. The old greenhouse was just rebuilt by Gust’s grandson, Lee Snook. Friends are helping refill the benches with starts from orchids which once belonged to Gust.

The wisteria is in bloom, and a spa will soon be in place to view the river. New soil will replace the old, and the rocks realigned. The garden will soon look and smell fresh and inviting.

Meandering Walkways

I was intrigued by the meandering walkways Gust had built from river rock, the beauty of the long-standing plantings, but most of all, the beauty of the river.

Schneidau Riffle, across the way, has produced salmon for two or three generations of Gust’s family and is considered one of the most productive riffles on the Rogue. A new black smokehouse replaces the original one, where the catch-of-the-day is preserved for the pantry.

From rushing, flooding waters to still, tranquil ripples, the peace here is similar to the quietness in a chapel. The moving water does resemble a whisper, one you may have heard only in a dream.