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Steve Marks -- Marks Lumber by Jason Todhunter & Steve Marks

The year was 2000 and though it was early summer, it was already smoky.  I had been on a job visit in Lump Gulch, west of Clancy.  I was coming back down to the interstate, and saw a bunch of stuff that looked sawmillish (Good Stuff) on the left!  So, of course I went to check this project out!  While I am checking things out, a wiry rancher/logger looking guy says Hi, I am Steve Marks.  This was my first introduction to Steve and the family sawmill he was updating. But this story started 159 yrs earlier with a Cross Half-Circle brand, and some



Jesuit missionaries named Pierre-Jean de Smet and Antonio Ravalli.   

Many of you recognize the name Fr. Anthonio Ravalli who in 1845 built the first sawmill near current day Stevensville.  This brand was used on their stock and rest assured there were horses and mules hauling logs and lumber in the bitterroot valley while wearing this brand.  Fast forward to 1888 and Ernest Marks who bought a homestead and registered this brand for his working stock.  Ernest was in the draft horse business and when he registered this brand in 1888 it was the 1068th brand registered in Montana.  Ernest’s business eventually grew to include cattle, but his son Merle Marks would be the one to get that Cross Half-Circle brand back closer to the sawdust when he started milling timber products and blacksmithing to add income to the ranching operation.  These endeavors allowed Merle to grow the ranch and buy/trade for more property.  Merle bought an American #1 sawmill from a distant neighbor on the north end of the Elkhorn mountains in 1938 and installed it on the ground where the current mill operates today.      

 During the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Marks family continued both ranching and milling mining timbers and rough lumber to help support the cattle operation. Merle’s son Bob and his wife, Barbara, continued ranching, using the cross half-circle brand. As the family grew, Bob had more help with the ranch work and continued operating the mill on an as needed basis and all the kids learned what packing slabs and stacking boards was all about. Bob entered politics in 1969 and served in the Montana legislature for 20 yrs. With a large family there was a full crew for the needed help on the home front and eventually some sawdust and calluses rubbed off on Steve.

Steve began working in the timber industry at age sixteen. Falling timber for various logging contractors and cutting post and poles for his brother Gary. After graduating from high school in 1977, Steve had no desire to further his education and figured if you worked hard and took care of business you would learn along the way. He went to work for a carpenter for the summer saving enough money to buy a dozer, chain saw and started logging, then a skidder, logging truck and loader. In 1979 Steve married his wife and partner Laura, things were cooking right along then 1980 came along and the lumber market hit the bottom, interest went to 18% and you could not sell a log for much. (I think a delivered good log was $325.00/m if you were lucky) Things got tough and Steve downed sized and helped on the ranch, did a little logging for Gary and a little sawmill nearby, some contracting, anything to pay the bills. Laura got pregnant with Jamie and a year later Cody came along. Steve needed to get back to work and luckily, the log market improved in 1981 and Steve went back to logging full time for a couple of years.

In 1983, Bob decided he needed to pass the torch onto the next generation and Steve took the reins and moved into the ranching business full time raising cattle and his two kids Jamie and Cody. The cattle market during the 80’s was tough and they needed to raise some cash. In 1988, Steve figured he could get caught up if they rebuilt the old mill, so they built a new hydraulic carriage, and Marks Lumber came to life. With Steve’s logging knowledge he put together a logging crew to harvest timber on the ranch property, bringing the logs into the newly rebuilt mill.  In May of 1989 they started sawing railroad ties, selling them to Keer-McGee Corp, shipped by rail out of Butte to the Dalles Ore., the smaller timber was cut into 6x8, 6x6,4x6 and sold to Marks Miller Post Pole where this product was treated and sold. It was about 70% P. Pine and 30% Doug Fir. The good tie market only lasted a couple of years but enough to get ahead, the side lumber from the ties was sold to locals with the most selling to D and G Lumber in Three Forks, then they started cutting P.Pine cants and selling this lumber to D and G, this lasted for a few years and were gradually getting into more custom/specialty work.

In 1998 Steve decided that a planer would add good value to the specialty wood products. Steve bought a Stetson Ross 612-A1 planner at a Louisiana Pacific mill auction in Post Falls Idaho. The planer line was up and running well and things were really taking off when the realization that the headrig in the sawmill need some serious attention, specifically the carriage. After serious consideration Steve determined that a new mill was going to be needed, not just a carriage. Steve went back to the drawing board, he could visualize what this should look like, studying small mills around the country, looking at new, used and auctions and finally found a Morbark headrig modular mill at Machinery Sales in Portland Ore.. an edger in an auction in St Maries Idaho and other equipment at many other auctions around the Pacific Northwest. Steve hired Columbia Construction out of Columbia Falls to help with the layout. After Steve got a plan put together, Marks Lumber hired a millwright and went to work with his crew on constructing the mill, all the while keeping the old mill in production. Two years to the week from the ground up, they started making lumber, then came a Rosserhead debarker and a chipper in the next year.


2005- Office-Showroom Steve and Laura have been working together from the time they were married (1979) and it was time for a little elbow room in the office. They now had a business manager and salesman and a good crew, had developed good policies and procedures but lacked a place where they could really show off their products. They put a plan together to build a Timberframe office that would show their products and the Timberframing that Cody Marks had started, it was a great success and folks really like being able to see what different products are available.


2006-2010 - Opportunity, Bugs, Recession Steve found that the Bureau of Land Management had advertised for an RFP for a ten-year IDIQ contract with-in the Prickly Pear water-shed that entailed roads, logging, grinding, masticating and chipping. Steve looked at it and started crunching numbers with his business manager and submitted a proposal. They were awarded the contract, equipment was purchased, skidder, feller bunchers, chip truck and trailer and a grinder and more employees.  Things were going along well until Smurfit Stone filled bankruptcy. Steve got the call at 10:00 one night. “It was the sickest feeling I had ever had. I had just borrowed a pile of money. Now what! We regrouped, we had great business relationships with other end users and provisions in the contract that made it work. It was not easy, but we did not give up, you have to be nimble, doors will open!”

Then the bugs, the Mountain Pine Beetle. Steve could see what was happening to the timber stands around southwestern Montana and made a quick decision to get with John Ottman, Ottman Forestry, and we had four logging sides go through our entire ranch and thin the stands, thank goodness, we still have timber. This happened just before the 2009 Montana DNRC Jump Start program so we had a jump on things. The grinder we had purchased played a vital role in the Jump Projects we landed and through the recession.


2010-2020 Business was good and cranking right along, it was a good time to capitalize on updating equipment and Marks Lumber took advantage of it updating their rolling stock at the mill, wheel loaders, forklifts, and mill improvements. In 2020 Steve started laying the ground work of putting a new edger and pass through trimmer in the mill, something that was going to be a monumental task. Marks Lumber hired Columbia Construction to design, build and install the equipment. There was a lot of head scratching and planning, then Covid hit!  A few folks that got laid off for about a week and then we got so dang busy, it was crazy, lumber sales soared.  They had planned the install for 2022 but with the craziness they put off the install until April 18, 2023 with a planned July 1 start up but with the Covid fall-out, parts were hard to get and finally got really rolling mid-September.

“ It has been a hell of a run, we have been surrounded by some really, really great people. We have been very Blessed”


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