Celebrating a Half Century

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Raleigh Hughes remembers a time when St. Maries’ future was uncertain.

It was a half century ago, he and his wife Ardys were in their 30s and owned a small business. But work as an electrician and a contractor was unstable during those times – and Mr. Hughes was ready for a change.

“I was tired of having to worry about collecting payments from customers,” he said. “I was ready for a little stability.”

Raleigh Hughes, was one of the first workers hired at what is today the St. Maries Complex. Mr. Hughes worked on the construction of the plywood mill and eventually served as the maintenance superintendent for the complex. Potlatch Corporation is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its St. Maries mills this month.

Raleigh Hughes, was one of the first workers hired at what is today the St. Maries Complex. Mr. Hughes worked on the construction of the plywood mill and eventually served as the maintenance superintendent for the complex. Potlatch Corporation is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its St. Maries mills this month.

It’s quite possible, an entire community was ready for a change.

In 1961, as America teetered on the brink of war, the lifeblood of a community was destroyed when the St. Maries Lumber Company caught fire and burned to the ground. After months of uncertainty while the owner of the mill waited on the insurance company’s determination before deciding not to rebuild, a group of local businessmen chose to take matters into its own hands.

The group formed the Benewah County Development Corporation, applied for – and received – a government-backed loan and sold debentures to local businesses and individuals for the down payment needed to build a new mill.

Through the hard work of the group, an industry was brought back into St. Maries and ignited a workforce. The scope of this project was huge on many fronts: At that time government-back loans were unheard of; the development group had to raise a down payment that totaled 10 percent of the loan – a total of $280,000 in a seriously depressed county; and the development of the mill itself was a race against staggering unemployment numbers that were forcing families to leave the area in search of work.

But the group overcame all three obstacles and three years after the fire, a new mill was built.

Mr. Hughes was one of the first employees hired at the mill when it reopened in Oct. 1964. He was brought on as an electrician and throughout his two decades at the mill, worked in several positions, eventually becoming the supervisor of all maintenance.

The stability Mr. Hughes was looking for was found when Potlatch Forest Industries purchased the mill in 1965.

“There weren’t many changes initially,” Mr. Hughes said. “But there was a great sense of security once they took over, a feeling of permanence.”

Next week Potlatch Corp. will celebrate its half century of involvement in St. Maries with two celebrations. Governor Butch Otter will be the keynote speaker at an intimate celebration at the mill Wednesday, July 22. Gov. Otter will tour the facilities and speak about the impact the St. Maries Complex has had on the community. Other local dignitaries and Potlatch representatives will also be available and speak about the mill’s history and future ventures.

The anniversary gets kick-started three days prior, on July 19, at a company picnic for Potlatch employees, retirees and their families at Cherry Bend Boaters Park.

The celebration – and the anniversary itself – comes at a pivotal time for the company. Despite a challenging lumber market, Potlatch Corp. continues to make major capital investments in the St. Maries Complex, according to plant manager Steve Henson. In addition to equipment upgrades, there are 13 apprentices currently on the complex, indicating the company’s commitment to the future.

When the mill first opened, its annual payroll was budgeted at $1 million. Today, the company pays out $27 million in wages and benefits annually. More than 350 people are directly employed at the plant, and countless others are contracted through local logging companies and through other contract work.

Mr. Hughes retired from the plant in 1985, and after 21 years with the company, he can speak to the company’s longevity.

“Potlatch was good at adapting,” he explained. “They have always known how to adjust to demands and utilize all areas of the forest.”

Joe Epler, longtime area logger with St. Maries Logging, agrees.

“I have worked with several companies, and I think Potlatch and the way they manage their timber are a grade ahead of most for certification,” he said. “All of the units are very well managed, all the bookwork and planning is so advanced.”

Mr. Epler also echoed Mr. Hughes’ statements, citing Potlatch’s ability to foresee market changes and adapt its mechanics and train its workforce.

And he would know.

Mr. Epler started with Potlatch before St. Maries Logging was St. Maries Logging, when his father, Dewey, and two other business partners owned BER Logging in 1966. Mr. Epler has worked with Potlatch for 25 years.

“When they started in the 60s, there was no mechanical logging. Things have changed drastically,” he said. “Potlatch is on the forefront and have encouraged modernization.”

Potlatch has built a web site dedicated to its first 50 years in St. Maries. The site contains loads of information on the company’s history, people and future and can be accessed at http://smcomplexcelebrates.com

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