One of the most important businesses in early Central Alberta was the Great West Lumber Company. At its peak, it employed several hundred people and provided an enormous economic boost to the community.
The origins of the sawmill date back to the spring of 1905 when George Bawtinheimer purchased the machinery of the defunct Alberta Lumber Company, which had operated where the Little Red Deer enters the Red Deer River.
Bawtinheimer also moved a small mill from the south side of the Red Deer River to a new site in North Red Deer, west of the C.P.R. tracks. With the Alberta Lumber Co. equipment, Bawtinheimer was able to commence a large-scale operation, capable of producing 7,500 to 12,000 metres of lumber per day.
A major flood in the summer of 1905 was a severe setback to the business. Consequently, Bawtinheimer decided to sell his sawmill to the newly-formed Great West Lumber Company, which had been incorporated on February 10, 1906. The Great West immediately made a number of changes and improvements.
The Company dredged a flat next to the river to create a large millpond. A long channel was also dug for use as a sluiceway to move logs from the river to the pond.
Soon, the Great West had more than 100 men working in the North Red Deer mill, with another 120 cutting timber along the headwaters of the Red Deer River. Business was excellent. The Company began running two 10-hour shifts per day to cover all of its orders.
There was a lull during the short, but sharp recession of 1908. However, by the following year, the demand for lumber began to surge again. Mill hands were paid as much as 17¢ per hour, a very good wage at the time.
Many of those who worked for the Great West Lumber Company were from Quebec, New Brunswick and the francophone areas of the northeastern United States. As many of these employees chose to live close to their work, French was increasingly spoken by the residents of North Red Deer.
In 1911, business had grown to the extent that a major expansion was undertaken. Soon nearly 200 men were working at the mill, with as many as 350 employed in the bush camps upstream.
With all of the newcomers building homes in North Red Deer, on Feb. 17, 1911, the community was incorporated as a village, separate from the Town of Red Deer on the south side of the river.
As the great settlement boom reached its peak in 1912, another large addition was made to the mill. New buildings were constructed. The Company also installed its own electrical system. By the end of the year, the Great West Lumber Company was turning out several million metres of lumber.
Tragedy struck on July 9, 1913 when a major piece of equipment malfunctioned, probably because of attempts to push production even higher. The lead sawyer, Ole Ness, was killed and some other men were injured. A steam piston blew off like a missile and landed in the yard of the North Red Deer Cottage School, several blocks away.
The Great West Lumber Company never really recovered from the accident. By the time that the mill was fully repaired, another recession had set in, greatly reducing the demand for the Company’s product.
The outbreak of the First World War provided another setback as most construction activity came to a halt. There was a severe flood in June 1915 that washed away much of the Company’s supply of logs and damaged the millpond. In 1916, the Great West Lumber Company finally ceased operations.
In the 1930s, the Card family started a new, much smaller, sawmill on the old Great West Lumber site. The Card mill was badly damaged in a fire in April 1945 and went out of business.
The Bower Ponds in North Red Deer are a remnant of the Great West Lumber Company millpond. The old log canal is also still visible next to the Red Deer Golf Course.