Busy as beavers: Small mill sees business booming

Just a few kilometres east of Mine Centre, turn left at the pole with the red T-shirt tied around it and you’ll come across a new lumber mill—well, a mini-mill to be more exact.
What started as a hobby during spring break-up for Norm Burkholder has blossomed into a six- or seven-day-a-week job, although he still logs in the winter months.
“I set up a little portable mill last summer,” he said.
He’s got a new mill now but admitted the old gravel pit he mills from is still a “little disorganized.” The business also has turned into more than a hobby.
“It’s grown on us. I love the pace,” Burkholder said of the business that initially was family-run but now has grown to eight employees. “It started out slowly. Now, it’s rolling.
“I have four trainees from Seine River. It was a joint endeavour to employ them,” he said of the four youths busily working. “They’re good workers. I’m so happy, it’s really great.”
Burkholder is training them until August, when they’ll be hired full-time.
The company is officially called Norlaine Forest Products. Norlaine is derived from his first name, Norman, and his wife’s, Elaine, whom he calls “one of the pioneers” who’s helped him since the beginning.
They lined up potential markets and the “markets are coming,” Burkholder said. They specialize in white cedar, but dabble a bit in red and white pine.
Current projects include making guard rails and selling them from Rainy River to Ear Falls to Geraldton. He also provides cedar for cabins, and lots of decks, docks, and saunas.
“I bet I’ve sold enough material for 50 saunas. I’ve got a wood-stripped canoe made with my material, too,” he added.
“A lot of people are going with treated wood but white cedar has natural preservatives—it’s good for anyone interested in staying away from chemicals.”
Burkholder said he caters to the log home industry quite heavily in the U.S.
“It’s a wide open field. I like doing finished projects,” he said, pointing to the bevelled siding on the building that houses his generator and the machines that complete the value-added products.
And he’s generous with praise for the larger mills in the district.
“Abitibi has helped me immensely because they’re my wood supply,” he said. “[And] Bill Darby from the MNR helped point out what direction to take.”
Burkholder’s niche is northern white cedar, known as “the legendary tree” and the “aristocrat of the woods.” One of its most popular uses is as canoe strips.
Lightweight, easily-machined, supple, flexible, and highly-resistant to decay, white cedar was the choice of Native Americans hundred of years ago and remains prized among boat and canoe builders today (hence the common name boat cedar).
It’s naturally resistant to decay and insect damage. The closed cell structure and systemically produced preservative oils provide a natural resistance to mold and mildew.
It weathers evenly and attractively, yet accepts finishes well. As well, it’s light in weight and is considered very workable by woodworkers.
“Nickel Lake and Manitou use it a bit,” Burkholder said, but nowhere close to his production output of 5,000-10,000 feet a day. “Logging contractors didn’t know what to do with it.”
The mill literally is being built from the ground up. What was once an abandoned gravel pit now has seen sales expand five times in the last two years. He had thought about trying to secure funding but decided to increase operations as he was able.
The Burkholders moved to Mine Centre in 1985 from the Bancroft area. They’re too remote for electricity so he uses a three-phase generator.
Four years ago, the family cleared a lot of area. The land was levelled and it opened up five acres. But Burkholder hopes to expand to twice that size to include a lumber storage area and a lumber drying shed.
This year, he even brought in outside wood because sales were much higher than he had planned. He got one-third from other contractors.
“I didn’t harvest enough,” he said. “I see the potential for more value-added products. Let your imagination run when working with wood.
“I’m enjoying what I’m doing. It got bigger than I realized but when the market calls . . .,” his voice trailed off, before continuing. “Against all odds, I made a success with something nobody was using.”