pg 606 More Big Hill Country 2009
Clara Jeanette and John Johann Mjolsness had raised eleven children in Minnesota when talk began of some of their boys coming to Alberta to take advantage of the homesteads being made available to encourage settlement. Early in the 20th Century, four brothers, Martin and John Alfred in 1906, Joseph in 1909 and Louis in 1910 all took up homesteads near Sundre, Alberta. Unfortunately, Joseph was killed overseas shortly before the end of WWI.
The rest of the family followed when the parents of these four boys also decided to immigrate. John and Clara Mjolsness with their seven remaining children, four boys, and three girls left Minnesota to establish a new home in Alberta. They brought with them not only household goods but a thousand feet of oak lumber. blacksmith equipment, farm machinery, horses, and cattle.
Arriving in Alberta, they lived in old ranch buildings seven miles west of Olds, Alberta. They then purchased a half section of land, N Sec 33 Twp 31 Rge 5 W5M, and built a home with lumber sawn at the mill of J.T. Johanneson. Two of their sons, Endred and Bill were working for Johanneson. A shingle mill owned by other brothers provided the shingles for their new home and for many other district families.
Louis Mjolsness, one of the original four homesteaders, was born on June 22, 1882. He was a mature thirty years old when he returned to Minnesota on a very important trip. He went to call on a lady he knew with the intention to marry her; Minnie Granum, born June 9, 1882, who was teaching school in Minnesota. They were married on December 30, 1912.
Louis brought his bride to the McDougal Flats area of south-central Alberta and there over the years four children were born; Gladys, Lloyd, Chester, and Marian The everyday life of the young family was guided by the principles of the parents. A helping hand to those in need and sharing faith was important to them both.
The small farm southwest of Sundre was generally the mainstay of Louis Mjolsness’ livelihood but for three years he was involved in sawmilling with J.T. Johanneson. Louis also logged his own timber and had it milled by Tom Arnew, west of Sundre where Louis built himself a cabin to use while working there. Chester, as a young lad remembers going with his Dad and helping to chink the logs with green moss. The site was seven miles west of Sundre known as Sawdust Hill.
Minnie Mjolsness was a kind, knowledgeable lady who taught the children well and loved them dearly. She was always a strong supporter of anything the children wanted to do.
Louis made a rare visit to the doctor after feeling poorly in the fall of 1930. He passed away fourteen days later after being diagnosed with liver cancer. His death was a severe shock to his wife and young family and their lives out of necessity took on many changes
Minnie hired Carl Christensen, who was born in Denmark and came to Canada from Greenland. He had worked for Louis previously. She combined a small government widow’s pension with the money she earned from the cream from her milk cows and was able to care for her four children without “relief”, as she called welfare. Carl worked the farm with the boys until 1937. By that time Lloyd and Chester were old enough to take over full responsibility for the farm work.
Later Minnie left the farm and moved into Sundre. She operated a boarding house for teachers and others in need of a home while there.
In 1944, Minnie married her former foreman Carl Christenson who renovated the old Pool Hall (which he won in a raffle), added a barber shop, and kept quite busy after their marriage.
Carl passed away at Olds in 1956. He was highly respected in the community and well-loved. He never had any natural children but loved the four Mjolsness children as if they were his own. In May 1958, Minnie suffered a stroke and quietly passed away.
Minnie had played the role of both mother and father for so many of the growing-up years of the children. A large void occurred in their lives upon her passing. Minnie kept the family together providing strong Christian leadership in the home. She had given much strength and encouragement to her four children throughout the years of her life.
Chester Jerome Mjolsness
Chester was the second son and third child born to Louis and Minnie Mjolsness in Didsbury, Alberta on October 14, 1919. Like his brother Lloyd, he attended school at McDougal Flats.
The children drove to school in a buggy pulled by a horse named “Dixie” and often they rode “Dixie” for fun. By tapping lightly on the fetlock, Dixie would lie down and let the kids mount. Faye Adams was his teacher but the school didn’t hold much attraction for him. The best subject at school for Chester was baseball and he was the pitcher many times when they played against nearby schools, Sunberry, Bearberry, Eagle Hill, and Rockwood.
Tragedy struck when Chester’s father passed away suddenly when Chester was just eleven years old. His mother hired Carl Christensen, who had worked for Chester’s father as a foreman on the farm.
At age fourteen, Chester quit school having managed to complete grade eight. “No Honours” he admits and although his mother disapproved he felt he was ready to step out into the world.
Chester suffered from asthma and had always been allergic to grain dust, and currying and feeding the horses resulted in a marked reaction. So he turned to other activities that would enable him to earn a little money.
Chester had honed his skills with a .22 rifle and made himself a lucrative hobby of shooting and skinning squirrels. He could sell the pelts for twelve cents each and he shot and skinned thirty in a single day. He bought a coyote snare and managed to snare a coyote. Chester offered the pelt to a traveling buyer at six dollars. The man refused but came back a second time thinking he could get it for less. Chester again refused to sell. The third time back, Chester got his asking price. He spent the entire six dollars on more snares and managed to earn quite a bit of money as each pelt sold for ten to fifteen dollars.
Chester saved this money and one day after selling pelts in Calgary, Chester and Lloyd planned to trade in the family-owned 1929 Chevrolet. Its doors and sills were rotted out so Chester replaced them and Lloyd tuned up the motor. Their Uncle Hale Gochee had taught them both a lot about carpentry and mechanics. After a harrowing trip to Calgary, in which the Chevy was wrecked in an accident, and with help from a friend Arie Vooys, who owned a garage in Sundre, they found a 1936 Plymouth four-door sedan for six hundred dollars. What was left of the old Chevy was sold to Arie.
Over the years, the boys worked at a number of jobs including the building of roads which helped to pay the farm taxes. Chester also continued trapping.
In 1938, Chester got his first job at a sawmill. The camp was located twelve miles west of Sundre and three miles south. For two and a half months until early spring, he learned the art of cutting logs.
In 1939, with the outbreak of WWII, Chester and Lloyd both received their calling-up papers. However, after reporting and receiving their medicals, both failed to meet the required standards and returned to the farm. Looking for a change, Chester went knocking on doors in Calgary looking for work. He was hired by the Royal Lumber Yard for one hundred fifty dollars a month. His room and board were forty-five dollars. Chester did a lot of painting and unloaded lumber and shingles from box cars. However, the dust from the shingles irritated his asthma so he quit his job and went back to the farm. At this time, the government began building airports at training camps. Chester seized the opportunity and went to Penhold, building rafters for the airport hangers.
Chester’s next venture took him to the oil patch, working the oil rigs at Turner Valley. He became a rough-neck, first on the floor then later working the derricks until he was promoted to cat-head. At times he filled in as a driller. During the next two years he worked at Turner Valley, Bruderheim and Taber. He thought he had found his lifetime career as he loved this work. However, circumstances led to Chester 1 being out of work, so he returned to the farm. Although he was disappointed not to have work in the oilfield. he found work at the Colonel Snyder Ranch, west of Sundre. His uncle Hale Gochee was the foreman there at the time.
During this time Chester heard of a stand of timber west of Doc Shymer’s place, fifteen miles south-west of Sundre. As a teenager, he had thought seriously about a career in either sawmilling or commercial fishing. Fishing presented a few problems for a land boy but memories of his father sawmilling had remained. The idea of starting a sawmill was intriguing. Chester discussed the idea with his uncle Hale, to join forces with him and start their own mill. So he and Hale viewed the timber on saddle horses and the partnership was made. Chester would obtain the timber and do the logging and Hale would do the sawing.
The government Ranger called one day to say he’d be coming out to cruise the timber. As luck would have it, it was the day of Lloyd’s wedding, at which Chester was the Best Man. Concerned about his duties for the wedding and hoping he would make it back on time (which he did) Chester and the Ranger did the inspection. Hail had damaged some of the timber to the point it would be of no use for lumber but fortunately there were also eight or nine hundred thousand board feet of good quality pine and spruce in this block. The parcel was approved as a licensed timber berth but Chester still had to compete for the actual purchase.
All timber was sold by oral bid at the Forestry Office in Rocky Mountain House. Chester went to the sale prepared to bid whatever was necessary. However, there was one other fellow who had designs on that lease and he kept bidding up the price. At the time, leases usually went for no higher than one dollar per thousand-foot board measure (F.B.M.) Finally, when the bid reached three dollars per thousand F.B.M. the other fellow dropped out. Chester had the dubious distinction of having bought the highest price timber in Alberta at that time. He had gone to the sale not even realizing there would be any competition but he was also determined to have that timber whatever the price. On the drive home, he began to wonder at the wisdom of the commitment.
Now Chester had a timber lease but no mill. Hale was a genius at mechanics and carpentry work and began to build his own mill at the blacksmith shop on the Mjolsness farm. There was only one welder in Sundre owned by Chester’s friend Harold Hardy. Using discarded iron from old cars and other scrap iron, Harold and Hale designed and built a mill that would perform as accurately as any other, even the portable mills of today.
While Hale was building the mill, Chester was busy cutting the hail-damaged timber for mine props. They were sold and hauled to Drumheller for the mines there. It took all winter but Hale finished the mill on March 1, 1944. Most mills were winding down for spring break up but Chester and Hale were determined to start their new venture.
Chester’s Mom, Minnie was very supportive of her son’s endeavor and loaned him five hundred dollars. This money paid for his first timber license and helped defray other expenses. Chester borrowed the farm’s 20-35 steel-wheeled Allis Chalmers tractor from Lloyd to provide power to operate the mill. He borrowed a fourteen-foot granary from Lloyds father-in-law which they moved into the bush for a temporary bunkhouse and cookhouse. The first winter, Chester did most of the cooking with his mother sending food out when possible. When that first season came to a close, one hundred and five thousand board feet of rough lumber had been cut. It sold for $17.50 a thousand delivered to Olds.
When the mill shut down for the summer Chester returned to the farm to help Lloyd and visited with his mother.
In sawmilling, Chester found a way of life so appealing to him he felt he could build a solid future. After a few successful years in 1944 and 1945 Hale Gochee and Chester dissolved their partnership and Hale sold his share to Chester.
Fate took a hand in Chester’s life in 1945 when the Ranger at the Red Deer Ranger Station Carl Larson and his wife Marg invited Marg’s friend Beryl Chapman to visit them for the summer. Carl kept reminding Beryl every time they went to Sundre for supplies of a young man who owned and operated a sawmill along the road. Viewing the little shacks that served as housing Beryl let Carl know that she wasn’t interested. She said she couldn’t live in one of them. which was a dangerous statement, and she lived to eat her words. She met the “young man” that fall and on their very first date, he took her to a Timber Sale.
After Beryl’s stay with the Larsons, she worked for Jack Macleod in his store and boarded at Minnie Mjolsness’ home. Chester’s visits to see his mother suddenly became more frequent and in the spring the couple became engaged. Minnie decided to hold an engagement party to celebrate the occasion. It was unfortunate that on the day of the party, Ed and Ken Philips decided that was the day they could haul lumber into Sundre from Chester’s camp. The lumber was for a house Hale Gochee planned to build. Because of the spring breakup, Chester had to remain on-site to pull the trucks through the mud with the Cat. Finally, he was able to leave for the engagement party but by the time he arrived the guests had long departed and the party was over. It was a poor start for what would be a long and happy relationship. Beryl and Chester were married on June 27, 1946.
Sawmilling continued to flourish, new timber berths were applied for and received and more machinery and buildings were purchased. Chester’s brother Lloyd sold the farm and joined in the partnership with Chester. Together they purchased a UD 18 power unit
be used for mill power and a brand new 3-ton truck. This truck was driven in two shifts hauling lumber to Beaver Lumber in Calgary and Red Deer that winter.
When the seasonal work drew to a close in the spring of 1947 everything was moved out of camp, including a 16 foot x 24 foot house, built at the camp that winter for Beryl and Chester to live in. This house was placed on property on Main Street in Sundre and later used as a garage for the new house built for Chester and Beryl by Hale Gochee.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s Chester and Lloyd logged in the Boggy Lake and Williams Creek areas and it was about this time they were told about the Eau Claire Lumber lease in the Spray Lakes area.
For some time the brothers had been pondering the problem of year-round work for their men. They contacted the Eau Claire Lumber manager who arranged for them to be taken out to show them the timber at Spray Lakes. This trip was an eye-opener for Chester and Lloyd. Traveling by jeep they arrived within four miles of the timber stand at a cabin owned by Calgary Power.
The area was a remote wilderness area reserved as a game preserve until the joining of Jasper and Banff Parks; closed to motorized vehicles with a locked gate to deter public travel. The two men spent two days on foot inspecting the timber. They found good quality timber in worthwhile quantity but it would require eighteen miles of road to be built to provide access.
Negotiations were started with Eau Claire Lumber and the Mjolsness Brothers were amazed to learn that the timber license had been held on the seven-and-a-half sections since 1884. It had been issued at Selkirk, Manitoba, North West Territories. Although the area had been classed as inaccessible, prior to Calgary Power building a road from Canmore to Spray Lakes, the company continued to hold the lease.
With all the details settled in 1953, a camp was set up five miles beyond the gate and work began on building a road. Three 12 foot x 20 foot buildings were moved in and two shifts of men working on building the road to Mud Lake where a permanent camp would be set up. Sawmilling began in 1954 and the routine of moving operations between Spray Lakes (summer/fall) and Williams Creek (winter) became established. Working at such a high altitude was a new experience for Chester and Lloyd. It could be raining at the camp and three miles down the road it was dry.
The earliest sawing began at Spray Lake was June 20th, and in 1955 a custom began that continued into the late 1960s. When the school closed at the end of June many of the men moved their wives and families out to the mountain wonderland where the camp was located. Chester and Beryl brought their boys Brian and Barry and in later years daughters, Lori and Cindy out to the camp. One year the camp had 27 children spending the summer. Most lived in cabins but some preferred to stay in tents. Many fondly recall these were the best years of their lives. These “holidays” were missed when they ended.
In the late 1960s, apart from quotas held by Sundre Lumber and Revelstoke Lumber, Chester and Lloyd were able to purchase every quota between the Bow River and Clearwater Rivers.
In 1968 the Mjolness brothers purchased land from John and James Henderson at Cochrane, Alberta. This land would be the site where they planned to centralize all milling operations. Through the winter of 1968-1969, more than a million feet were logged from the Courtrielle lease on the Forestry Road, 7 miles south of Mountain Aire Lodge. These logs were hauled to the newly acquired land at Cochrane and throughout the summer, the sawmill moved to Cochrane from the Macleod site on the Highwood, was kept humming.
By the summer of 1970, Camp No. 2 at Spray Lakes was still operating. However, all the other lumber was now being produced by the mill in Cochrane. With the Cochrane mill operating continuously, it seemed set for steady growth but on Boxing Day a fire occurred at the mill. A short developed in a drop cord and ignited the sawmill on fire. Despite all efforts of the fire department, the mill and all the new electrical motors just installed were lost.
Because insurance premiums to cover this kind of business were astronomical, no insurance had been carried and the loss fell squarely on the shoulders of Lloyd and Chester. Sometime in the future, it was hoped that a new, modern sawmill could be built at Cochrane but for the time being the No. 2 mill from Spray Lakes was brought to Cochrane. This mill was used until 1974.
With almost 30 years of experience behind them and a promise of a continuous supply of timber, Chester and Lloyd began giving serious consideration to fulfilling a long-held dream – that of a fully automated, central operation that would make full use of all the by-products of the milling industry.
They investigated and appraised the design of different mills in British Columbia and Quebec. They found mills in the eastern province very efficient, particularly in the sawing of small timber. After a great deal of study and following consultation with engineers, a flow plan was drawn up. During this time, while the new mill was under consideration, Chester and Lloyd disposed of some of their other assets.
Early in 1973, the ground was broken for the new mill building and Spray Lake Sawmills Ltd. embarked on the purchase of new equipment. The new mill building would be constructed completely of steel with a sprinkler system to guard against fire.
On Friday, June 21, 1974, a Grand Opening Ceremony was held on a beautiful day with many dignitaries, business associates, and friends from near and far. Among those attending were the Mayor of Cochrane, Caroline Godfrey, Minister of Lands and Forests, Hon. Dr. Alan Warrack and Banff/Cochrane MLA and Minister of Highways Hon. Clarence Copithorne. Tours of the mill were conducted and a hot meal with music and entertainment followed. It truly was a gala affair.
For several months, work proceeded slowly as each man had to learn new procedures. There was absolutely no comparison to the former bush mills. Each phase was electronically controlled with the operator controlling an electrically powered panel by pushing buttons to activate the various functions of the machines. Not only production slowed but the bottom dropped out of the lumber market. For some months the returns were below the cost of production.
This was a critical time for Chester and Lloyd as they wondered when the axe would fall bringing an end to all their dreams. A large portion of the new mill had been financed and repayment (for the time being) was out of the question.
Finally, in February 1975, markets picked up and prices improved. With four million board feet of lumber accumulated the pressure was off and Spray Lake Sawmills was operating again under more favorable conditions.
The old bush mill had been put into storage at the west end of the Cochrane yard adjacent to the old sawdust pile. In January 1975, a strong chinook wind blew causing a fire in the sawdust pile to erupt. In no time fire spread to the old building that housed the old sawmill and fire crews from Cochrane and Calgary responded. The fire was contained and the new mill remained unharmed.
Chester feels it was ironic that after operating mills in the bush for 25 years without a fire (despite the potential risk) they would have two fires within a relatively short time at Cochrane. By 1975 however, there was full insurance on the mill.
Over the next few years, Lloyd and Chester devoted themselves to the business, concentrating on ensuring the smooth running of the improved facility and settling their commitments with the bank. With their major goal accomplished by 1979, the brothers decided to retire.
Chester’s two sons Brian and Barry and his son-in-law Gill Ilk were willing to take over the responsibilities in the following year and Spray Lake Sawmills (1980) Ltd. was born. Lloyd and Chester continued to advise the young men over the next few years until they became familiar with all aspects of the business.
By 1990 Barry had assumed full ownership and continued to operate Spray Lake Sawmills (1980) in a manner respected by the community.
Although the Town of Cochrane now completely surrounds Spray Lake Sawmills (1980) the company remains Cochrane’s largest employer and as it has over the years, endeavors to work in complete harmony with the community, town, and all related government departments.
Lloyd Maxwell Mjolsness
Louis and Minnie’s oldest son, Lloyd Mjolsness, was born September, 1916 in Sundre and was fourteen years old when his father Louis passed away. He attended McDougall Flats School, three and a half miles from their home. His favorite subjects were arithmetic and spelling and the Annual School Fair. He participated by taking first prize for his “Sally Ann” muffins and also took a colt and a calf to the fair once. With the sudden passing of his father Louis, just nine days after Lloyd’s fourteenth birthday he quit school to help his mother with farming. With the hiring of Carl Christensen, who had worked for Louis, a new routine fell into place.
Lloyd helped Carl with the plowing, harrowing, and seeding. All the family, including eleven-year-old Chester, cooperated as they fixed fences and harnesses for the horses. Lloyd and Chester cut down trees for logs to build corrals and hauled them home about eight miles. Sharpening fence posts, fixing singletrees and doubletrees for the horses, and keeping the machinery fixed kept Lloyd and Chester busy. Their parents always kept the farm yard neat and tidy so on weekends everything was cleaned up and made attractive.
Through the years there were many exciting events including the Sundre Stampede. One year, with Rusty Stevenson and his cousin Harold Erickson, Lloyd entered the Wild Cow Race. They won the second prize, five dollars, which they split between them.
Breaking horses was another job that Lloyd had to do and by the time Carl quit working for Minnie when Lloyd was twenty-one, he had matured physically and in character and was able to carry on managing the farm.
Chester, a few years younger was able to help Lloyd by stooking and working on farm machinery repairs. Their uncle, Hal Gochee, was a mechanic and taught the boys a lot about fixing mechanical problems.
When new neighbours, the Kuykendalls, moved in a short distance away, Lloyd took his mother over to meet them after having done some work for Mr. Kuykendall. There he met their daughter Mary and after dating for a year they became engaged.
They were married on November 6, 1943 and a tense bridegroom was made even more nervous. His best man, brother Chester, had been called by a forestry official to go and inspect a timber lease Chester had applied for. However the inspection was carried out and Chester returned to Sundre in good time to perform his duties, much to Lloyd’s relief.
When Chester decided to operate a sawmill in 1943, the mill was built on the Mjolsness farm making use of the farm’s forge and blacksmith shop. Power for the mill was provided by the farm’s tractor. The 1936 Plymouth used by Lloyd was traded for a two ton Ford with a short wheel base which was put to steady use to haul lumber to the Madsen lumberyard in Olds. This job was undertaken by Lloyd, who left the farm each day at 3 am in order to travel while the roads were still frozen. He loaded the truck by hand and enroute to Olds from the Coal Camp, he stopped at the farm for breakfast and to milk the cows. He delivered the load, returned to the home farm to do the chores then retired to bed early to be fresh to start over again the next day. After three years of marriage, Lloyd had an offer from someone who wanted to buy the farm. With no objection from his mother, they sold the farm and he and Mary moved into Sundre. They had three children Marilyn Diane, Gail Ann and Robert (Bob) Lloyd.
In 1947, Lloyd and Chester became equal partners in the business they named “Mjolsness Brothers”. Now that the farm no longer took Lloyd’s attention he was free to share responsibility with Chester so a formal agreement was drawn up.
In 1948, the opportunity to purchase a mill owned by Max Dix came up. This package included the timber lease, the mill, the steam engine and the camp. Lloyd was kept busy hauling lumber daily to Penhold, Red Deer or Calgary.
One day in April 1949, Lloyd and Chester were in Calgary on business and met some friends that were on their way to Cardston to look at land available for lease on the Blood Indian Reserve. The Mjolsness brothers were invited to go along. After looking at the land, five and a half sections, Jack Morgan, one of the chaps with them, turned to Lloyd and Chester and asked them if they were willing to form a partnership and take on the lease. Some time passed and discussions took place. It was agreed this was a good opportunity. A partnership was formed comprised of Jack and Geoff Morgan and Lloyd and Chester Mjolsness. The operation was to be known as M and M Farming Co. Ltd.
Because of his extensive experience in farming, Lloyd was chosen to be in charge of operations but as in all their mutual dealings, Lloyd and Chester had an equal interest in the new Company. Lloyd was required to be on the spot from early spring until harvesting was completed in the fall. He would then return to the sawmill in the winter. Likewise, Chester would go to the Reserve in the spring and help out with seeding and various employees would be given work when needed. The Morgan brothers each received one-third share of M & M while the Mjolsness third (owned jointly by Lloyd and Chester) did not pass into their individual bank accounts. If a profit was made, this would go into the joint Mjolsness account, once again to be used for the betterment of the sawmilling operation.
For the next twenty years, the farm on the Blood Reserve became a way of life for Lloyd. From spring to fall he spent most of his time there. When spring breakup came to the Mjolsness Bros. Camp on Williams Creek, four or five of the men would join Lloyd at Cardston to help with the work being done there. Gradually the land holdings on the farm comprised 8700 acres.
In 1956 Mary and Lloyd sold their home in Sundre and moved to Calgary. This made for a shorter drive to the Blood Reserve, now less than two and a half hour’s drive from Calgary. With this move, the help provided by Mary became an important factor in both the sawmill and farming. When the whistle sounded at the end of work at noon each Saturday, many of the single men would spend their free time partying at various “watering holes” in and around Calgary. Lloyd knew all their favorite spots and sent Mary to make the rounds, picking up the workers to be sure they were back in camp in time to start on Monday morning. Mary’s services were also appreciated where groceries were concerned. She was familiar with the roads and even in winter’s most treacherous conditions, she could be relied on to deliver the goods, whether it be to the camp on Williams Creek or the farm on the reserve.
The company name of Mjolsness Brothers had been changed to Spray Lake Sawmills Ltd. in the mid-fifties. By the late 1950s sawmilling was beginning to expand. Lloyd and Chester had purchased a timber lease from Eau Claire Lumber at Spray Lakes in Kananaskis, which provided more work than ever for the brothers and their employees. Several businesses were purchased or opened creating further expansion, all related to the lumber business.
By this time M&M Farming had also expanded. As well as leasing seven and a half sections on the Blood Indian Reserve, in 1965 the company had purchased a further five and a half sections at Hawarden, Saskatchewan. This was further increased when adja cent land beside it became available. More land was rented and farmed and the last year Lloyd was involved in the farming operation 8700 acres were being seeded on the Blood Indian Reserve.
After twenty years of successfully managing the farm it became clear that Lloyd could no longer be spared to devoting so much time to farming on the Reserve. Buyers were found for the leases and all the equipment. This change allowed Lloyd to be at home more often and he began to devote more time to the lumber business which was expanding rapidly.
Their portable sawmills continued to operate and flourish. By the mid-1960s the Sundre operations were shut down and the business, now known as Spray Lake Sawmills Ltd., set up a second mill at Spray Lake. But Lloyd and Chester recognized times were changing. It became increasingly difficult to keep workers in the bush and operate mills there. In the late 1960’s it was decided they should eventually centralize all operations. During this period, 60 acres of land at Cochrane was purchased and plans were being made to build a mill there.
With that change, a Mjolsness tradition ended. Up at Spray Lakes, some of the workers would bring their families with them for the summer. Sometimes as many as seven families stayed there. Cabins were built for them to live in although some preferred to live under canvas. It was kind of like a holiday during the summer logging season and many good times were had by the families while they stayed at the logging camp. With larger quotas and those changing times Spray Lake Sawmills centralized its operations with a new mill in Cochrane, Alberta in June 1974. Shortly after, the new Kananaskis Provincial Park was established and the timber licenses held by Spray Lake Sawmills in the Spray Lakes area was not renewed. Later new timber licenses were issued to replace those lost to the park.
In 1980, Lloyd, along with his brother Chester retired from active business and sold out to Chester’s sons Brian and Barry and Chester’s son-in-law Gilbert Ilk. The plant was expanded to include a pressure-treating plant and a dry kiln, along with the production of some 500,000 fence posts a year.
Today, Barry Mjolsness is sole owner of Spray Lake Sawmills (1980) Ltd. a company that has, for many years been the largest and steadiest employer of the Cochrane and area workforce.
He points to his father Chester and Uncle Lloyd Mjolsness as the two forces behind the success of the company. Over the years, Barry learned the sawmilling business from the ground up. He has worked every job. from the bush to the finished product. Barry was able to work with his father, observing Chester’s way of doing business and trying to emulate his methods, learning every aspect of the business from labor to management.
Before handing over the reins of Spray Lake Sawmills, Chester invited his son to join in on the business transactions, including him in the decision-making process. Barry admired his father’s integrity and felt that by continuing Chester’s tried and proven examples, he would maintain the reputation and success than had been established and now continues over 65 years as a sawmill company.
Barry Mjolsness was born in Olds, Alberta in February 1950 and is the younger son of Beryl and Chester Mjolsness. School began for Barry when the family lived in Sundre, where he was a pupil until grade four. The family then moved to Canmore, where he continued school until 1967.
Barry was attending Grade 12 when he decided he was capable of working to support himself with a typical teenage attitude. With the passing of years he has come to regret his haste to leave the classroom behind However at the age of seventeen he made his decision and plunged into earning a living.
Ever since he was quite small he had carried out jobs at the sawmill camps. The highlight of each year had always been the two summer months spent at the Spray Lakes camp where the family lived in their small cabin. Between Canmore and the Spray Lakes operation, there were gates on the road which served to keep the public away from the milling operation. With the privacy of Crown land, a wonderful summer was spent by the children of the sawmill workers. They spent carefree days playing together, fishing in the lake, and creating adventures in the sawdust piles. Hogarth Lake, some two or three miles from camp was thirty feet deep and crystal clear, a joy for a small boy with a fishing line. There were also saddle horses or skid horses which could be ridden and included in yet more adventures.
It was a privilege to be allowed to carry out odd jobs at the sawmill camps. Gradually as the years passed, Barry became able to accept more responsibilities. At the age of fourteen, he was allowed to work with a faller. He was paid ten cents per tree to remove the limbs with an axe. Each summer he worked where he could be of use. One of his full-time jobs was at the “jack ladder” where logs were pushed from the pond using a pike pole, up the chain ladder to the mill beyond.
Another year Barry operated a Cat dozer pulling slabs and edgings away from the mill. In fact by the time he left school, he was adept at most of the jobs in and around camp. One time while skidding with a dozer, almost at the top of a mountain at Mud Lake, Barry was hurrying, and instead of parking the dozer facing into the bank, the usual safety measure, he just jumped off, leaving it facing out. The brake snapped off and down the mountain sped the big machine. It did not follow the spiral road but took a direct cut across trails and mountainsides. Finally, its downward rush was stopped by a tree stump. Barry was relieved to find the only damage done was a track had fallen off. The worst part was, having to ask his Dad to bring up a second Cat dozer for a tow. Chester had just spent all day moving the other Cat to a location five miles away.
For a short period after leaving school, Barry apprenticed as a mechanic, then decided to return to the work he knew best. In the winter of 1968, Barry and his brother Brian both worked in Manning, Alberta experiencing temperatures of forty below zero day after day. Every day Barry froze his nose and it turned black. A bonus of five cents per tree was promised for all those who remained on the job until spring, an incentive Barry was determined not to forego. Brian was working as a sawyer while Barry operated a skidder in the bush.
When spring forced the shutdown of bush work, Barry spent a month working on an oil rig. Meanwhile, Brian was driving a Cat at Golden, British Columbia so Barry joined him and skidded trees there until he got work as a skidder operator on the Stoney Indian Reserve. When this job ended Barry took on a new role operating a Cat dozer in road and oilfield construction for Don Beddoes.
In August 1970 Barry married Lorna Jean Cavanaugh. Lorna, as well as Barry had been raised in Canmore. That fall, Lorna learned the hard way the meaning of being married to a young man committed to sawmilling.
Strictly a town girl, she found herself working as a cook at one of the two camps established at Mud Lake. They lived in a 14’x16′ cabin without water or plumbing. Even Barry, accustomed as he was to logging camps, concedes that it must have been hard for his new wife; isolated by blizzards and making do without amenities to which Lorna was accustomed. He admits that the early days of their marriage brought with them tough times, financially and otherwise but he feels that getting through them laid a strong foundation on which their lives have been built.
Barry was given his first supervisory job at the post-peeling operation west of Water Valley. Often battling mud up to his knees he gained valuable experience there. For the summer months, it was back to the Spray Lakes camp at Mud Lake.
By 1973, Lorna and Barry were becoming established as a family. In 1971, they welcomed their first child, a daughter Tammy. Then two years later a second daughter Terry was born and while Lorna was in the hospital, their mobile home was moved from Water Valley to Cochrane. The family expanded in 1982 with the adoption of siblings Darlene and Cory, and then once again in 1989 with the adoption of James.
Barry took a new position at the mill yard in Cochrane as foreman. At the age of twenty-three, he found himself in the awkward position of having to direct men who, in many cases, were considerably older with years of experience. It was a period of adjustment for many but gradually things worked out. Barry refers to this time as “the school of hard knocks.”
In January of 1975, an event having long-lasting repercussions occurred. Due to internal combustion and a strong Chinook wind, a fire began in a sawdust pile. Those at the scene did their best to control it but by the time the fire departments arrived, the fire was well underway. The Cochrane and Calgary Fire Departments and many people with wet gunny sacks were all working hard to save the wood piles and the buildings. Everyone was thankful once the fire was out that things were no worse than they were.
The fire marked the end of an era. Gone forever were the old days and old ways. When the new mill opened in 1974 it introduced state-of-the-art equipment with gradually less manpower needed. Efficient and highly automated machinery came into general use.
As with everyone else Barry grew with the company. Electronics and compressed air took the place of men who had sweated over the heavier equipment. Barry pitched in with mechanical work and as millwright, he took on responsibilities it felt good to learn. To learn the new mechanics he did every job and with time the right man was allocated to a job that suited him.
Chester, who worked so hard to make the mill the success it was, felt the need to slow down. He was happy his sons were ready and willing to take over as second-generation management. In 1980, the mill changed hands with Brian in charge of bush operations and Barry becoming responsible for the mill. In time, Barry assumed his brother’s share of the business.
From humble beginnings to successful business, many changes have occurred over the years. Barry, like his father before him, continues to explore all markets. A sharp contrast with the early days of Mjolsness sawmilling is that everything from the trees is utilized. Barry feels confident that timber supplies can last forever provided the present 90-year rotation method is maintained. He is proud of his loyal and dedicated staff.
Both Barry and Chester credit their success to the solid, Christian-based, foundation provided by Minnie Mjolsness so many years ago and influenced by their continuing faith and commitment to God.
A lifetime of memories and a life of dedication sum up Barry Mjolsness and his love affair with sawmilling; a man doing a job well and enjoying every minute.