John Pointner got his dying wish – to be buried on the steep hillside above Cougar Bay so he can forever watch over the marsh that became his life’s work.
In trade, the public gets access to the 155 acre mixture of wetlands and thick timbered hillside just west of where the Spokane River flows from Lake Coeur d’Alene.
The Pointner property – now a public preserve known as the John C. Pointner Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary – is a significant score since nearly 98 percent of Lake Coeur d’Alene’s shoreline is privately owned, a fact that always irritated the ornery Pointner, who died Memorial Day at age 86.
“He was irascible and he was cantankerous and yet at the same time he had a heart of gold and an undying love for Cougar Bay,” said attorney John Magnuson, who helped Pointner strike one of the most unusual land sale deals ever accepted by the government.
The deal reveals the mind of Pointner – a mechanical genius who took pride in his grouchy temperament. That character trait was actually a well-constructed façade, just like the many metal contraptions Pointner engineered and built over the seven decades that he ran the Coeur d’Alene Machine and Repair Works.
The creative contract called for Kootenai County and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to pay Pointner $5,000 a month until his death. After that, Pointner forgives the debt and Cougar Bay and the surrounding hillside is forever protected from becoming yet another upscale housing development.
Pointner died 25 months after the deal was signed, meaning he received a total of $125,000 from the two government agencies.
Because the BLM had to buy a $290,000 annuity to make the deal work, the total price for the property is $327,500. The life insurance company that held the annuity got $202,500 from the deal, which is the remainder in the annuity account.
Scott Forssell of the BLM still thinks it’s a tremendous gift to the public.
“It’s just an incredible deal,” Forssell said, especially since Pointner’s property would probably appraise for about $2 million.
Pointner was born in Coeur d’Alene in 1919 and began working in his father’s machine shop at age 11. He got a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Idaho in 1947.
Pointner dedicated his existence to preserving the Cougar Bay wetland, going as far as dynamiting and dredging canals to flush the mud eroding off the nearby hills so the marsh didn’t fill up with silt. His home-made dredge – kind of a gigantic floating vacuum – is still attached to a sinking barge in the bay.
He fought fierce battles with environmentalists over the years who thought his techniques were actually harming the bay. But in the end, Pointner and the environmentalists had the same goal in mind: to protect the nearly 250 species of wildlife from moose to herons that inhabit the bay.
In a 2003 interview, Pointner was blunt about his disdain for people.
“Human beings have become secondary to wildlife in my book,” he said.
In a 1995 newspaper article, Pointner said: “The do-gooder environmentalists condemned me. They passed laws so fast that I could not keep ahead of them.”
These sentiments are why Pointner was so insistent that besides being buried on the property he also wanted a marble headstone that reads “Dead people and live animals permitted.”
A small group of friends hiked to Pointner’s burial site June 13 for a private memorial service. Taps echoed across the bay as it was played on a battery-operated CD player.
Pointner wasn’t in the military but was always proud that he went to Pearl Harbor right after the World War II bombing to help repair the nation’s battleships as a civilian defense worker. He often told of improving the gun turrets.
After returning from Hawaii, Pointner bought the Cougar Bay property in 1944 and moved his father’s machine shop, which was originally downtown where the Coeur d’Alene Resort sits today.
Hikers eventually will get to visit the gravesite and tombstone, when walking trails are established. Forssell said the development could take a couple of years.
Today the hillside is accessible only by water.
Pointner was adamant about the preservation of his property. Yet he also wanted to make enough money off the deal to pay his medical bills and help him fulfill his other life dream of building a sewer treatment system he invented to do away with septic tanks. He often quipped about people living in their own waste. His worries only increased as Kootenai County’s population skyrocketed each year.
The system that resembles nature’s method of purifying seawater is complete and ready for testing. He was confident the idea works because he made one for the Cougar Bay machine shop.
Before his death, Pointner established a trust to ensure that his work will continue and perhaps go to market. Any profit from the system will go to North Idaho College for scholarships. If the trustees decide the treatment system isn’t salable, the trust money also will go to NIC.
“He was a brilliant engineer,” said county grant writer Colleen Allison, who helped broker the land deal and is a trustee for the treatment system. “He had an absolutely brilliant mind even at a declining age.”
She thinks Pointner was often stubborn and challenging out of his desire to get everything completed before he died.
Gordon Cuthbert cared for Pointner, who had a stroke during open heart surgery in 1999.
Pointner grew up during the Depression, and that helped shaped his personality, Cuthbert said, adding that there was much more depth beyond Pointner’s gruff exterior.
Yet he admits it was sometimes tough caring for a man with such exacting demands.
Every night Pointner would have a glass of Coors before dinner followed by a shot of olive oil straight out of the bottle to keep him regular.
Then he would soak his feet in Epsom salts and eat his soup, which couldn’t have any large chunks of vegetables or meat. And he always covered the broth with cayenne pepper, which he thought would prevent bleeding ulcers.
Pointner was a voracious reader who loved Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey Westerns along with technical magazines and anything to do with ancient civilizations or archaeology.
Sheriff Rocky Watson recently bought the five acres where Pointner’s shop sits, which wasn’t part of the land deal. He plans to build a home on the site and preserve much of the property’s history. Some of the metal contraptions will become yard art.
Nearly every inch of the spacious shop is filled with precision gear shapers. Piles of metal shavings sit on the floor, and the calendar reads 1998. It looks like Pointner had just left for a few minutes to run an errand.
“He cut a gear for a Russian helicopter because no one else in the world could get it,” Watson said last week while giving a tour of the shop that is like a museum – not only of gear cutting and metal work, but also of the history of the Coeur d’Alene River and Lake Coeur d’Alene
There’s the first diesel engine used on the lake and a steam engine from a ferry that ran from Windy Bay to Harrison. Outside in the overgrown bushes sits a 40-ton Cataldo dredge pump used for decades by the mining companies to take tailings out of the Coeur d’Alene River. The material was used to fill the lowlands for the construction of Interstate 90.
An amphibious buggy, invented by Pointner years ago to cut horsetails in the bay for a failed tea-making venture, rusts under the cottonwoods.
“I just can’t scrap some of this stuff,” Watson said. “It needs to be saved for the history.”
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