Once a thriving manufacturing hub where generations of families were employed by two flagship companies, Columbia Falls forges a new economic identity

Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Greg Lindstrom
T ony Darsow is waiting. The end of August is drawing near, and the Weyerhaeuser lumber and plywood mills in Columbia Falls just shut down. The last log has rolled through, and most employees filtered out of the building, never to return. Darsow, a 55-year-old father of five with salt and pepper hair, is part of the small crew tasked with cleaning up and clearing out every last scrap of wood from the site. For two weeks, he comes back to work, in an odd, productive limbo, until September when they finish and the mill really, finally closes. When he too will leave, never to return.

He’s waiting to leave the place where he worked for 37 years, ever since he was 18, and where his father worked for 43 years. He’s getting transferred to Weyerhaeuser’s planer in Evergreen, a facility 15 minutes south that he’s never stepped foot inside. There are 172 less fortunate former mill and administrative workers either facing unemployment or entering retirement a few years early.

Darsow is taking a pay cut, back on the night shift. He’s being assigned to grade lumber, which he did for years, just like his father, up until five years ago when he was promoted supervisor. Instead of running around checking on his workers and taking care of their needs, he’ll spend his shifts sitting stationary and marking boards as a machine in front of him turns them for inspection.

“That’s going to be a big change,” he said. “But it is what it is.”

His son, Deven, a 35-year-old father of three, already works at the Evergreen facility. He got hired one year ago, and his job wasn’t threatened by the closures. But he’s waiting, too.

“I’m looking forward to see what’s going to happen in the next five years,” Deven said. “What’s going to change; what’s going to stay the same. I don’t know right now. Everything’s still up in the air.”

The Darsows aren’t the only ones in town waiting. The tricky politics of timber shortage and harvesting on national forest lands that precipitated the shutdown persist, and timber companies, with their ample land holdings, are increasingly investing in real estate over manufacturing. Other traditional keystone industries are in transition, too. The lumber closures were the second of two major recent blows in Columbia Falls. In March 2015, Glencore, the Swiss company that owns the town’s other former economic cornerstone, the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company (CFAC), announced it would permanently close the aluminum reduction plant.

“Between the shutdown at Glencore and Weyerhaeuser, Columbia Falls has had its fair share of tough luck,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said at a July economic roundtable with local leaders.

The aluminum plant had been shuttered since 2009, so that loss was more emotional than economic, squelching long-held hopes for a revival. The rusted, partially dismantled structures overlooking the Flathead River were vestiges of a bright industrial past. At times, thousands of people — a vast majority of the workforce — held steady, well-paying jobs at Weyerhaeuser, formerly Plum Creek, or the aluminum plant.

“The community was dependent on those places – that’s all there was to it,” Darsow said. “Now, at this point in time, it’s kind of a gray area. It’s changing quite a bit … but you’ve got to think that change is part of life. You’ve got to embrace that, too.”

Darsow is right — circumstances always change. But these businesses built this town. Almost since the beginning, they have been its economic backbone. Decades-long employment at the manufacturing giants is a tradition that bridges generations for countless families like the Darsows. To many of them, this change feels like the big one. It feels like a blue-collar heritage is slipping away. Like it’s finally the end of an era.

What comes next? Columbia Falls is waiting to see.

T he first lumber business in Columbia Falls opened its doors in 1892, one year after the town was formally established and the Great Northern Railway arched over the Continental Divide. The sawmill, owned by John O. Olsen, sat on the banks of the Flathead River, and men would haul logs from the thick woods upstream and set them afloat, back to the mill. Home to just a few hundred people, the town developed quietly until the mid-20th century. A new epoch dawned with the arrival of Plum Creek, a small lumber business originally founded in 1944 in Minnesota by D.C. Dunham. But the Midwestern timber supply had been dwindling for decades, and Dunham’s eyes drifted to the burgeoning market in Montana. In 1946, he relocated to the Flathead and opened a Plum Creek sawmill in Columbia Falls.

Not long afterward came the next economic spark. The Hungry Horse Dam was completed in 1953, and two years later, the Butte-based Anaconda Company began aluminum production just north of town along the Flathead River, taking advantage of the cheap, abundant hydroelectric power. The plant added a third potliner in 1963, and a fourth and fifth in 1966 to increase production capacity up to 180,000 tons of aluminum per year.

Plum Creek continued to expand, too, opening a plywood plant in 1967 and a medium-density fiberboard plant in 1974. Western Montana’s timber industry, in particular, saw “extremely good — perhaps best ever — wood products markets” in the 1970s, according to a 1988 University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research market analysis. The percentage of workers in Montana primarily employed by lumber and wood products manufacturing increased by 61 percent between 1950 and 1970, while agriculture, mining, and railroad employment all decreased. As a whole, the manufacturing sector increased its employment by 30 percent during this period of growth.

Paul Cannaday at the plant he helped build.

Paul Cannaday at the plant he helped build.

“It just boomed, the whole valley,” said Paul Cannaday, a Virginia-born civil engineer and WWII veteran who moved to Montana in 1949 to work on the Hungry Horse Dam.

When construction began on the aluminum plant, Cannaday was hired as a contractor, and when the plant was finished two years later, at a cost of $65 million, he became one of its first employees. As the estimator, Cannaday prepared budgets whenever the plant expanded — something he did more than a few times for the now 960-acre site.

Columbia Falls had the feel of a “company town,” like Butte, Cannaday said. “When you put [thousands of] people to work, that’s a city in and of itself … You can understand, there was nothing else except the plant and lumber mills … [They] were the only business of consequence.”

Between the new mills and aluminum plant, millions of dollars flooded the small economy. And with the injection of a new workforce, the population of Columbia Falls leapt from 600 in 1940 to 2,100 in 1960. Employees at the aluminum plant were unionized, and though Plum Creek wasn’t, it offered competitive wages and benefits. Most of the new jobs offered opportunities to move up the ladder, though one could depend on good pay and fair supervision on all rungs. There were resources for families, like a summer employment program extended to the children of workers who were saving money for college.

Employment at the mill or aluminum plant was a rite of passage for young adults entering the workforce. Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart got a job there after he graduated high school, and two of Cannaday’s children found jobs at the plant after college and marriage, kicking off successful careers. There were also quite a few women and mothers employed, according to Cherie Gardner, Tony Darsow’s mother, who worked for the aluminum plant as a janitor and in the service department.

“The women out there — there was quite a few of us — by the time I got out there, we were respected a little more,” Gardner, 75, said. “I was just going to work for a year, because we were behind, but 18 years later there I was, [still working]. You get spoiled with that big paycheck … I had good people to work with; it was a good place to work.”

Through the 1970s, nearly every family in town received a paycheck from the plant or the mill — and often both — at one time or another. More than two decades of solid growth had cemented manufacturing as the economic powerhouse in Columbia Falls.

W hen Tony Darsow first pulled up to the Plum Creek Timber Company sawmill in his old 1964 Dodge, a nasty wind was whipping down from Bad Rock Canyon. It made the January 1982 night feel far colder than the thermometer read, but it did not dampen Darsow’s spirits. He was 18, it was his first day of work, and he wore shiny new utility boots purchased for this very day. His father, Doug, may have been around somewhere, but Darsow didn’t look for him. Though he was following in his dad’s footsteps, he was there to make his own way.

“My dream was to work at Plum Creek,” Tony says. “My dad was there working all the time, and I respected that. It was mostly the money, and it was close, and I didn’t have to go to school to do it … That was all I cared about: going to work for Plum Creek.”
During that first shift, he joined a handful of other men outside sorting green lumber into piles. As boards went by on the chain, his task was to grab certain kinds and chuck them into designated piles. When he missed one, which happened a few times, someone more experienced who’d noticed the mistake would throw it back up to him. And soon, he found the rhythm.

“I felt good about it; I felt good about working hard,” he says. “My dad came over to see how I was doing a couple days after, and I think he was pretty proud of me.”

Deven Darsow, Tony Darsow and Cherie Gardner, pictured at the Darsow family home.

Deven Darsow, Tony Darsow and Cherie Gardner, pictured at the Darsow family home.

But the timber industry’s heyday of the 1970s gave way to uncertainty in the 1980s, with the closure of nearly 50 plants across the state. While Plum Creek largely weathered the storm, the 1990s brought further challenges, with shifting political, social, and legal influences limiting the amount of timberland available for commercial use. Additionally, Plum Creek converted into a Real Estate Investment Trust in 1999, signaling a departure from its traditional business model.

By then, tourism employment had eclipsed manufacturing in the Flathead Valley, and continued on the upward trend. Then the global financial crisis of 2008 rattled Montana’s economy, with Flathead County in particular feeling the brunt of the recession. Plum Creek ran on skeleton crews and shuttered its Evergreen mill.

Darsow, who says he had always “felt real secure working at Plum Creek,” was troubled enough by the turbulence to earn his GED and think about what other course he might take if the industry went under.

“What would I do?” he remembers asking himself after layoffs during the recession. “It opened my eyes.”

When Plum Creek reopened the Evergreen facility in 2013, it seemed like a sign of timber’s return. Yet, like many other Montana sawmills managing to keep the lights on, Plum Creek’s facilities were only operating at a 60 to 70 percent capacity. The industry would live on, but as a shadow of its former self.

Meanwhile, the aluminum plant had its own worries. Beginning in the 1980s, electricity prices rose as metal prices fell, undercutting the plant’s cheap hydropower advantage. It was purchased by Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), a US-based oil and gas extraction company, in 1977. Then ownership changed hands again in 1985, to investors under the leadership of Brack Duker, an ARCO executive who oversaw the divestment of unwanted properties. Duker slashed costs, and a resulting labor dispute led to a $97 million settlement paid out to workers in 1998. A year later, Glencore, a global commodities trading and mining group headquartered in Switzerland, took the reins. The same year, the site was evaluated under the Montana Comprehensive Environmental Cleanup and Responsibility Act. It was found to be a generator of hazardous waste.

Within a decade, Glencore shut down the plant, pointing to high electricity rates and poor aluminum market conditions. Concerns grew over ground and water contamination from the spent potliners, and in the following years, an Environmental Protection Act Superfund assessment of the site was initiated to determine whether government intervention would be needed to ensure full cleanup of the site.

 Workers leave after a shift at Weyerhaeuser’s Columbia Falls facilities

Workers leave after a shift at Weyerhaeuser’s Columbia Falls facilities

By 2010, two generations after the quiet town on the mighty Flathead River began growing into an industrial force, its economic lifeblood seemed tapped. The working class of Columbia Falls held tight to optimistic faith that a deal could be struck with the Bonneville Power Administration, reopening the plant. And they hoped for a better future for Plum Creek, the last bastion of Columbia Falls’ industrial empire.

In November 2015, seven months after the aluminum plant was permanently closed, Plum Creek officials made a major announcement: It was merging with Weyerhaeuser Company, a Seattle-based giant, becoming “the world’s premier timber, land, and forest products company,” as a press release read.

When the $8.4 billion merger was completed in February 2016, a spokesperson said that manufacturing operations would “remain in Montana and the jobs associated with manufacturing will remain.” But in June, officials announced it would permanently close the lumber and plywood mills in Columbia Falls, blaming a “chronic log shortage.” Though some jobs would be available at other facilities in the region, the unexpected closures marked the sudden end of 70 years of lumber production in town.

For many of the 146 workers like Tony Darsow who got transferred within the company, the new position was a downgrade. Yet with gratitude to have a job at all and a drive to do right by those who lost more, they doggedly rolled up their sleeves and jumped in.

“I feel bad for the people that didn’t get jobs or didn’t get what they wanted. It will get better. They just have to hang in there,” Darsow said. “I was ready for them to [transfer me, or] if I had to find a new job, I was ready for that. When that happens, you just put your head down and go. That’s what you gotta do.”

If you head downtown on a Thursday evening, Columbia Falls seems more like a town embracing the possibilities of the future than one dwelling on memories of the past. There is a community market and a farmers market, both busy and bright. Multi-colored carnival flags jump in the sunlight, children run about, and friends stop to hug each other and chat. There’s live music, libations from local craft brewers and distillers, a rock-climbing wall, and smiling vendors from across the state. It’s a scene of prosperity, local commerce, and tight-knit community. Nowhere is the sound of the death knell.

As Cannaday said, “It’s not a company town anymore … It’s grown up a lot.” Across the street from the community market, the independently owned 64-room Cedar Creek Lodge and Convention Center, the community’s first prominent hotel, began welcoming visitors in June. Mick Ruis, the developer, has tentative plans for more businesses, including a pie factory, candy store, retail marketplace, apartment or condominium complex, and steakhouse sports bar. In May, a yoga studio moved in on Nucleus Avenue. The Columbia Falls Foundation, a local nonprofit, recently rolled out a new rebranding effort, complete with a shiny logo and motto, “Adventure Lives Here.” The numbers of tourists streaming through this “Gateway to Glacier” to visit the park broke records all summer long.

“We’re putting ourselves on the map — that’s how we’re repositioning to tourism, by saying, ‘We’re here, we’re open for business,’” Stacey Schnebel, the executive director of the Columbia Falls Chamber of Commerce, said.

In 2015, 5,539 Flathead Valley workers were employed in accommodation or food services; 2,669 were employed in manufacturing. A pivot toward tourism as the Gateway to Glacier is just one of a few strategies that local leadership has identified to expand the economy.

The town also hopes to work with private businesses to revitalize downtown’s main artery, Nucleus Avenue, and to draw new manufacturing enterprises to an undeveloped 110-acre industrial park.

“The day and age of manufacturing is not over,” Schnebel said.

There’s also a chance of fostering a community for businesspeople who conduct their affairs remotely and can choose to live anywhere they like. Altogether, the multi-pronged approach represents an opening-up of choices in a traditionally homogenous economy.

“It’s very important to us to be well-balanced when looking at economic growth,” Schnebel said.

“For those families who have generations working at the flagship industries,” she added, “this is a chance to do what they want to do and be our new entrepreneurs and play a significant role in who we become.”

As Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, says, the full range of economic opportunities “comes into sharper focus” when a community is forced to stop holding out hope for the resurgence of former major economic players.

“It’s a problem and an opportunity for the community,” Barkey said of the closures. “The problem right now is what looms the largest, which is how to deal with the hole left by all the contributions, particularly the mill … It’s a pretty daunting thing for a longtime worker, to pull back the curtain and say, ‘Here’s all these other things you can do in the economy,’ and none of them maybe fit. That’s the challenge.”

Flathead Valley Community College and Flathead Job Service are working to offer more diverse employee training programs to help connect workers with the huge number of unfilled jobs — early this summer, some 900 jobs were open in the valley, an all-time high. A major challenge is that many of these entry-level or semi-skilled service and tourism jobs often don’t pay $22 per hour, the mills’ average wage. Many newer jobs are also seasonal, and benefits often aren’t part of the package for shift workers.

“I think people always have a say in how they want to grow,” Barkey said. “There are a lot of things we can do to facilitate growth. But picking the kind of community we want to be is rather difficult.”

Columbia Falls already knows what kind of community it is, even if it’s standing on unfamiliar ground. It’s a place of resiliency, where people show up on time and work hard until the day’s end. They’re just waiting to see where they’ll be clocking in as the years unfold.