An American outfit had come to Salmo in 1998 to reopen an abandoned lumber mill located on a 40 acre site between Salmo and the small community of Ymir.They were calling it Labyrinth Lumber using a minotaur as the logo.
Taking advantage of government grants the mill was to be a value-added facility which was a new concept at the time where low graded lumber was purchased from other mills around the country and upgraded by re manufacturing it.
Mill ends which are short pieces of lumber were also to be finger-jointed through a labour-intensive machining and gluing process.(see photo at right)
Many jobs were promised due to the amount of handling required and a small crew was hired to set the mill up.
One of my co workers hired on there and often kept me updated as to their progress and high hopes for a sustainable employer in the area at last.
I came to know some of the big wheels who had a charge account at the garage and they tried to lure me away to work with them.
I was leery of working in the lumber industry as it is notoriously unstable and these big talking Americans gave me cause for concern.
After the garage failed I had nothing to lose and had been out to the mill (which had been in full operation for nearly a year by then) to talk to Donny, the foreman about a position once the garage folded.
He admired my loyalty and promised a position for me when I was available.
I was also offered a job at the Porcupine Lumber mill near Salmo by the owner, also a regular customer.
He wanted me to abandon ship immediately for a new opening he had, but I didn't feel comfortable in bailing out on Jim and turned it down.
The owner of Speedway Salvage, on learning of the garage's imminent closure also asked if I'd like to work at the huge wrecking yard he had operated for many years just east of Salmo.
I was flattered by his offer and kept it in mind, but was trying to avoid dirty garage work if possible.
I met with one of the owners-a big fellow named Dan with a drawling accent.
At this point the 150 worker operation had been through an incredible 600 different people according to Dan as they had that much trouble finding good workers.
I found that amazing in an area where jobs were nearly non-existent.
Dan was hoping I would be interested in working on the clean-up crew which was known as the dirtiest jobs in the operation.
This offer was perfect for me who hates assembly line work and did not want to be on the "chain"
pulling boards all day.
He also gave me my choice of 6 am to 2 or 2 to 10pm, Sunday to Thursday.
I happily accepted the afternoon hours even though he warned of the hot afternoon weather to contend with.
I had the pleasure of working with my friend and former co worker and fellow RCMP auxiliary member, Mark who was the foreman of the clean-up crew having been at the mill since its inception.
I found the work physically demanding, but actually really enjoyed the relative freedom of finding areas to maintain and having my own routine which I could alter as I saw fit.
On very hot summer afternoons, I often ran the short distance to the Salmo River that passed by the edge of the property to dunk my hardhat in and pour icy water over my head.
The decking of the green chain was too hot to touch as the poor workers sweltered by it, pulling lumber.
Occasionally in the evenings I saw bears wander by as they followed the river.
One Sunday as Mark and I worked alone in the mill a cougar was rummaging through the big garbage dumpster as we watched.
Another Sunday I found a dead goat from the hillbilly farm across the highway buried in sawdust, maybe by the cougar.
Much of the time I was under the green chain deck pulling broken boards and debris out
In areas not accessible to the conveyor I would manoeuvre the big 966 loader nearby and shovel the debris into its bucket to take out to the massive sawdust "mountain" at the edge of the property.
I enjoyed the possible danger involved in working in close proximity to moving chains, gears and belts and the clean smell of the often steaming hot sawdust as it spewed from the planer.
Not long after I began work I was given a series of raises and offered the position Mark had held as he moved to another area of the operation.
I had to oversee 5 other guys and try to keep them on their tasks and often found them slacking off and not motivated.
On several occasions I was put onto forklift to help keep up with the lumber production and enjoyed the fast pace of picking up the bundles as they were completed to take them to the piling areas.
The finger-jointing area began experimenting with 18 foot lengths of 2x4 studs which were very tricky to manoeuvre through the site and pile. Often the glue had not set and the studs would fall apart during the moving.
I was offered a position steady on the forklifts, but turned it down as I liked my freedom of movement and the good workout I received every night.
The operation had been trying to intimidate the workers against forming a union with the IWA, but later that summer we had a vote to join which passed by huge majority. A new agreement was passed that saw huge wage increases for us and we were in high spirits as the fall came with cooler weather and pleasant conditions in the mill.
Working Sundays was very productive as the operation was halted and only maintenance was working. I often assisted the millwrights when they were overhauling a piece of machinery. Sometimes the sawdust hopper became clogged and we had to climb high up to its location where we beat on the metal sides with sledge hammers to dislodge the jammed up sawdust.
There were many wild characters to work with, many of whom were of the old school where safety was concerned.There were also quite a few very attractive girls on staff who toiled alongside the guys on the chain or in the finger jointing section.I was often pleasantly given a pretty smile as I emerged covered in sawdust from beneath a piece of machinery near to where one of the young ladies was working.As we looked forward to our contract coming into effect, the management were plotting against us.
One afternoon in December as we went on shift Donny came out to tell us there was no work until further notice.Not even maintenance could work as we usually did during other short work stoppages in past.We weren't too concerned until a week had gone by and Mark reported the bosses had flown the coop back to the States taking several million dollars with them.
It turned out they had been skimming profits and sending it south while the Provincial government had not been paying attention as their investment money was funnelled off.
For the second time in the same year my employer had gone belly-up!
I was now back on the unemployment line with little opportunity to be found.