Last logs at Tolko evoke memories of mill’s long history in Merritt

December 7, 2016

By: Merritt Herald

After 97 years and a number of name and ownership changes, the final logs passed through the Tolko Industries lumber mill in Merritt on Monday.

Through 97 years, generations of Merrittonians earned their living wage working at what began as an operation known as the Nicola Pine Mills Limited in 1919. The front page of the Merritt Herald on July 25 of that year declared that Big Lumber had arrived in the city, bringing along with it the promise of good paying jobs for able-bodied men.

In a subhead titled “New Life for Merritt,” the Herald detailed how life would change for the citizens of Merritt after the mill opened up for business.

“The establishment of this large industry in Merritt and the centralizing of its business here means much for this community, in that the new payroll should, within the coming twelve months, reach a figure aggregating from 20,000 to 35,000 per month.

Already there is a strong demand for houses in this city, as many of the employees of the company at Canford mill will be moved to Merritt at once.” – The Merritt Herald, July 25, 1919.

Located on approximately 250 acres of land south of the Coldwater River, workers broke ground on the site in the summer of 1919 after it was purchased from Gilbert Blair of Vancouver for a sum of $15,000 (the equivalent of about $193,000 in 2016).

At the time, Blair’s property was outside of the city limits, which meant that there was no power or water lines connected to the mill. As part of the deal with the City of Merritt, the company agreed to pay a sum to extend an eight-inch water main from the municipal system to the mill and yard site, and to similarly extend power lines to connect the mill to the city’s power plant.

The mill fell on hard times in the early 30s, prompting the purchase of the property by Penticton Sawmills Ltd. in 1933. The June 23, 1933 edition of the Herald ran with a front page headline announcing the sale of the mill, and adding that there was “still time for operation.”

“Resumption of operations and creation of some payroll at the local mill plant this summer seems to be assured, even though legal actions at the coast have delayed action.

Confirmation of the sale of the mill promises to provide a brighter spot industrially in Merritt. Mr. H. Leir of Penticton Sawmills Ltd. will probably arrive in Merritt shortly to make initial preparations for reopening of the mill under new ownership and management.” – The Merritt Herald, June 23, 1933.

But it wasn’t until 1937 that the mill would be fully operational again, once again operating through a new company with a familiar name: the Nicola Pine Mills (1937) Ltd.

The Herald edition of May 28, 1937 noted with cautious optimism that the mill’s reopening could provide work for about “20 to 25 men.”

“The superintendent is assembling his crew and key men formerly employed are being invited to get back into their jobs. W.T. Paterson is going back as an engineer. Melvin Binkley will be in the office. Local men will be given preference in employment.

“Those who know Mr. Kay [the superintendent of the mill] will appreciate the fact that his policy of operation will not call for spectacular splashes but for steady continuous operation, all going well, until hard winter weather makes running impracticable, with resumption as early in the spring as weather conditions will permit economical hauling of logs and economical milling.” – The Merritt Herald, May 28, 1937.

While the mill was operated by the new Nicola Pine Mills Ltd., the property was still owned by Penticton Sawmills Ltd. until 1943, when it was purchased by the Long Brothers Sawmills.

The Long Bros. relocated a mill they were operating out of Monte Lake near Kamloops, to the long-standing site south of the Coldwater River.

“The property, in disuse as a sawmill plant for some years, comprises 75 acres in the City of Merritt lying east of the Middlesboro Road, and 34 acres lying west of the road, or 109 acres altogether.” – The Merritt Herald, Nov. 19, 1943.

The Long Bros. reign as the owners of the mill property was relatively short-lived — in 1946, the Herald announced that the mill had been sold once again, this time to A. S. Nicholson of Burlington, Ont., the former timber controller of Canada.

In addition to expanding the mill’s output, Nicholson created a new company to manage mill operations:  Nicola Valley Sawmills Limited.

The Herald’s cover story on Feb. 1 of that year illuminated a few of the planned expansions at the mill:

Some important changes and expansions are planned in the mill. First of all will be changing to a band saw operation to salvage slabs and edgings for commercial use. More power will be added and capacity will be increased from six to seven million feet as at present to ten million feet a year.

The mill is offering a cash market for the product of local mills and has obtained a working agreement with the provincial government for a continuous supply of timber.” – The Merritt Herald, Feb. 1, 1946.

The acquisition marked the start of a period of relative stability for the mill, as it remained under the banner of the Nicola Valley Sawmills Limited until it was acquired by Balco Industries Ltd., on Aug. 4, 1977.

The Kamloops-based Balco Industries purchased the Merritt mill, along with another subsidiary company for $7.5 million, according to an article in the Herald in ’77.

At that time, the mill was employing “300 hourly and 21 salaried employees,” according to the Herald’s report.

The mill changed hands one more time, after the entire Balco Industries company was purchased by Vernon-based Tolko Industries Ltd. in 1987. The acquisition meant that the mill site south of the Coldwater would once again assume a new name and continue operations.

Which brings the story full circle, to Sept. 22, 2016 — the day the Herald reported that Tolko planned to cease operations at the Merritt mill on Dec. 16 of this year.

Though the last of the mill’s timber supply passed through the mill today, workers will still be on-site for another 11 days, preparing the mill for closure with no re-opening date in sight.

After nearly a century, the mill site south of the Coldwater River continues to be a major economic driver for the City of Merritt. And through the highs and the lows, the Herald has been there to track each development; something we’ll continue to do as the final date for Tolko’s impending closure approaches.

By: Merritt Herald

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