Have you ever been out of work? It’s always challenging especially when you are packing a mortgage and a couple of kids. OK, so I was working out at a small mill that was set up in the Swiss burn near Houston.
They had been sawing boards out of the Buck Flats area for the past year. The trees were burnt but the Swiss fire moved so quickly that the wood was salvageable.
All good things come to an end though, and the trees were getting so dry they would just shatter when sawn. I could feel a layoff coming so I called my friend Bill Elsner. He was working for a guy called Erwin Stege in Hazelton and they needed a millwright.
Sure enough, the next week I got my walking papers and did not waste any time turning up at the mill just up the hill out of New Town or New Hazelton.
Driving into the millsite surprised me a bit, as there seemed to be a lot of farm animals in the yard. Turns out it is a farm site with a mill built in it. When I first met Erwin he seemed friendly enough and agreed to hire me as a contractor so I would be able to deduct my travel expenses. That opportunity made the daily hour and a half drive one way easier to accept.
Looking at the mill you would think it was a bit haywire and it was.
From the get go it was a running job for a millwright, running from one breakdown to the next. But she ran and they made lumber. The other interesting thing that I picked up on over a short period of time was that the workers seemed fairly happy with their lot in life. Why was that I wondered?
Well over the next year I was able to clear up that question. It turns out it was the boss. Erwin was a different kind of a boss.
Of course he was concerned about production but he also had concerns for his employees and always seemed to ask how it was going.
He would listen to your issues and sooner rather than later he would discuss it with John Zotich, the main maintenance guy, and a change would be in place. OK, it wasn’t perfect by any stretch but people seemed to want to work for this guy.
Where did a guy like this come from?
I had a chance to catch up with his daughter, Monica Simms, last week. Turns out Erwin was from Lithuania. His people were farmers. They also kept a pack by the back door to be ready for the Russians coming in the front door.
In 1953, Erwin came to Canada and ended up in Millet, Alberta. Like most immigrants he was looking for more room and more opportunity. He found work farming, but he still had itchy feet.
Before long he was moving again, Radium Hot Springs. This was better. He was able to set up his own business of horse logging. Through friends, Erwin met Hannalore, the love of his life and they were married.
Things were going along pretty good but not quite perfect. In 1965 Erwin made his final move. This time it was a little place called Hazelton, one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Rivers, mountains, and lots of trees. This looked like a place with a future.
Strangely enough, when they moved, several guys that worked for Erwin in Radium came with him to Hazelton. That would say something of a man’s character that you would follow him to an unknown destination.
Simon Zurbrugg, one of Erwin’s right hand workers, the Wolfenden brothers and the Stege family packed up all their gear and headed north for Hazelton.
Erwin followed as he “walked” the famous Heelboom logging machine all the way on a two-week trek. That must have been an epic journey. For Erwin it was an opportunity to set up an operation and provide work for people. He had first hand experience struggling for work and seemed to have compassion for others and their struggles.
Horses got replaced with equipment, but not forgotten. Farming was still in his blood and it was important to have animals in his life.
Stege logging fit right in to this new community he called home. The mill began as a place to keep his logging workers occupied during spring break-up. Building a sawmill is a very complicated Rube Goldberg chain reaction. Each function from loading logs onto the infeed deck, travelling through the saws and then the boards ending up on the piling tables takes a bit of figuring.
Erwin would surround himself with good competent people. Through that period of Hazelton history most every person in the area and beyond found some type of work with Erwin Stege.
I had an opportunity to get a job at Groot’s mill in Smithers and left Stege’s after a little more than a year. It had been a good experience and I had become fairly proficient at keeping production rolling.
Shortly after, within a year, Stege’s mill burnt down. A fire had started in a sawdust pile and quickly consumed the operation. It was very devastating for everyone, especially Erwin.
What to do? Maybe this is the right time to retire, step away from all this hard work and stress. “No, there are too many people depending on me, we need to keep going.”
The old Rim mill in Southtown was sitting vacant, what about resurrecting it and setting up shop there. Stege logging was back in business. People were back working.
Many trials and tribulations continued over the years and after mostly market issues having an effect, the mill closed. Erwin retired and now had more time for his Trakehner horses.
He still loved his community and spent many walks on the trails around town. Erwin Stege died on November 23, 2018. He wanted to be cremated and have his ashes spread at the farm. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, they say.
But the story did not end there.
I also spoke with Ray Sturney, an employee and neighbour of Erwin’s. Ray presented a very touching eulogy at Erwin’s funeral. Erwin would be described as an entrepreneur with a heart.
We laughed as we reminisced the time a horse had died on the farm and Erwin decided to send it up the burner chain to be cremated. Unfortunately the horse had rigor mortis and the legs jammed at the throat of the burner.
Erwin grabbed a saw, walked up the chain and trimmed them off. Erwin had a saying, “Keep ‘er going, boys.”
Turns out Ray is also a town councillor for the District of New Hazelton.
New Town purchased a building for a community center. It was decided the building should commemorate someone who has been influential in the building of the Hazeltons.
It was unanimous amongst all councillors. The Erwin Stege Community Centre was proclaimed.