It was about a year ago that the owners of Montesano’s Mary’s River lumber mill on State Route 107 announced it would close. As a result, 38 people lost their jobs, the city lost revenue and the facility basically went idle.
In the case of mills, when they shut down, they don’t always open again. So residents logically saw the end of a Montesano mainstay. The mill had been in operation for more than 40 years.
It was in December last year, some nine months later, that dismay became fanfare as the city announced a pending deal with Fox Lumber, a Montana company, to revive the mill.
The company had planned to hire back some 30 of the people who had lost their jobs when the mill closed in March 2016.
Now four months later, the mill is employing 29 people. Five are returning workers, who had, in some cases, moved on and found new positions with companies elsewhere.
Mill manager Terry Smith was the manager under the former company, and he had the unfortunate duty of notifying the former employees that they were being laid off. In the time since, Smith was kept on at the facility, working to keep the site from withering to the ensuing decay, like some would-be hero of a Harry Chapin narrative. When Fox River leased the property and bought the facility, they hired Smith, and he received the fortunate news that he would have the duty to hire employees back.
When asked how it felt to call the former employees and ask them to come back, Smith said, “It felt pretty good. And it was nice that we had some guys willing to come back and work with me.”
One of those employees was Smith’s son, Jason Smith, who was hired back on at the mill as production supervisor.
“I’m happy to be back working,” Jason Smith said. “Some of us had been here a long time. This is home. It’s nice to have the opportunity to come home and work.”
But with a new company comes a new product, and a new product means a new process, and all of that takes a willing adjustment for people like Terry Smith who have been at the site for some 30 years.
Whereas Mary’s River worked in cedar, the new owners, Fox Lumber, produce “wood packing material.”
Learning the ropes hasn’t been easy, Terry Smith said.
“It’s been an adventure,” Smith said of the new operation. “It’s a totally different world. Everyone thinks lumber is lumber, but this is different and there has been a learning curve.”
But Smith says Fox Lumber has been “patient” as the mill catches on.
Fox Lumber director of operations Quintin Apedaile agreed the mill operations were moving forward successfully.
“We’re pretty happy with the way things are going. Everything is ahead of schedule,” Apedaile said.
When Fox Lumber purchased the mill from Mary’s River and leased the property from the city, they had been sold on the location — Montesano is central to many of the vendors Fox Lumber already had in the region.
The Hamilton, Mont., company is aiming to maintain its original plan of operations for the time being. The company buys low-grade dimensional lumber from mills in the area. The final product then is shipped to customers throughout the region (Washington, Oregon, N. California), Apedaile explained.
And while the location and the mill has been “as expected,” they received a little more when it comes to the locals.
“With the people we’ve dealt with, we’ve gotten more than we expected,” Apedaile said. “We’ve been very happy with everybody in Montesano.”
Currently, the yard at the mill is busy, maybe not as busy as it’s ever been, but it’s busier than it was just six months ago when Terry Smith was left to tinker throughout the facility. Now, forklifts roam the yard and stacks of boards stand throughout.
Terry Smith hinted at the potential for more good news saying there’s the possibility of additional hires.
“We have 29 employees. We potentially could be doubling that by as early as fall,” Smith said.
Many of the current workers are temporary employees, but throughout the mill, there were smiling faces. Smiling faces with working hands. Employed faces and hands put to work.
That’s been the best part, Smith says.
“The most exciting part is putting people back to work,” he said. “The Montesano mill is up and running and this place isn’t a ghost town anymore.”