LETTER: Courtenay councillor reminisces about sawmill days

Dear editor,

It was a huge disappointment to me and a great loss to the community when Field Sawmill closed in 2006.

The mill employed 120 people and goods and service providers to the mill employed another 120. The income they earned was spent in town, benefiting car dealerships, grocery stores, music teachers and there was a significant industrial tax revenue to the City of Courtenay.

I was hired on at the sawmill in 1978 as an industrial electrician. At the time, it was a specialty mill, manufacturing yellow cedar 4X4s for the Japanese housing market. Japanese houses were built using exposed 4X4s. Yellow cedar was highly prized and the workers at the Field Sawmill produced a superior product out of what was basically a waste wood harvested and often left to rot in the woods.

There was great co-operation and a great sense of pride at the mill. Whenever a new manager was hired, plant committee member Bill Windram would say to him, “Just so you know, this is our sawmill.”

There was a very positive union-management relationship. Virtually all issues were resolved at the plant level.

When I came there, the mill was owned by Gregory Manufacturing. Peter Gregory was in the business of buying old sawmills, refurbishing them and reselling.

Field Sawmill became highly profitable through its specialty program. Gregory instituted a profit-sharing program, which was very rewarding to the employees. The mill was sold to Primex Forest Products, a very progressive firm. The company responded quickly to changes in the marketplace with new products and, most importantly, continually updated mill equipment.

Primex did not have any logging operations and so, relied on the open market for logs. Under provincial legislation, companies were allowed to block the export of raw logs if they could show a need. This was a constant irritant to the competition. When the gleam of yellow cedar faded, the company changed into a high productivity hemlock mill, incorporating new technology at every turn.

In 2005, the Japanese government announced that, starting in June of 2006, all home builders would have to guarantee 20 years of squeak-free houses. The only way that could be done would be to laminate four kiln-dried 1x4s to produce a twist-free 4×4. While the rest of the industry in BC was trying to pressure the Japanese government to hold off on the regulation, Primex was purchasing a kiln drying company and a laminating company down island to turn Field Sawmill 1X4s into the desired product. Unfortunately, this plan didn’t materialize. In June of 2006, the docks in Japan were filled with packages of kiln-dried, laminated 4X4s from Finland, Sweden and Russia.

It is with mixed emotion that I see the plan of Project Watershed to restore the Field Sawmill site to its natural state. It is a great plan and I am very proud to be part of the community that is made up of the kind of wonderful people who are taking this on.

But let’s face it, I miss the sawmill.

Erik Eriksson


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