The smell of sawdust, grease and sweat

The smell of sawdust, grease and sweat

This Spring – April 29 to be exact – I got an email note from Jim Hurst, an old Montana lumberman friend who threw in the towel 15 years ago. It was the first time I’d heard from him in years.

In his heyday, Jim epitomized all that was good and decent and honorable about a vanishing breed of men who owned and operated small sawmills in hundreds of remote western towns. Jim’s Owen’s and Hurst mill was in Eureka, the tiny outpost eight miles south of the Canadian border.

A few years back

I drove to Eureka from my home in Bigfork on the morning Jim auctioned his mill, partly for moral support but mostly because I admired his steely determination to overcome political odds that had doomed the survival of most of the small family-owned sawmills that sprang up in the West following the Second World War.

Most assume that the federal timber sale program got rolling when the Forest Service was formed in 1905. It’s true that the earliest mills in South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest predate the agency’s formation but the Forest Service didn’t cut much timber west-wide until after World War II.

A good portion of the 60 billion board feet of timber consumed during World War II was cut from privately-owned forests in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast because the West’s timber-rich national forests were still largely inaccessible. Road building and timber sale planning began in earnest not long after President Roosevelt’s 1945 death and accelerated quickly during President Truman’s first term.

Deep roots

Jim’s late father – also named Jim - was one of the first Montana veterans to try his hand at sawmilling following the war. He had been the navigator on a B-17 that flew 30 daylight missions over Germany’s industrial complex: Pforzheim, Schweinfurt, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Kassel, Mainz and the Ruhr.

When I interviewed Jim Sr. in 2005 he said he remembered two sensations from his time in B-17s: the burning ache of gloveless hands turned blue by 60-below-zero cabin temperatures that made writing on his navigational charts all but impossible and long hours of boredom punctuated by moments of heart-stopping terror.


“There were times when anti-aircraft flak was so thick other B-17s right on our nose would disappear into black smoke,” he said. “One moment you could see them and in the next instant, poof, they’d be gone. You just held your breath, not knowing if you were about to collide in mid-air at 30,000 feet. Artillery shells were bursting all around us. In those moments, I think we were all silently praying we’d make it back to England alive. Many didn’t. We were lucky.”

Lieutenant Hurst made it home safely in October of 1945 – only to discover that there were no jobs anywhere in his native northwest Montana. “You couldn’t buy a job. The Great Depression was still very much with us in our part of the country. Things didn’t improve much until the post-war home building boom got going.”

Coming Home

Faced with such dismal prospects, Hurst did the only thing he could think of: he bought a used Bell portable sawmill and a team of work horses and started a one-man logging and sawmilling business. “It was the smallest saw you could imagine powered by an old gas engine, but it worked and that was what mattered. And it was safer than all those daylight bombing runs over Germany.”

Hurst could not remember the name of the B-17 he navigated through Germany’s treacherous skies, but he quickly recalled the names of the two draft horses he later walked behind in the solitude of northwest Montana’s forests. “Oh sure,” he said with a smile. “Their names were Nellie and Blackie; great old horses.”

Early days

Hurst, who was raised in a two-room log cabin near Eureka, was so broke after the war that he never took advantage of his GI benefits, which included a low interest loan on a starter house. “You had to be able to make loan payments,” he recalled. “I didn’t see how I could.”

Portable sawmills were mankillers – literally and figuratively. You did everything from the moment the log entered the saw until its squared cants came to rest on the other end of the saw. Hurst cut railroad ties for the Great Northern Railway, which meant that his cants had to be sized – more passes through the saw. All this after he felled his trees and Nellie and Blackie dragged them to the saw.

Great Northern paid him a pittance, but he was able to scrape together enough money to buy a larger portable mill that he bolted to a foundation at Fortine, a Great Northern whistle stop 12 miles south of Eureka. He named his new outfit Ksanka Lumber Company - after a towering mountain that overlooked the mill. With the post-war homebuilding boom gaining traction, Hurst could not cut two-by-four studs fast enough. For the first time in his life, he had money in his pocket. He sold Ksanka to Plum Creek Lumber Company in 1971.

At his father's knee

Son Jim went to work for his father when he was in the eighth grade. He was a scrawny kid and the work was physically demanding, but Jim persevered as his father had in the early going following World War II.

“I was the boss’s kid and Dad was tough,” he recalls, “but that’s how you learn.”

Jim worked for his dad until he was 23 or 24 – he can’t remember for sure – then took a job with Plum Creek Lumber Company at Fortine and then Columbia Falls.

“My six month trial with Fred Winegar lasted six years. I learned enough to know that I didn’t want to stay with Plum Creek forever. I needed to be on my own.”

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Like father, like son

Jim bought a portable mill – just as his father had after the war – and cut railroad ties for the Burlington Northern Railroad, created from the 1970 merger of four rail lines, including the Great Northern.

“It was a crude mill, but it worked pretty well until BN stopped buying railroad ties. I knew I needed to figure out what to do next.”

Jim partnered with the late Lum Owens in the 1980 purchase of Kennedy-Stevens, a rundown sawmill just north of downtown Eureka. They renamed it Owens and Hurst and secured a $500,000 SBA loan they used to modernize the facility. Then interest rates jumped to 22 percent and homebuilding cratered. Jim told his wife that he didn’t see how the mill could survive.

“I got the crew together and explained the situation and told them I was taking a 40 percent pay cut and they’ve have to take a 20 percent cut,” Jim recalls. “I lost one crewmember. The rest stayed and we built a great little company.”

It was all of that and much more. The mill could cut almost anything, including lumber for the movie sets for Jurassic Park and Batman.

Between the Ice Age and today

I wrote about Jim’s great little company in a Wall Street Journal essay titled “Death of a Sawmill,” published soon after the auction. I explained Jim’s plight and that of hundreds of other small family-owned sawmills clinging for life on the outer edges of a federal timber sale program that imploded following the federal government’s 1990 decision to list the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species.

Jim wrestled with his own version of the spotted owl – not a species but a comment made to him at a Forest Service meeting in Eureka the night before he decided it was time to throw in the towel.

“The District Ranger  told us that in their forest planning they intended to replicate a time period in the past,” Jim recalled. “When I asked what period he said, ‘Somewhere between the last Ice Age and today.’ The last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago. How am I supposed to build a business plan from that?

The Forest Service still dreams about the ecologically impossible task of turning nature’s clock back to an undefined point in time before white settlement began in the 1600s – a moment in time when a mythical “sea of old growth” blanketed the nation from coast to coast. That time never existed.

Death of a Sawmill

Somewhere in the darkness on his way back to Eureka, Jim made his decision. He would call his 90 employees together and tell them there were no more rabbits in his hat. But Jim being Jim, he kept his decision to himself until January because he did not want to ruin Christmas for his employees and their families.

“I had a great crew,” he said. “On the day after I told them we’d be shutting down for good they set a production sawing record. They took a lot of pride in their jobs. I could not have asked for more from them.”

Jim’s last rabbit had been his “eight-foot program,” so named because anyone with logs to sell and a pickup that would haul logs could deliver them to the mill and he’d buy them. Hundreds took Jim up on his offer but it was not enough. The Kootenai timber sale program, his mainstay for years, had fallen from 180 million board feet per year to 30 million feet.

“I told the crew I didn’t want to pull the plug in the dead of winter, so we’d keep the mill running until we worked through our last log decks. I figured that would take until spring. Then we’d auction everything off. I figured I’d get a nickel for every dollar invested and I was about right.”

Mortality exceeds growth

The handwriting had been on this wall for longer than I cared to admit – and probably longer than Jim cared to admit. From his second floor office - overlooking log decks - I could see fire-killed timber standing in the Pinkham Creek drainage - that the Forest Service had decided not to sell for fear logging would further damage the horribly burned area.

This at about the same time that insect and disease mortality exceeded gross annual growth on the Kootenai for the first time in history – meaning that trees were dying faster than they were growing. But no trees to sell? Apparently not.

There were 25 years of ups and downs. Jim thought he might have been able to run his mill a little longer. He didn’t want to deplete the company’s cash. All 90 employees received an excellent severance package plus scholarships for their children after he auctioned the mill.

For lack of logs he had temporarily closed the mill in 2001. He had halved his crew the year earlier for the same reason. Now it was over. As he told a reporter from the Missoulian newspaper, “I don’t have any new tricks up my sleeve.”

Other considerations

When I talked to Jim on the phone the other night he told me the rest of the story about his decision to pack it in 2005. He had been diagnosed with epilepsy and his health was going to hell.

“I was taking five pills a day for epilepsy,” he said. “Had a terrible time focusing on my work. I passed out twice, once at the funeral of a good friend who died way too soon. After we auctioned the mill I worked my way down to one pill a day and now I don’t take any. II haven’t had a seizure in more than fourteen years.”

Jim also withdrew completely from Montana’s timber industry. For years, he had been one its most reliable and most quotable spokesmen. He was fearless in his criticism of both the Forest Service and serial litigators who have driven what’s left of Montana’s sawmilling infrastructure to the brink of extinction.

No going back

“Would you ever get back into it,” I asked.

“My health won’t allow it and neither will Carol,” he said without hesitation. “I haven’t been in a sawmill in 15 years. It’s too painful. I see brush mills around here occasionally. I enjoy BS-ing for fifteen or twenty minutes, but then I have to leave it again.”

“Around here” being Jim’s summer home and Tree Farm near Eureka. He has landscaped some 400 acres so far. Thinning out some trees while allowing the best seed trees to grow larger. He hauls his logs to the Stoltze Lumber Company mill in Columbia Falls on a goose-neck trailer behind a diesel-powered pickup.

“I generally get up between 5:30 and 6:00 o’clock in the morning and start sawing about 10.” This is a typical work day. “At Carol’s insistence, I hired a guy who checks me around noon to make sure I haven’t killed myself. Then I saw again in the afternoon. After deducting all of my costs for equipment, fuel and normal wear and tear, I figure I’m making between $8 and $9 an hour.”

The smell of sawdust, grease, and sweat

Jim doesn’t need the money, so you could logically ask him why he does it. He would tell you there is nothing logical about a lot of things in life, but he loves the smell of sawdust, grease, and sweat “all mixed together.”

“It makes me happy so I’m still at it and I will be as long as I’m in good health. I had an old friend up here who sawed until he was 90. He probably napped every day. But I’m only 73 so I don’t do that yet!”

To escape the bitter cold of northwest Montana winters, Jim and Carol winter in southern California. Mainly they play golf and entertain friends.

“It takes the place of a job,” he says. “But we always fly home for Christmas with kids and grandkids. We’ve been to Hawaii three or four times and we’ve been to Europe. It has a lot of old buildings but after you’ve seen one old building you probably seen them all.”

On his own terms

He was able to track down the headquarters of his father’s 398th Bomb Group. It’s a farm now, save for an American flag and a wind sock fluttering in the breeze.

“The curator found an old picture of Dad and his crew,” he said. “The whole thing gave me goosebumps. We also found the field in Italy where Carol’s dad flew. He was a B-24 pilot.”

“Would you go back to Europe sometime,” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Jim replied. “The flight is brutal. Mainly my life is my own. I still work hard but I do it on my own terms. I don’t pay any attention to what the Forest Service does. With these big wildfires and all the hardship in small towns like Eureka, it’s too frustrating and sickening for me to think about.”

I share Jim’s frustration and heartache and I always will. What is happening in the West’s national forests and its nearby timber communities is morally, ethically and environmentally wrong.

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