The Brooks sawmill, in the Rocky Mountain foothills of AlbertaMilling for the movies

The Brooks sawmill, in the Rocky Mountain foothills of Alberta, has developed a varied client list—including supplying wood products to the recent hit movie, The Revenant.

By Tony Kryzanowski

The Leonardo DiCaprio movie ‘The Revenant’ was filmed in southern Alberta, and the movie’s set designers purchased a lot of wood products manufactured by the Brooks Sawmill, one of several Western-themed movies that the sawmill has supplied among its highly eclectic client list.

The website for the business, which is really the only public profile the company has besides supporting a number of community groups in Cochrane, says that they are ‘easy to talk to’.

And they surely are, which is why customers keep coming back.

While it has maintained a relatively low profile because business through word of mouth has served it well, Brooks Sawmill has a long and storied history. It is a five generation sawmill nestled among the million dollar ranches and oil money mansions located in the picturesque Rocky Mountain foothills west of Cochrane, many of whom they have supplied. Chances are the lumber for the corrals and outbuildings, the beautifully-knotted and burled gate posts leading to ranch houses, peeled logs for log homes, and even wood for furniture was supplied by the Brooks Sawmill.

The area surrounding the Brooks Sawmill is highly prosperous now, but the fictitious, hinterland backdrop shown in ‘The Revenant’ movie was daily life for decades for the Brooks family. It is a mere half-hour drive from Cochrane today, but in its early days, it was wagon trails and pioneer living in the wilderness.

Now owned by David and Marcie Brooks, the property was purchased by David’s great grandfather, Frank Brooks, in 1901. The Brooks Sawmill was established in 1923 and is likely the oldest, continuously-family-owned, sawmill business in the province. The business started with manual felling and horse logging on the Brooks property as well as adjacent properties.

The Brooks sawmill, in the Rocky Mountain foothills of Alberta

It takes a dedicated team of employees to deliver quality finished wood products that keep customers coming back, as is the case at the Brooks Sawmill. They are (left to right) Roy Brooks, Marcie Brooks, Tom Powder, MaryLou Brooks, former owner Frank Brooks, his son and current owner David Brooks, Boyce Fox and Willy Jules.

“When my great grandfather started the business, they were producing a lot of ties for the mines around Canmore and further east,” as well as lumber for area farmers and ranchers, says David.

In the 1930s, they acquired a steam engine from an old Canmore coal mine that provided the power to operate their sawmill.

“There was a drought in those days, so there was only enough water to saw for half-a-day,” explains David. “We’d run the engine till we ran out of water.”

Later, it was upgraded to a TD14 diesel engine, which powered the sawmill till 1990, when it was replaced with a Detroit Diesel engine.

The Brooks Sawmill has supplied everything—from timbers to lumber, to authentic looking hanging trees, to biscuits from the ends of logs for wedding decorations. David says that after so many years in the business, he has seen his share of unusual customer requests, coming from movie set designers, log home builders, furniture builders, oil companies, mining companies, ranchers, farmers and homebuilders.

The sawmill yard is busy. Both David and Marcie are actively involved, with David setting up the weekly production schedule, bucking logs by hand to the desired length to fill orders in a lay-up yard, and then driving the front-end loader to deliver logs to one of two sawmills, depending on orders. Marcie is the office manager and takes care of the books.

The Brooks sawmill, in the Rocky Mountain foothills of Alberta

Brooks Sawmill owner David Brooks maintains quality control and production flow at the sawmill by bucking the logs himself, and delivering them either to the Kara circular sawmill or to the Wood-Mizer bandsaw.

The business has four full-time sawmill employees and nine part-time employees who work a couple of days per week on the firewood packaging assembly line. David and Marcie established the firewood division when they took over the company in about 2000, purchasing a Cord King firewood plant, establishing an assembly line, and hiring part-time staff. They have contracts to supply several campgrounds and hotels in the surrounding area. David’s brother, Roy, also works in the business as a sawyer.

David brings considerable experience to the business, first working with his father and grandfather at Brooks Sawmill, then spending 15 years working at Spray Lakes Sawmill, a high volume, fully modern, dimension sawmill in Cochrane. He took over the 93-year-old family business when his father retired. In addition to managing the sawmill, David and Marcie also manage a herd of 30 head of cattle.

Business at the sawmill, which features both a Finnish Kara circular sawmill and a Wood-Mizer LT40 bandsaw, is steady. Marcie says their current website is probably the highest profile the company has ever had, even though the company is almost 100 years old.

A custom sawing operation, Brooks Sawmill aims for high quality and has shipped wood products as far as Texas. The lumber cut at the sawmill, in fact, helped build Cochrane and the surrounding area.

David recalls that the in the early days, the community only had one telephone at a local general store. Customers would call the store and pre-order lumber loads in the fall. Brooks Sawmill would cut the orders in the winter, and customers would pick up the lumber with horses and wagons in spring. They provided a bunkhouse so that customers could rest up overnight before returning home with their load of wood products the next day. This practice carried on for years.

“Grandpa would ride down every week to the store and pick up the orders of what he needed to saw, and he would just stockpile it all,” says David.

The Brooks sawmill, in the Rocky Mountain foothills of Alberta

The Finnish Kara circular sawmill (above) at the Brooks Sawmill is the backbone of the business, producing about a truckload of lumber per day. Also part of the milling line-up at the Brooks operation is a Wood-Mizer LT40 bandsaw. They use the bandsaw for doing heavy and long timbers up to 32 feet long.

His mother, MaryLou, describes the road between the sawmill and Cochrane as a “goat trail” before the current modern road and blacktop was installed. When she inquired about a bus being sent to the sawmill to take her children to school, the school office asked how she expected the school bus to get there, given the condition of the road. To solve the problem, she became the school bus driver.

Brooks Sawmill derives its income from both solid wood products and firewood, with just over half coming from the solid wood side of the business. Their product mix extends from as small as 1” x 4” lumber as short as 8’ to as large at 14” x 14” timbers as long as 32’. They also produce rough dimension lumber in popular sizes from 2” x 4” to 2” x 10” for non-structural applications, and aim for high quality, removing all lumber with red rot indication from their lifts, and sending it for firewood.

“We’ve shipped material such as heavy timbers as far as Texas, and we’ve done a lot of movie sets,” says David. “Pretty much every movie that has been filmed here that is a Western, we’ve supplied most, if not all, their timber.”

For decades, the sawmill did select logging primarily in winter on a variety of private woodlots in the area. Until the early 1960s, manually felled logs were skidded to roadside with horses, until David’s father, Frank, purchased a small TD7 dozer. That was before what some consider the notorious southern Alberta log boom in the 1990s, when local landowners were being paid exorbitant prices to clearcut their land, with the logs largely shipped to British Columbia. What used to be acres of virgin timber is now pasture.

“The boom hit in 1996 and the price of logs went up to $130 a tonne at that time,” says David. “Everyone around us just cashed in on it, they clearcut their properties, and that put us into a whole different ballgame in terms of getting timber again.”

The Brooks sawmill, in the Rocky Mountain foothills of AlbertaDavid says that the sawmill has never owned a government quota to harvest wood, but he would love to own a commercial timber permit. It’s a point of frustration in the business, after several attempts to acquire a timber permit. Today, Brooks Sawmill purchases its 5,000 cubic metres of wood fibre from surplus oversized spruce and pine logs sold typically by large dimension sawmills in the province.

David says he can almost measure the pulse of the economy based on the wood products most in demand at the moment. When the economy is humming, he has plenty of demand for timbers, especially from the oilpatch. They also take a lot of his sawdust. However, when the economy is in a downswing, he says that he produces a lot of dimension lumber, which is currently the case. But he says it all balances out and they do practically no product stockpiling because orders consistently show up to fill their order sheet each week.

The Kara sawmill works efficiently in what David describes as a “one man operation”. It does take only one person to lift, place, and saw each log to size, but it also takes one person to catch the freshly sawn lumber and stack it. This sawmill was purchased in 2000 after watching a demonstration at the Prince George Forestry Show, and David says it produces very accurate cuts.

The Brooks sawmill, in the Rocky Mountain foothills of AlbertaFor custom jobs that take a little longer and are more suited for a bandsaw, Brooks Sawmill operates its Wood-Mizer LT40 bandsaw with one operator, in tandem with the Kara operation. The Wood-Mizer bandsaw was purchased in 1998. All told, they process about 33 cubic metres, or one logging truck load, per day on the Kara circular sawmill, with the Wood-Mizer producing considerably less, being a bandsaw.

“We use the bandsaw for doing heavy and long timbers up to 32 feet long, and a lot of one inch material due to the small kerf on the band,” says David. “We use the Kara sawmill for dimensional lumber—everything from two-by-fours to two-by-twelves.”

Always looking to use as much of each log as possible, David plans to purchase and install an in-line slab processor on the Kara sawmill to buck the slabs to length so that they can be used for firewood. They may also possibly purchase a board edger.

Logging and Sawmilling Journal
February 2017

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The theme for the upcoming Council of Forest Industries (COFI) convention in April is “Forestry for the Planet. Forest Products for the World” which helps underline the renewable nature of wood and its suitability for green-conscious building construction. But a big topic of discussion is going to be what Canada can do to strike a new softwood lumber deal with the U.S. Read all about the convention beginning on page 10. (Cover photo courtesy of Resolute Forest Products)

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Milling for the movies
The Brooks sawmill, in the Rocky Mountain foothills of Alberta, has developed a varied client list—including supplying wood products to the recent hit movie, The Revenant.

Bigger—and better
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The Edge
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The Last Word
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