LIBBY — Libby High School history teacher Jeff Gruber saw the black smoke filling the air Sunday afternoon on the southeastern edge of town.
He remembers hoping desperately that it wasn’t coming from the building that housed the town’s last lumber milling operation.
“The whole town could see the smoke,” Gruber said. “It was very visible. I think we were all thinking that, ‘Oh gosh, that’s in the direction of the mill.’
“As I drove there and saw what was on fire, my heart just sank,” he said. “That mill offered some of the best paying jobs in town. Some of my former students worked there. Jobs like that are such a rarity here now.”
It wasn’t always like that.
Before big corporations bought out the milling operation in Libby and split its timberlands from the mill, the wood products industry employed more than 1,600 and was an economic driver for a community surrounded by forest.
“From our very beginnings, logging and milling were our town’s identity,” said Gruber, a Libby native who has spent the past 29 years teaching history at Libby High School, where everyone is proud to be called a Logger. “What burned down yesterday was the last vestige of that heritage.”
Gruber said fires are always tragic. But, he said, in Libby “sometimes it feels like you’re living a bad poker hand where you just get one bad card after another bad card after another bad card.”
The fire was first spotted at about 2 p.m. Sunday at the SK Fingerjoint Inc. mill site. Both of the buildings that burned were used in the company’s manufacturing process, which glues together a series of short boards to create heavy beams that can measure 40 feet or more.
Lincoln County Undersheriff Brandon Huff said Monday morning the investigation into the cause of the fire would have to wait until the area cools sufficiently enough for investigators to safely to be able to access it.
“There was a lot of processed timber and wood on the site,” Huff said. “The fire burned very hot. The buildings were total losses.”
A total of 24 Libby volunteer firefighters responded to the blaze. Some spent up to 18 hours on the scene. One firefighter was treated at the fire for a burn on his hand.
The main building was originally constructed in 1944 to make Pres-to-Logs, made from compressed wood shavings, sawdust and chips.
“It was a neat old building,” said Gruber, whose family worked at the mill. “It was built using big, heavy wood beams. That was the way they built things back then. It was one of the reasons it burned so badly.”
The mill site can trace its history back to 1914 when the family-operated J. Neils Lumber Company came out West looking for new opportunities after running out of logs in Minnesota.
“They wanted to do things right from the very beginning,” Gruber said. “They were pioneers in sustainable yield harvesting. They were very progressive and community-oriented. They were kind of like the Daddy Warbucks of Libby during its glory days.”
In 1957, the family sold its operation to the New York-based St. Regis Paper. That company kept on members of the Neils family, and Libby’s mill continued to be an economic driver for the community.
“At its height in the 1960s, it was pretty doggone big and very diversified,” Gruber said. “It made lumber and plywood and even made a chemical additive from bleaching out western larch that was used a thickening agent as a substitute for gum arabic.”
The mill provided electricity to the community and many likely used the Pres-to-Logs to heat their homes.
“Libby was pretty independent,” Gruber said. “Electricity from the outside didn’t get here until the 1960s.”
The last manufacturing operation St. Regis added was the finger joint plant in 1972. It focused on gluing short boards together to make something longer that builders could use.
The beginning of the end for Libby’s logging and milling heritage came in 1984 when Champion International purchased the operation.
“Champion ran a very monetized operation that was looking to make a quick dollar,” Gruber said. “Sustained yield went out the window. They shut down a lot of things at the mill. The death knell sounded in 1993 when Champion sold its timber lands to Plum Creek and its mill complex to Stimson.”
Stimson shut down everything but the plywood and fingerjoint plants. All the logs that were cut were trucked to Plum Creek mills. In 2002, Stimson closed the plywood mill. The finger joint plant closed a couple years later.
It reopened as SK Fingerjoint in 2014 under the direction of a former Stimson employee and millwright, Dan Kneller. The new plant employed about 20 people.
“The finger jointer that was operating before the fire was kind of unique,” Gruber said. “They were making beams that were up to 40-foot long. Kneller is a mechanical genius. A lot the machinery that was being used in that building he built himself. He is one of those can-do, ingenious types of people.
“Beyond that, there is no one nicer than Dan Kneller,” he said. “He worked down there Saturday and Sundays just to keep it going. This fire just marks another chapter of tragedy of a history that’s become our story.”
Gruber said that probably everyone of his generation who grew up in Libby had a connection somehow to the mill. His mother worked as a secretary there. His stepfather was a manager.
“It’s been part of my family forever,” he said. “I just hate to see another piece of it go away.”