Betting Big on Bonner

Montana Magazine

By Pamela J. Podger

As Montana’s oldest sawmill was dismantled piece by piece, auctioneer Dennis Turmon coaxed a few more dollars from buyers huddled against the late-fall dampness along the Blackfoot River. “Do I hear $300? $350? Sold for $400,” he bellowed beside a 50-foot conveyer, then shifted his attention to the next item.

The bidders—men and women, many in camouflage jackets and work boots—followed a beefy man carrying a “Now Being Sold” sign. Buyers from across the nation came to these cavernous buildings, now swept clean of sawdust and eerily quiet without the clatter of machinery. They stepped over puddles, iridescent with oil slicks. They climbed stairways into desolate buildings where machinery sat idle. They stepped back in history, to a time when timber reigned in western Montana.

Erected at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers in 1884 by entrepreneurs who paid $100 and a cow, Bonner had been home the longest continuously operating sawmill in Montana’s history. It weathered recessions and a succession of company-town owners. In its heyday, the mill employed about 2,000.

These days, Bonner, which sits a few miles east of Missoula, retains a fierce community pride, but its once bustling character has been replaced by a forlorn uncertainty. The sawmill is for sale, the nearby Milltown Dam has been demolished and a developer from Missoula, Scott Cooney, is buying up most of Bonner and a big chunk of the adjacent community of Milltown. Bonner’s potential rebirth— from a quintessential working-class hamlet into a more upscale community—is linked to the $100 million cleanup of Milltown Dam, which is part of the largest Superfund complex in the nation.

Many people here envision a renaissance of the land and rivers, complete with recreational trails, fishing, boating and other amenities. Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who came to the sawmill auction, expressed mixed sentiments about the changes at Bonner, which historians consider the last timber company town in Montana. “In some ways, it’s heartbreaking to see this equipment selling for 2 cents on the dollar,” he said at the mill site. “But now our challenge is to create opportunities to nurture hundreds of families again in this place for the next 100 years. We’d like to replace these jobs with new jobs.” Read More.

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