Cecil Ashley

Cecil Ashley

A workplace like no other: What keeps former Hillcrest employees gathering after 50 years?

Although it’s been nearly a half-century since the lumber mill in Mesachie Lake shut down

Although it’s been nearly a half-century since the lumber mill in Mesachie Lake shut down, its formers employees remember the old days like they were yesterday and continue to gather every year to reflect on the times they all spent together there.

On Saturday, the 15th annual Hillcrest Lumber Company Employees Reunion took place at the community hall in Mesachie Lake, with more than 70 former employees and their family members attending.

Organizer Cecil Ashley, who worked at Hillcrest’s planer mill from 1959 until just before its closure in 1968, said the event typically draws between 75 and 100 attendees, with people coming from throughout the Cowichan Valley and as far away as Campbell River and the Lower Mainland.

“It’s a big get-together for people who lived and worked together for 30 years,” said Ashley. “People bring pictures, sit and talk about the old times … It’s a time to see old friends.”

The reunion also features a luncheon and coffee. Ashley said that for many of the attendees, this is the one chance they get to see each other for an entire year, so there’s always lots of catching up to do.

Former employees George Smart and Frank Vanyo started the event in 2001, originally just for former loggers from the company. However it was later opened up to the former mill workers as well, which is when Ashley took over organization of the event.

The Hillcrest Lumber Company was formed in 1917 by Carlton Stone in Sahtlam, later relocating to Mesachie Lake in the early 1940s. Stone created the town to house his mill workers, building 40 houses for employees and their families to rent, but also building a church, a school, a playing field and the community hall.

At its peak, the mill employed approximately 450 people.

Stone had six children, five of whom worked at the mill. According to Ashley, the Hillcrest Lumber Company was known as a “family operation,” not just because of the Stone family’s involvement but also because of a the familial atmosphere it engendered among workers.

“The company was so good to us, they treated us so well, we had a union of course but it didn’t matter,” said Ashley. He said the Stones knew everyone by their first names and created a close-knit community. Ashley worked there for 10 years, his father for 30 years and his grandfather for 20.

“So it was a family-owned mill but also a family-integrated employee mill, too.”

Ultimately the mill shut down in 1968 due a dwindling lumber supply. In 1970, the company sold all equipment and burned down the mill buildings, located on the site of present day Camp Imadene.

It’s not very often a company inspires such a sense of unity its employees continue to gather even 48 years after going out of business.

“Well, today people don’t get the camaraderie and the friendship,” said Ashley.