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Family sawmill a link to the pioneer days of Alberta

It’s well known that the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Revenant” was filmed in southern Alberta. What’s not is that a lot of building materials used to create the West of 1820s came from the Brooks Sawmill near Cochrane.

The film is one of several westerns the sawmill has supplied among its highly eclectic client list.

“Pretty much every movie that has been filmed here that is a western, we’ve supplied most, if not all their timber,” said David Brooks who operates the enterprise with wife Marcie.

Lumber from the custom sawing operation has also helped build Cochrane and the surrounding area. Nestled in the picturesque foothills west of the town, the sawmill is now surrounded by million-dollar ranches and oil-money mansions. But chances are lumber for the corrals and outbuildings, the beautifully knotted and burled gateposts leading to the stately houses, and even wood for furniture were supplied by the operation.

While the area is highly prosperous now, the fictitious, hinterland backdrop shown in “The Revenant” movie was daily life for decades for the Brooks family. Now a mere half-hour drive from town, it was wagon trails and pioneer living in the early days. The property where the sawmill is located was purchased by Brooks’ great-grandfather Frank Brooks in 1901. The sawmill was established in 1923 and is likely the oldest, continuously family-owned, sawmill business in the province. It started with manual felling and horse logging.

“When my great-grandfather started the business, they were producing a lot of ties for the mines around Canmore and farther east,” said Brooks.

The way of doing business was different, too. The community only had one telephone (at a local general store), so customers would call the store and pre-order loads of lumber in fall. It would be sawn in winter and customers would show up in spring in their horse-drawn wagons. The Brooks provided a bunkhouse so that customers could rest up overnight before returning home the next day. This practice carried on for years.

“Grandpa would ride down every week to the store and pick up the papers of what he needed to saw, and he would just stockpile it all,” said Brooks.

His mother, MaryLou, described the road to Cochrane as a ‘goat trail.’ When she called to ask if a bus could be sent to the sawmill to take her children to school, the school office asked how she expected the school bus to get there. To solve the problem, she became the school bus driver.

In the 1930s, the family acquired a steam engine from an old Canmore coal mine.

“There was a drought in those days, so there was only enough water to saw for half a day,” recalled Brooks. “We’d run the engine ’til we ran out of water.”

It was later upgraded to a TD14 diesel engine, which powered the sawmill till 1990, when it was replaced with a Detroit diesel engine.

The Brooks Sawmill has supplied everything from timbers and lumber to authentic-looking hanging trees and biscuits (from the ends of logs) for wedding decorations.

The couple, who also has a small herd of 30 cattle, employs four people in the sawmill along with nine part-time employees in the firewood division, which supplies area campgrounds and hotels. The lumber side produces everything from eight-foot-long 1x4s to massive timbers as long as 32 feet and 14 inches square.

And when the phone rings these days, they never know what the customer will ask for.

“In addition to a lot of movie sets, we’ve shipped material, such as heavy timbers as far as Texas,” said Brooks.

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