As Gabriel Pinette turns 100 today, the sawmill that he started with his wife’s brother and cousin in 1952 is still going strong as Tolko’s Soda Creek mill.
Pinette, who has seven children, 16 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, isn’t a very talkative man, but credits his longevity to hard work and quitting smoking at age 60.
He wasn’t a serious smoker but enjoyed his pipe and a few cigars over the years.
He says he also feels much better since dropping 20 pounds over the past few years just by watching what he eats.
A longtime member of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Gabe says hard work and raising a large family “kept me busy and out of mischief.”
That and a passion for cribbage.
“He’s a cribbage shark,” says his eldest son Conrad, who admits to being beaten regularly by his dad. “He plays a tough game of cribbage.”
More than 140 of Gabe’s extended family, who are now living in Williams Lake and various parts of B.C. and Alberta came together in Williams Lake for a family reunion to celebrate his birthday, which actually happens today.
Gabe was born Nov. 1, 1911 on his parents’ farm in Ste. Amelie, Manitoba. He was the fourth child of three sisters and eight brothers born to Felix and Philomene (nee Archambault) Pinette. The family grew grain, raised cattle and kept a few milk cows. The kids helped out on the farm as soon as they were able.
“We would wake up at 5 a.m. to milk the cows and the milk would be sent off to the cheese factory,” says Gabe.
Gabe took his basic education in St. Amelie and started working full time on the farm when he was in his teens, marrying his sweetheart Annette Therrien when he was 27.
The newlyweds stayed on the farm for a couple of years then moved to Hudson, Ontario where they lived for 10 years and Gabe worked as a logging contractor and a millwright/sawyer at the local mill.
They moved back to Manitoba for a year then headed out to Vancouver where Gabe worked at different coast mills.
In 1952 Gabe and Annette moved their family to Williams Lake. They came with five children, Conrad, Angela (Justus), Jeanne (Mack), Gerard, and Harold, and had two more children here, Gloria (Kaufman) and Ronald.
Gabe went into the saw-milling business with Annette’s brother Dollard Therrien and her cousin Roger Therrien.
They logged and also operated a portable sawmill on the six-mile hill north of town.
About four years later the partners built a permanent mill in Williams Lake.
“We were the first ones to build a permanent mill in town. All the others at the time were portable mills,” Gabe says.
They started with a dimension lumber mill, planer and dry kiln, then added a stud mill. The dimension mill was closed after 20 years and was replaced with a new stud mill. For a number of years they also ran a mill at Puntzi.
At the high point Gabe says they had more than 250 employees on multiple shifts.
Conrad started working at the mill in high school and summer vacation. When they needed help in the administration of the business he came directly from university and became manager of the business.
The family sold the mill in 1982 to BC Forest Products. Since then the mill has been successively sold to Fletcher Challenge, Timber West and is now owned by Tolko. Conrad says the latter two companies have upgraded the stud mill with a more modern 10-foot and shorter stud mill.
Subsequent to the sale of the mill and after a few years off, Gabe headed out to Alberta with his three youngest sons Gerard, Harold and Ronald to farm. For 10 years they farmed wheat, barley, oats and canola on one-and-a-half sections of their own land and a section of leased land.
“I enjoyed farming. I was the boss when I was farming, not the union,” Gabe says.
After 10 years they sold the farm and Gabe retired for a second time at about age 88. After a couple of years, Gabe and Annette returned to Williams Lake. Annette passed away in 2009 but Gabe continues to live on his own, enjoying daily visits from helpers and many, many family members who love and care for him.
After years of getting up at 5 a.m. for work Gabe says: “I don’t want anyone to wake me up before 9:30 in the morning now.”
“My advice is to work hard, play crib and don’t eat too much,” he responds when asked about how to live a long, contented life.