On a recent dreary Sunday afternoon, dozens of old-timers line the pews of Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Bonner. In the church lobby, black-and-white photographs of the company town's 1940s-era cottages lie on tabletops. Glenn Smith, who has a white beard, big belly and deep, folksy voice, sits at the front of the church and leads a couple of hours of storytelling. That's why everyone's here: to share memories of a town that was built and defined by a once-thriving lumber mill.
You hear about grade-school pals with nicknames like Lefty, Mule Ears, Donuts and Goosey; shiny Schwinn bicycles; getting shot in the butt with a BB gun; buying beer in nearby Milltown with a forged note from dad; paying 18 cents a week for the newspaper. Smith remembers it as a "Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn-type environment—something I wouldn't trade for all the experiences in the world. This was a very special place up here."
And, of course, you hear about the mill, which employed hundreds. Smith worked there for 45 years. "One of the things I learned from the folks out here in Bonner was that they firmly believed in an honest day's work for an honest day's pay," he says.
Nostalgia has only grown in the four years since the mill shut down. But today there's a familiar sight at the log yard across the street: piles and piles of logs. As the economy slowly turns around, a few businesses are taking root at Bonner's mill site.
The mill, initially known as the Blackfoot Mill, began operating in 1886 to meet the demands of the Butte mining boom and railroad expansion. In 1898, timber baron A.B. Hammond sold it to the Anaconda Company, owned by Marcus Daly, one of Montana's copper kings. Anaconda owned the mill until 1972, when it sold it to Champion International. In 1993, Champion sold the mill to Stimson Lumber Company. In 2008, amid plummeting demand, Stimson closed it, ending 122 years of continuous lumber production and leaving a company town without a company.
A big part of the riverside town's identity are the 40 or so white houses the Anaconda Company built for its workers along the tree-lined street across from the mill. When Stimson closed the mill, the houses were slated for demolition. Deep-pocketed, Missoula-based developer Scott Cooney stepped in to save them. In early 2008, he purchased and began refurbishing 26 of the historic houses, and then he rented them out.
That was only the beginning of Cooney's plans for Bonner. He bought other land around the mill, envisioning a housing development, medical center and senior living home. He told a reporter that he'd like to "take the cyclical nature of the wood-products industry out of here and give people consistent economic engines for the next 100 years." Bonner's transformation would mirror the the removal of the Milltown Dam, built in 1886 to generate electricity for the mill, and the larger Superfund restoration of the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers.
But last July, Cooney and his company, Blackfoot Land and Water, filed for bankruptcy protection. Court documents show he's more than $1.6 million in debt, with assets worth more than $4.4 million. He was hit with a lawsuit alleging that he withdrew at least $560,000 for his personal use from a company account holding tenant deposits. He told the Indy last summer that he had to move money around because of a "never-ending" divorce. Last month, the bankruptcy court rejected Cooney's reorganization plan and took possession of the 26 Bonner houses. A thick envelope of bankruptcy documents showed up in tenants' mailboxes. Cooney didn't return calls seeking comment.
Cooney had "grandiose ideas for the whole area, and unfortunately he didn't have the financial wherewithal to bring that together," says Mike Boehme.
Boehme and Steve Nelson, partners in Missoula-based Western Montana Development, became the owners of the 170-acre Bonner mill in mid-December. The purchase included 16 company houses. Boehme and Nelson recently made an offer on the 26 houses Cooney lost in bankruptcy.
Mostly dead or beetle-killed logs have been piling up on the log yard for the past few months. On Monday, the Washington-based chipping company Willis Enterprises, through a contract with the paper products company Boise Inc., began turning those logs into chips, which will be shipped by rail to a paper mill in Wallula, Wash. Northwest Paint, which finishes lumber products, has also taken up residence at the mill site. As has MacArthur Co., a roofing outfit. And a small company called Hellgate Forge. All together, they employ about 40.
"The people that we've talked to in Bonner are just ecstatic," Boehme says, "because that mill was there for over 100 years, and all of a sudden, in 2008, it got shut down and it's just been kind of wasting away. Now there are some new things going on out there."
Wood products may not always be the anchor of the site. Boehme and Nelson are betting that all kinds of industries will be attracted to its 850,000 square feet of buildings, railroad spur line, close proximity to Interstate 90, existing discharge and air quality permits and one mile of Blackfoot River frontage. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality announced last month that high concentrations of PCBs remain there, but that multimillion-dollar burden is Stimson's.
Boehme listened to the stories at the church about how closely connected the mill and the community used to be. "There's no way in today's society you're going to duplicate that," he says. "But we would like to do good things for Bonner."