In the period between 1900 and 1929, dozens of sawmills were built in the Inland Empire. Today in 2008, only 2 remain in Kootenai County.
In 1909 the Atlas Tie Sawmill, which later became Idaho Forest Industries, Inc., began a lumber manufacturing firm.
The company’s founder, Marcus D. Wright, was born in 1851 in Kentucky. He moved to Kootenai County in 1881 and began a long career of entrepreneurship that eventually led him into the timber industry. Wright helped to found the city of Rathdrum, and established a mercantile store there, as well as one in St. Maries. He was instrumental in establishing Kootenai County, and served as the county’s first assessor.
In October of l909 Wright purchased a piece of property on the Spokane River just east of Coeur d’Alene and established the Atlas Tie Mill Company and in 1920 John Morgan Richards purchased a controlling interest in Atlas Tie. It is the relationship of Atlas Tie and the Richards family that is our focus.
Richards was born in Pepin, Wisconsin, on August 3, 1871. Richards married Eylfa Maude Smith in 1896 and moved to Bemidji, Minnesota shortly thereafter. After several years working for the Crookston Lumber company, Richards and W.A. Gould built a sawmill on the east end of Lake Bemidji in 1905. They later sold this mill to Crookston, making it the largest lumber company in Minnesota. At some point Richards went to work for the Weyerhauser Company in Minnesota. He was then transferred to Spokane, Washington to manage the Spokane branch of the Idaho White Pine Manufacturer’s Association (IWPMA) in 1918.
Richards purchased the Atlas tie company from T.J. Stonestreet. He ran the company from his office in Spokane, while George Straughan continued to manage the sawmill. In 1921 Atlas Tie purchased property on Hayden Lake that had formerly been the site of the Woods Brothers & McGee Lumber Company. This property was purchased to use as a railroad siding. Timber felled in the area surrounding Hayden Lake was barged to the site, where it was transferred to cars and hauled to the Atlas Mill. Richards established the John M. Richards Lumber Company in Spokane as a lumber wholesale firm in 1924, and the Richards-Goettel Lumber Company in 1930 with August “Bert” Goettel. These companies, based in Spokane, continued to handle the sales of Atlas Tie’s lumber until the 1950’s.
John Morgan Richards had learned the white pine business in Minnesota before moving west. In the Inland Empire he had worked for Weyerhauser, marketing white pine, then with his own wholesale lumber operation. Because of this background, Richards committed Atlas Tie to the production of ties and timbers for the railroads. The sawmill would begin a conversion to general lumber production in l937, but the railroads would remain a primary customer for Atlas through the 1960’s. Richards retired in 1932 and moved to Glendale, California where he died on July 24, 1946.
John Smith Richards (J.S.) was born in February 13, 1903 in Crookston, Minnesota. He was 16 years old when Weyerhauser transferred his father to Spokane. J.S. attended the University of Washington, and then attended graduate school at the Harvard School of Business. In 1931 he took over the operations of Atlas Tie, although his father maintained the title of President until 1945. Richards married Ruth Triplett, the daughter of a prominent Spokane banker, in 1932. Shortly after that, the Richards moved to the Fort Grounds area of Coeur d’Alene and eventually to Strahorn Road on Hayden Lake, where they raised their twin sons, William Thomas, and John Morgan.
In the mid-1930’s, Atlas began selling lumber at the retail level in Coeur d’Alene. The process of turning a round log into a square railroad tie created a large volume of “slab” lumber that was sold as firewood. The mill also began to convert some of these slabs into framing lumber to sell to local builders. Over time, these customers began asking for other building materials and a retail lumber and hardware business was formed. The new business was called Atlas Building Center and was located in the same building as the sawmill office.
Richards’ business and community activity in Coeur d’Alene helped build a reputation for Atlas Tie as one of the town’s premier companies. He was fundamental in establishing Kootenai Memorial Hospital and served as chairman of the board of the Hospital as well as a director of Blue Cross of Idaho. He acted as president of First Federal Savings & Loan Association and the Coeur d’Alene Realty Company, and sat on the board of directors of General Telephone Company of the Northwest.
Richards developed several business partnerships that resulted in the eventual merger of Atlas with seven other concerns to form a new company, Idaho Forest Industries, Inc. Of primary importance were partnerships with Jack Durdy’s Alpine Lumber Company and the formation of the R-D (Richards-Durdy) Lumber Company, and his association with the DeArmond Lumber Company. Richards continued to act as president of Atlas Tie until the formation of Idaho Forest Industries, Inc., in l968. He then went on to serve as president of IFI until 1970, and then as chairman of the board of directors of that company until his death in l971.
In 1961 the twins returned home after graduating from Stanford University and earning their MBA at Harvard and began working in the lumber business. John initially lived in Fernwood, overseeing the Fernwood Tie mill. Tom began work in the Atlas Tie Mill.
This younger generation of the Richards family was interested in expanding Atlas Tie into timberland ownership. At about this time the Russell & Pugh lumber company in Harrison ceased operations and put 30,000 acres of timberland up for sale. The two Richards and two DeArmond brothers were interested in acquiring this land, but needed another partner to make it feasible. They approached Potlatch, and these three companies formed the Harrison Timber Company, with ownership equally divided between Potlatch, Atlas Tie and DeArmond-Joyner.
This proved to be very beneficial to all three of the owners. Each of the various mills involved had very different timber needs. Atlas Tie was moving more into pine and cedar production. DeArmond-Joyner was mainly interested in smaller fir logs for stud production, while the Potlatch/Atlas Tie enterprise at St. Maries required larger fir logs. Logs from the Harrison Timber Company lands were divided according to these needs.
In 1968 Potlatch purchased Atlas Tie’s interest in the St. Maries Plywood Mill, with the caveat that John Richards would stay on and oversee all of Potlatch’s North Idaho operations. John stayed with Potlatch, eventually being promoted to chairman and CEO of the Company.
Atlas Tie and Potlatch both remained in the Harrison Timber Company, along with the DeArmond Lumber Company, renamed since William Joyner had been bought out. Tom and John Richards and Bob and Dick DeArmond believed that Atlas Tie and DeArmond would benefit from a merger of the two companies. J.S. Richards and Jack Durdy were initially wary of the idea, but they were finally persuaded by the younger men. In October of 1968 Idaho Forest Industries, Inc. was formed by a merger of Atlas Tie Company, Alpine Lumber Company, DeArmond Lumber Company, Fernwood Tie Mill Company, Inc., Richards-Goettle Lumber Company, Inc., Harrison Timber Company, and Atlas Finance Company.
Over the next 31 years Idaho Forest Industries, Inc., headquarters remained at the site of the Atlas sawmill. The company embarked on a series of attempts at diversification. IFI purchased and operated sawmills in Medford, Oregon, St. Anthony, Idaho, and in British Columbia. All of these mills have since been closed down or sold and IFI decided to stick to doing business at home. IFI developed residential subdivisions in Coeur d’Alene, Boise and Hayden (Foothills, Northshire, Northwest Village, Woodland Meadows, Forest Hills) and commercial projects (Coeur d’Alene Industrial Park, Appleway Square, Harbor Center).
In 2000, the decision was made to sell Idaho Forest Industries, Inc., to Stimson Lumber Company. Today, eight years later, the Atlas and DeArmond Mills have both ceased operation and been sold for development purposes. Truly, the end of an era.
As a Company and as a family, Idaho Forest Industries, Inc., and the Richards have been exemplary employers, exemplary community citizens and exemplary friends. They set a standard of excellence that will long be remembered.
Tom & Sheila Richards
Tom & Kierstie Richards
Nicole & Jessica
Lynn (Richards) & Dave Stubbs
Connor & Anna
John & Joy Richards
John & Kelly Richards
Mackenzie & Collin
David & Kallie Richards