January gloom settles over the valley as clouds slide down the mountainsides and drizzle falls on a flat grey Okanagan Lake.
In Kelowna’s north end, behind heavy chain link fences covered with STOP signs and warnings not to trespass, giant excavators claw away at the remains of a sawmill.
Giant girders skew at strange angles, remnants of yellow staircases hang in the air, plastic sheeting and 2x4s dangle as a sheet of plywood swings freed and then crashes onto the mounds below. Downspouts angle off in strange directions while the sounds of shattering glass are lost amid the chaos and surging engines.
The drizzle continues. No one is watching. No birds, no supervisor in the yard, and those who drive by aren’t curious enough to stop. Nearby, the elevated chute which had sent wood chips across Bay Avenue had already been dismantled and the enormous bins which for years, had funnelled their contents into a succession of tandem chip trucks, were gone. Chip piles had disappeared months ago and now only an army of DO NOT TRESSPASS signs warns trespassers away.
It was only 90 years ago that the first box factory was built here. It was the beginning of the Great Depression and the owner likely thought tough times wouldn’t last.
Apple production had been increasing as had the demand for his wooden fruit boxes.
However, the toll was greater than expected when his boxes became too heavy, and since they were shipped to the prairies by train, the apples ended up costing more than anyone could afford.
He changed box sizes and removed the lids. They were still too heavy, and growers soon filled railcars with straw and loaded the apples and no boxes were needed at all.
By the late 1930s, things begun to improve, and a sense of optimism returned. Then the box factory burned to the ground. It was arson.
The owner had fortunately paid his insurance premiums, and since no one had money to retool their factories during those lean years, new machinery was available.
With a bumper crop of apples ripening, the demand for boxes picked up so the owner set up lathes and saws in the yard, squared off giant timbers and built great wooden beams for a new box factory.
In another area, box parts were cut, and the tops, bottoms and sides were separately wrapped in bundles of 25 and sent off to packinghouses and orchards to be assembled in time for the harvest.
Weeks later, that box factory became an essential part of Canada’s wartime efforts, as women stepped in to work the machinery as men went off to war.
Production increased and wartime quotas were met as box cars were shunted beside the box factory and variously sized boxes and lumber were loaded, day and night.
The government said: “send everything you’ve got,” and with no time to dry, lumber was shipped green and warped on the walls of the barracks or factories or docks around the country.
Wartime destinations were secret, but telegrams arrived telling of shipments torpedoed mid-Atlantic: “Replacements needed immediately.”
Gradually, corrugated cardboard boxes replaced wooden boxes and the owner pivoted, built a plywood plant nearby, and began producing bulk bins to continue his partnership with the fruit industry.
That sawmill was sold in the mid-1960s and as box production decreased, plywood bins gained worldwide popularity.
In that inevitable boom-and-bust of the lumber industry, interior sawmills followed the patterns of the Coastal forest industry and just as McMillan Bloedel and BC Forest Products vanished, so did the succession of owners of this sawmill – Crown Zellerbach, Crown Forest Industries, Fletcher Challenge, Riverside Forest Products, and finally, Tolko Industries.
None of its predecessors are still in business, and though Tolko has other plants, its Kelowna operation is no longer.
In 1972, an earlier version of today’s giant excavators crushed those 1939 heavy timbers and a new building emerged, along with a production line to produce the lumber and studs for an ever-evolving marketplace.
But now, land-use issues, the availability of wood fibre, government red tape, and the costs of production means that this Kelowna landmark is no longer financially viable.
It has become only its stories. Fathers and sons and even grandsons worked at that sawmill, they married each other’s brothers or sisters, and for many, their steady well-paying jobs meant they built homes, sent their kids to university, and then they too just became the stories they told each other.
A few remnants of those earliest days remain: the Simpson Covenant, the Simpson Walk and the Pioneer Pavilion and caretaker’s residence at the top of Knox Mountain.
However, as those excavators continue their relentless move forward to demolish the dry kiln and plywood plant, no one watches as this once-vital part of Kelowna’s history disappears.
Sharron J. Simpson is a community historian and granddaughter of Stanley M. Simpson, the original owner of the sawmill in Kelowna’s North End.