Industrial Update 2021
It all started with a fishing trip by two brothers from Seattle and the purchase of Two Mile Planing Mills in Quesnel. In 1955, brothers Sam, Pete, and Bill Ketcham purchased the mill for $60,000. Today, West Fraser has become one of the largest manufacturers of solid wood and panels globally and is an integral part of the local economy here in Williams Lake.
Our start in B.C.
After the Ketcham brothers got started, Sam moved to Quesnel to run the mill. As the mill was pretty run down, the real value in the purchase was Doug Floyd and the 12-person crew that came with the mill. About the acquisition, Pete Ketcham said, “[It] worked out to $4,000 for the mill and $56,000 for getting Doug Floyd with the deal.”
Sam and Doug fine-tuned operations at that old planer, starting a period of phenomenal growth. At the time, there were many bush mills in the surrounding region, and Sam’s effectiveness at purchasing those locations earned him the nickname of Bushmill Sam. He was determined to acquire enough fibre supply to feed the operation. In 1956, the Ketchams operated two bush mills that produced rough lumber in Riske Creek, including the Bald Mountain #1 mill.
In 1957, the company expanded to Williams Lake with the majority acquisition of the Swetnam brothers’ lumber companies, including Wright Lumber.
Wright lumber had a planer and a gang mill located at the site where Blacky’s Car Wash and Downtown Service are today. By 1961, the Ketchams had purchased the entire operation, including several more acquisitions.
By this time, the company had adopted the name West Fraser. They believed Williams Lake would be the centre of their operations, feeding the mills with timber from west of the Fraser River. In 1963, the company purchased Quesnel’s largest sawmill, Brownmiller Brothers, which was vital in securing West Fraser’s future.
Sam Ketcham loved the outdoors, which drew him to the Cariboo. He moved to Williams Lake in 1959 with his wife, Janet, to run the operations from Williams Lake and he was the heart and soul of West Fraser in its early years. He lived there until 1974 and was an integral part of the community. Ken Seaman, an employee who designed, built and renovated many of the early West Fraser facilities said, “Sam Ketcham ruled by consensus before the word was invented.”
In 1972, a new sawmill was built in Williams Lake, where the West Fraser Sawmill is currently located, and the planer was moved shortly after to the new site.
Unfortunately, Sam died in a plane crash on November 7, 1977, along with West Fraser’s first forester Phil Bodman and pilot Ken Waines. The company eventually recovered from the loss, with Janet Ketcham becoming a director, Doug Johnston becoming president, and Pete Ketcham became chairman of the board.
Over the decades, West Fraser would expand across B.C., Alberta, and now the world, adding new forest products such as pulp and OSB to its portfolio. In 1985, Hank Ketcham (Pete’s son) became president and CEO and guided an era of significant expansion.
The acquisition of Weldwood of Canada in 2004 nearly doubled the size of the company and gave West Fraser ownership of a plywood plant along with the sawmill in Williams Lake.
West Fraser currently employs approximately 450 employees at the two facilities in Williams Lake with the same number of logging, hauling, forestry, maintenance, and other contractors.
With the recent acquisition of Norbord, West Fraser has grown to be one of the largest manufacturers of solid wood products globally and now panels. Even though West Fraser is such a large company, currently employing 10,000 people worldwide, it has been faithful to its small company roots and family feeling established by the Ketcham family 65 years ago. Visits by current West Fraser CEO Ray Ferris to town are not uncommon.
The company has had the same goals for decades. Those are developing and maintaining excellence in performance and people, leadership in our field, challenge and satisfaction, responsibility in communities in which we work, and profitability and growth.
The last year of dealing with Covid-19 has been difficult for many people with some parallels to the 2017 wildfires. It has been encouraging to see how the people and businesses in Williams Lake and surrounding communities have come together again and made the sacrifices necessary to get through this latest crisis.
Mauro Calabrese is a Professional Forester and Biologist and the planning superintendent for West Fraser’s South Cariboo Woodlands. He was born and raised in Williams Lake and is proud to call Williams Lake home with his wife Kendra and boys Massimo, Luca, Mattteo and Alessandro.