Elmsdale Lumber Company (ELCO) is located in Elmsdale, NS. Growing up ELCO was basically in my backyard. I have to say I am embarrassed for not knowing much about the mill as I hadn’t come from a forestry family. I had known of them due to their countless hours of volunteering and support within the community but never knew the family behind the gate. That all changed today when I met with father and son duo, Robin and Mark Wilber.
I am greeted by a swath of smiling faces and 8 large paws as I walk into the office. I can’t help but notice the many photos on Robin’s office walls showing years of stories and history.
As we sit down I ask Robin when he got into forestry.
“I was probably five years old” Robin says. “My Grandfather started the mill in 1917 and my father grew up in it as well. We lived in Halifax where my father ran his own business as a lumber broker. On Saturday’s we would come back to the steam mill in Elmsdale and on Sunday’s we would timber cruise. Dad had me following old boundary lines so I could learn how to keep my bearings.”
I turn to Mark and ask the same question.
“The mill was definitely my favorite place to come ever since I could sit up on my own” Mark says smiling. “I used to get a little cash for helping out and I thought I was an employee, when of course it was coming out of Dad’s pocket. I was on payroll when I was legal age and I would work here through the summers and school.”
Looking at father and son I ask how forestry has impacted their family.
“Well, we are a fourth generation forestry family” says Robin.
“It’s a way of life” Mark adds. “For ours and many other sawmilling families it is a way to support our friends, families, and our communities.”
“It’s rural communities” Robin chimes in. “It’s not in cities. We know rural communities don’t have the same support as the city and that they rely on forestry and farming. It’s all the links in the chain that allow these communities to thrive.”
As a fourth generation saw milling family, I have to ask how they think the changes in the sector over the years have affected them and their business.
“Well, we went from a steam mill to an electric mill. That’s a big change” Robin says laughing. “The big difference is we went from the bi-products being slabs with bark on them being sold for stove wood to being able to debark those same slabs to make paper products.”
“Technology” Mark states. “I can dream up anything and programmers can make it happen.”
“My dad always used to say ‘If we could only saw the log from the inside out’ and now we can.” Robin adds excitedly.
“It’s a natural progression associated with succession” Mark continues. “The younger generations are grabbing this modern technology with the knowledge of generations of forest workers before them.”
“Another thing is when my dad ran the mill he was kind of a one man show” says Robin. “Now we don’t make any decisions without discussing it with the team. We will fine tune ideas with lots of input now. The end result is always better if we include the whole team.”
I finally get to ask my favorite question. What is it like working together?
“I can’t imagine not working with my dad or my family” Mark states very matter-of-factly.
“It comes down to mentoring” Robin says. “I have done a lot of it but it is a little different when its your son because you don’t have to be as cautious as you do with others. Sometimes that made it easier, sometimes that made it harder. But we are different individuals with different talents. We always rely on others to do things as a team and Mark and I are in the same boat. For example, he is techy and I am not.”
“We joke because Dad writes and email with two fingers” Mark laughs. “But we all know that email is worth something. When Dad talks his words are calculated and he has but a lot of thought and heart into them” Mark says tearing up a little. “It’s worth listening too.”
So, besides working with each other, they must have a favorite part of the job.
“Oh, watching young people develop and grow in our business” Robin says without skipping a beat. “Looking back at people that have been here for 30 years and seeing them work together, develop themselves and their skills, and embrace new technologies just fills me with pride.”
I turn to Mark who stays silent for a while.
“I’m struggling with this answer because I truly love everything” He finally says. “So I’ll answer it this way. Right now, my favorite part of the job is planning for the future. We have opportunities to adopt new modern technology to be better. We have been big players in carbon sequestration, sustainability, and renewability for three generations and we can use these things moving forward to be the answer to climate change.”
I was thrilled that I had the opportunity to learn more about the sawmill that has been supporting the community I grew up in for over a century. If you haven’t taken the time to visit your local sawmill or meet the family behind it, you should reach out and set up a tour! We are fortunate to have strong local businesses supporting our rural communities in this province.