By Jason Todhunter
This article was originally published in the September/October 2018 edition of the Montana Logger.
One of the coolest things about working for the Montana Logging Association is getting to know the members and their families. I have watched some of them transform from grade school to successful logging business owners. An added bonus is I also learn some of their family history in the logging industry. I have always enjoyed history and I’m amazed at how things were accomplished in the past before today’s technological advancements. Montana’s timber harvesting and processing heritage began in 1845 when Fr Ravalli and Fr DeSmet, two Jesuit Priests built the first sawmill in Montana. Since then our renewable forest resources that we are blessed with in this state have provided shelter, recreation and income for countless Montana families; including me and my family. This being said we decided that if we didn’t start writing some of this down it would be forgotten. Alas, this is the start of “Timber Roots,” an article where we will feature a member and their families
timber heritage. It will take us a while as we bounce around Montana with these articles and those members gracious enough to share their stories with us.
The first family we will feature starts with Clyde Smith from Kalispell. It seemed appropriate as Clyde built an addition onto his shop to house the first Montana Logging Association office and our first Executive Director, Keith Olson.Clyde was one of the founding fathers of the MLA which was officially formed in 1976 and served as the third President of the MLA from 1980-1985.
The Smith family logging interest started with Clyde’s father Carl who did some logging in Minnesota. Clyde started his logging career in 1948 while attending diesel school in Tennessee. Arriving in Montana in 1953, he worked as a timber faller. Clyde liked McCulloch chainsaws although he grumbled about having to carry a pocket full of spark plugs to keep them going! In 1964 he made the move to become his own boss when he bought out his employer Bud Johnson, and Smith Logging Inc. was born.
Clyde’s first equipment was a Case 1000 Dozer and a Case 1000 tracked end loader. This was not your typical end loader as it had a winch and was used for skidding when it wasn’t loading trucks or keeping things tidy on the landing. Clyde worked initially for Anaconda Company, then US Plywood and Champion International. At his peak he employed 47 people. You may have seen the record load going down the Thomson River haul road where one truck was pulling 7 loads of logs? Some of the folks behind that were Roger Claridge and Clyde Smith. Over a few beers and the knowledge that someone in Canada had pulled five, the challenge was on. By this time Clyde was running two conventional sides, a mechanical side and a line side. He was always an innovator and thus was one of the first mechanical loggers in the area.
Clyde was also a leader in logging safety culture and emergency evacuation. The latter got his full attention when young Rick, rolled a Garrett 21a Skidder. It caused serious injuries including a crushed femur. The ground ambulance couldn’t make it up to the job site due to several feet of powder dust so the crew had to send a skidder down to pull the ambulance up to the accident scene. Rick says to this day he is very lucky to have made it. This accident along with others highlighted the need to get an air ambulance to help deal with the remoteness of the Flathead Valley. Clyde put his business, Smith Logging Inc., up as collateral against the original loan for the first ALERT helicopter. Over the past 42 years ALERT has saved 1525 lives where normal emergency evacuation would have failed. In his honor, the ALERT Foundation gives out the annual Clyde Smith Award, which is presented to a person or persons from across Montana for his or her dedication, volunteerism and service toward lifesaving efforts in the community.
With Champion on their way out, Clyde retired and Rick bought the mechanical side in and kept the original Smith Logging Inc. company. Rick primarily worked for Plum Creek and added another mech side to his operation as Plum Creek increased their production. With his wife, Deb, running the books, parts and whatever else needed to be done Smith Logging Inc employed up to 12 people. They continued running two sides when Plum Creek cut back and worked in south central Montana for Sun Mountain Lumber and RY Timber. Rick and Deb continue the family business currently working for Weyerhaeuser on their company ground, and buying private, state, and USFS sales.
About a year before Clyde retired Barry bought the P&H line machine and a Prentice log loader and started Barry Smith Logging. Barry’s work took him to Missoula and after a period of time he and his wife Cindy moved to the Missoula area. Barry, with Cindy doing the bookwork for the business, grew to five line-sides and 27 employees. Barry’s son, Jamie, worked in the family business while he was in college as well. They downsized to three sides and Barry became a silent partner in GW Logging with Roy Gilbert and Orville Wise. Seeing a need for a specialized machine Barry scrapped one of his Link Belt yarders and with a design drawn on a bar napkin he built the first ex-caliner. Soon he added another and a long boom loader. This latest addition with its 75’ boom helped keep the business going in the tough times when the market crashed, especially the roadside salvage sales the USFS was putting out at the time. Barry and Cindy operated a successful logging business until they sold the line business which we find out more about that below. Barry continues on with the long boom loader doing roadside sales, masticating and doing other odd jobs that this specialized machine can do. “I’ve went from being a Gypo Logger to a Gypsy Logger!” Barry says when I caught him on a recent job in central Montana, “But I am not ready for retirement yet!!”
Ben Smith, the fourth generation Smith logger, had started working for the family business when he was 12. Rick chuckles “Ben was a pretty good hand but he always wanted to sneak away and climb a mountain or rock!” Then allegedly at an MLA training Barry Smith lured Ben away from the mechanical logging to line logging with the promise of being able to climb a mountain and a rock while at work and getting paid for it! Ben worked for his uncle until Barry decided to “retire” and Ben bought him out and started Intermountain Forestry Inc. Ben currently runs two line-logging sides and in the family tradition, is a respected name in the industry.
The Smith family has continued to be actively engaged in the MLA. Rick served on the executive committee and was president from 2001-2003 and is currently Vice President of MLA Services, Inc. Rick was also president of the Intermountain Logging Conference. Ben is currently a Missoula chapter director and also served on the executive committee for two years. Barry also served as a chapter director. All three are Accredited Logging Professionals.
This profession we call logging gets in your blood and through the highs and lows that we have all experienced in this industry it’s a profession that we all love. I am sure as we start this history journey we will hear some very cool facts about our Montana logging contractors and their timber roots. This industry certainly isn’t for everyone but those who have chosen it as a career thrive on being on the side of the mountain when the sun comes up and breathing in that one of a kind aroma of a fresh cut strip.
Hanging in the office of Smith Logging Inc. is a quote from Clyde that ultimately sums up our industry; “It’s a good life if you don’t weaken!”