In early days our orchard industry dominated the Okanagan Valley’s economy; a close second was logging and sawmilling.
While big mills like Simpson’s Sawmill in Kelowna were the best known, a recent feature in the Kelowna Daily Courier spoke to the importance of the many local small mills of that era. Local historian Charley Adam chronicled the history of those small operations and their contribution to our local economy. One of the first that he featured was operated by the Gibbons brothers of Winfield. For me that brought back a flood of memories of my early years and OK Sawmills, our dad’s mill. Relying as I do on my own memory, that business began in the late 1930’s as a partnership between our dad, Clare, and his brother Harry who lived in Ellison.
Today, logging and sawmilling continue to be major industries, with far fewer but dramatically larger operations. Highly efficient and mechanized logging practices now clear cut large tracts of forest. Logs are transformed into dimension wood products aided by highly sophisticated equipment controlled through technology. Things have certainly changed. The haywire mills in this story represent the transition between the current industry and the humble beginnings with cross-cut saws and a single skid horse. To explain the reference to “haywire” is not to suggest lack of functionality. Hay bales were bound with wire back then and the wire was tough and useful for temporary fixes, including mill equipment, thus the good natured use of the term.
Like many others OK Sawmills was portable as it was easier to move the mill to the wood than the wood to the mill. The operation could be relocated when one “limit” was exhausted and another secured. No clear cuts, select logging only. A limit referred to a block of timber designated by Forestry for harvesting by contract loggers. The mill would be skidded to the new location by a team of skid horses, later with a CAT. There were no large structures to be relocated, at best the head saw and trim saws usually, but not always, might be covered by a roof on poles. Workers essentially had no protection from the elements. The men lived in tiny cabins constructed onsite, usually on skids. The team would drag the cabins to the new location if close enough, otherwise they were simply abandoned and new ones constructed. Camp life was primitive.
When I was born in 1945, home for our family of four was a tiny one room cabin built of milled slab wood. This was in an area near the base of Little White Mountain that my older cousin Murray Sherritt refers to as Canyon Creek. Needless to say there was neither electricity nor running water. Mom cooked, often for the men as well, on a wood stove. On Saturday we would usually come down to Grannie and Grandpa Friesen’s in Winfield so mom could do all her washing. They’d buy their supplies then head back up the mountain, most often arriving after dark. If there was snow they could only get the truck to a half mile or so from camp so they’d walk up carrying us kids. After getting the fire started to warm up a very cold cabin, Mom would begin hanging up the wet laundry. Dad would go back down with the horses and one of the men to pull the truck up to the mill. How nice it would have been to have the now ubiquitous four-wheel drives and good winter tires we now use to get us around in far less challenging circumstances. The work was long and hard and sometimes dangerous. The crew usually went up the hill on Sunday afternoons and came home Friday nights. Even so there was no shortage of good workers, jobs with a steady paycheque were not easy to come by and they seemed happy to work for the Gibbons brothers.
I can still remember a few of the names of the crew. Some lived elsewhere like the Uppenborns who did skidding; Walter Palmer and Slim and Albert Coghill. The latter eventually bought out Dad’s share, but Dad continued to run the mill. Most of the crew were local, like Murray Sherritt who went to work ostensibly for a couple weeks…that turned into six years or so. Our next door neighbour Ike Hillaby was there as were my uncle Art Walker and cousins Errol McCarthy and Don Teel, I think. Paul Holitzki was one of the stalwarts and his kid brother Gerry joined him for a time. Another set of brothers were Les and “young” Ernie Pow.
I don’t remember all the different locations but a few I recall were Priest Creek, June Springs and even the East Kelowna backyard of Maurice Blanleil. I well remember the mill site on the Kettle Valley Railroad about a mile west of Ruth Station. Dad and I sometimes strolled down there after supper. I believe that during the war years the mill was required to cut a lot of ties for the railroads. Cutting ties was a big part of their business.
As a kid I felt incredibly lucky that dad let me run a lot of the equipment. I’d started driving our old CASE farm tractor at five and by the age of twelve or thirteen was allowed to drive the three ton trucks the mill had, and even the fork lift. Kids were allowed or even expected to do things we’d never dream of permitting today. I recall dad giving me the train schedule one day when I was heading out to walk across one of the big trestles, lest I get run over. While it was a hard life our parents seldom complained about the conditions and hard work. If money was short dad’s paycheque suffered before the men’s did and he left the mill pretty much as he’d started, with nothing.
While I understand there are still a few small operations, most would be specialized or milling their own timber. Just as with small farms it is difficult to compete against very large ones, they lack the economies of scale. Then as now, many small businesses don’t make a lot of money. Like my Dad it’s about making a living while doing something that you’re good at and enjoy.2
Rich Gibbons, Okanagan Centre.
1 Photo of the Gibbons’ truck supplied by Duane Thomson.
2 This article was previously published in The View in Lake Country, Friday, July 29, 2016.