Aerial view of Sooke Basin to the left of Highway 14 before Cooper Cove in the 1970s.

Sawmill employed hundreds of workers

Four hundred men were employed in three shifts around the clock during the peak period of Sooke Forest Products Sawmill

Driving into Sooke today on Highway 14, glancing left to the Sooke Basin as one approaches Cooper Cove, it may be hard to visualize the 1970s scene as shown in this aerial view.

Four hundred men were employed in three shifts around the clock during the peak period of Sooke Forest Products Sawmill. Probably the sawmill payroll was the largest in the history of the Sooke community. Through a variety of ups and downs and turns in B.C.’s forest industry, the mill’s operations were to continue up to the late 1980s but latterly with a greatly reduced payroll.

The mill had its beginnings right after World War II. Veterans who returned home to our region after the war had gone through life-altering experiences. Growing up in the depression, they knew what it was like to skimp and do without. Going off to war, those who survived had generally endured experiences that led them to want to establish a better life for their families and had given them the initiative to strike out on their own.

Many small businesses were begun in the Sooke area in the late 1940s. The resources of forest and fishing led most new entrepreneurs into those fields but there were also businesses established to service those enterprises, such as machine shops.

Harry Helgesen grew up a son and grandson of pioneers. Back from the war, he started Sooke Sawmills on the corner of Church Road and Helgesen Road, but it wasn’t long before they were running out of space.

His family’s purchase of Goodridge Peninsula at Cooper Cove enabled the fledgling company to expand, allowing water access for the delivery and storage of logs. By the early 1950s Harry Helgesen and his new partner, Bill Grunow, as Goodridge Sawmill, had developed a thriving enterprise, taking over the entire peninsula and adding extensions to its surface.

The natural peninsula had been connected to the Saseenos mainland by a narrow seashore passageway that was covered with water at high tide, but joined with Goodridge Road. In order to use this beach route for vehicle access, Grunow and Helgesen built it into a roadway, which can be seen at the photo’s right edge.

The mill cut Douglas-fir railway ties for the United Kingdom and lumber from Douglas-fir and hemlock for industrial and home construction. In 1959 fire engulfed the mill, but it was quickly rebuilt and expanded. When Hershell Smith bought out Harry Helgesen’s interest, the mill was renamed Sooke Forest Products. In time, Canadian Pacific bought a 49 per cent interest in the company. The dimension market on the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. took much of the mill’s production.

During its peak, the mill’s shrill whistle sounded shift changes every eight hours. Many Sooke men had leading management roles at the sawmill, including Bud and Dennis Smith. By the late 1970s when the mill switched to cutting only Western Red cedar, it was touted as the most efficient cedar mill in Canada.

With the East Sooke shore framing the rear of the photo, one sees the big log booms farthest back that were purchased on the open market along the coast and towed into the mill by Doug MacFarlane and his DeMac. Between these formed booms and the peninsula itself one sees the ‘booming grounds’ of Sooke Harbour Booming, run by Len Jones. Len also employed a number of Sooke men; one of the best known perhaps, was Dick George of the T’Sou-ke nation.

The hog fuel barges seen at left went to a variety of destinations, ie pulp mills on the BC coast. The chip barge was destined for Port Townsend; its superior quality meant that it would be used in the production of Kodak photographic paper.

Personnel manager for the hundreds of employees was Bob Anderson; when he moved on to becoming a general manger, his personnel role was taken over by Janet Evans (later to become Sooke’s mayor). With a downturn in the market, a group of employees bought the company’s assets and working as Lamford Forest Products with a sister operation in New Westminster, continued to operate almost up to 1990, when the mill closed. An important era in Sooke’s history and economy was over.

Elida Peers, Historian

Sooke Region Museum