I had heard a rumour about a pending announcement at Wynndel Box and Lumber, now known as WynnWood, but a call from CEO Michael Combs on Jan. 21 caught me by surprise.
First, congratulations are in order to the members of the Wigen family, who have worked, at times against the odds, to sustain the sawmill and forestry operations for over 102 years. It is a remarkable story, particularly in an industry that is often turbulent and affected by economic downswings, international trade agreements, environmental issues and market demand. That the one-time box mill has survived for this long is nothing short of miraculous.
In my first year at the Advance, I wrote a series of stories about the forest industry, and got to know a bit about our three local mills. Crestbrook was still operating downtown, just south of Cook Street, leaving evidence on my car window on many mornings in the form of a thin coat of fly ash from the beehive burner. Wynndel Box and Lumber Ltd., operated by the Wigens, and J.H. Huscroft Ltd., under the ownership of Ken Huscroft and various family members, were thriving operations that were responsible for the incomes of a couple hundred men and women.
I met Jack and Bob Wigen at the time, and have visited the mill often over the years. In what us old-timers now refer to as the good old days, I was one of many who frequented the site where board off-cuts were dumped. Those off-cuts, the trim ends of sawn and planed boards, were good kindling, but they were of good enough quality to make small projects with. In the log house I built, our sunroom featured lattice I made by cutting thin strips of three-quarter-inch boards and nailing them into a crisscross pattern. Log ends that fueled our woodstove were hauled from the pile in Wynndel or loaded straight from the Crestbrook site. If you knew someone at either mill, you simply drove up and helped yourself, no questions asked.
In recent years, Wynndel Box and Lumber fell on some tough times, and Michael Combs reminded me of our first meeting, when I told him I was expecting to have to write the sawmill’s obituary at any time. Combs was overly optimistic in the first meeting, having been presented by a pretty rosy picture by the hired mill manager of the day. When he, on his visits from California, dug more deeply into the operation, he discovered a financial mess, and it must have been tempting for him and the family owners to just organize an industrial sale and cash out the assets. But they were fully cognizant of the jobs that would be lost, and agreed to make changes in an effort to save the business.
The turnaround was remarkably fast, though I am sure it didn’t seem like it at the time. A new management team evolved as personnel changes were made, and the employees hunkered down and gave it their best effort. There was never a question of making a good product — they had that one advantage to sustain their optimism. Upgrades on equipment continued and then a drop in the Canadian dollar helped. Selling into the American market benefits when sales are made in U.S. dollars.
I have met regularly, if not often, with Combs over the years and come to enjoy his company, and his blunt honesty. Much of what I learned from him was off the record, but was never a cause for concern. The job force was stabilized, wage increases helped keep good people from moving on.
The sale to Canfor of the mills’ assets and the company’s timber licences came as a result of the business’s need to either expand or find a suitable buyer. At the heart of the matter was the simple fact that WynnWood only produced about a third of the timber it used to make into high quality boards each year. The open market is unpredictable, making it hard to plan in any meaningful way. Canfor became the best option, not least because it has licenses that allow it to cut about a million board feet of timber in the Kootenays annually, and it was exploring additional ways of putting that timber to its best use. At WynnWood, where good timber is made into great boards, Canfor can do just that.
I have looked at the story from every angle, and I can only say that I can’t find a downside. No jobs lost, access to more and better logs and an owner with the capacity to make technological improvements are all good news stories for a mill that has played such a large part in our local history. I hope all the stories I write about the operation in years to come prove me right.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.