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1539 Eleventh Ave. Helena, MT 59601
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J. Neils Family

Forestry Pioneer

J. NeilsThe J. Neils Lumber Company was incorporated on March 23, 1895 in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota with a capital investment of $30,000 (of which Thomas Shevlin and Hovey C. Clarke provided 60% and Julius Neils 40%.)  In 1899 Julius Neils started a new mill at Cass Lake, Minnesota.  In those years the universal forestry practice was clearcutting, and so as the timber availability was being exhausted near Cass Lake, Julius Neils went looking westward for viable timberland.

In 1906, the J. Neils Lumber Company began acquiring timberlands in Flathead County, Montana.  Julius’s strategy was to buy even numbered sections held largely by Anaconda Copper Mining Company.  Purchases were made at $1 per thousand feet, and by the end of 1907, a full million dollars had been invested in timberlands in Flathead County.  It is hard to tell how many total acres J. Neils Lumber Company eventually acquired in Montana because they bought timber by the board foot, and the land was usually included in the selling price, and so their records are primarily in board feet of timber.

In 1910, J. Neils purchased the Dawson Lumber Company in Libby, Montana that included 70,367 acres of timber land.  Early operations were not successful, so in 1912 Julius sent his son Paul to run the Libby operations.  When Julius went to Libby three months later, Paul handed him a check for $10,000, the first returns from the new venture.  Earnings grew to $100,000 by 1913.

In 1913 business partner Thomas Shevlin died suddenly from Pneumonia. His son Tom took over as president of J. Neils Lumber Company.  Over disagreements with the new president, Julius divided the assets with Tom and by 1915, Tom Shevlin received the Libby mill and part of the Montana properties, and the Neils family retained the Sauk and Cass Lake Mills and some timberland in Montana.  Due to a struggling business J. Neils was approached in 1918 to repurchase the Libby mill and holdings, and on January 13, 1919 the re-acquisition was complete. After returning from military service, Walter Neils was appointed as the general manager at Libby, a post he held until 1957; and George Neils became assistant to the logging superintendent, Ed Woodworth. Several years later George became the logging manager. 

On June 1, 1922 J. Neils Lumber Company took possession of property and a mill at Klickitat, Washington. Due primarily to a lack of timber and the recession, the Cass Lake Minnesota operation ran its last load of logs November 10, 1923.

From 1930-1932, the Depression resulted in several challenges for the J. Neils Lumber Company.  As the demand for lumber declined, the company looked for other revenue opportunities. They found a need for shipping boxes for fruit in Washington, primarily apples and pears.  In 1931 they installed a small box plant and success was almost immediate. The company produced more than 1.6 million feet of box lumber. The other challenges centered on the collection of debt and utilization of bank credit. During the Depression, many payments were required in gold, and bank credit was limited to $25,000 on 90-day notes.

JNeilsFamily.pngJulius Neils passed away on July 26, 1933.

In 1944, J. Neils Lumber Company acquired 5,000 shares— the entire outstanding stock—of the Montana Light & Power Company which included a power plant in Troy, Montana. This plant provided power to both the Libby and Troy Lumber mills  and helped the company realize the importance of protecting this resource.

On January 1, 1957 J. Neils Lumber Company merged with St. Regis Paper Company. Paul Neils resigned as president of J. Neils Lumber Company to become chairman of the board, and was succeeded by Walter Rathert.  George retired as logging manager at Libby and was replaced by Mark Schoknecht (Julia Neils’ son).  Walter continued as manager at Libby until the end of the year. At that time, Allo Agather (Martha Neils’ son) was appointed as the general manager at Libby. Julius saved a significant portion of his earnings and expected the same from the company and his family. This practice allowed them to weather fires, floods, wars, a recession, and the Depression.  It allowed them to acquire new land, timber, equipment, and mills when others were having to sell their companies and resources.  The J. Neils Lumber company continually took every opportunity to acquire land, invest in equipment upgrades, and look for new products to meet market demands.  Julius Neils worked long hard hours and expected the same from his family and employees.  But by the same token, the company supported their loyal employees, as many had followed them from Minnesota to Montana.   Julius Neils watched the lumber supply in Minnesota diminish, whereas in Montana, the company was one of the first to institute selective logging designed to perpetuate forest. Their studies began in 1936, were put into practice in 1939, and to the best of our knowledge, no other company in the northwest had undertaken this practice at that time. They partnered with institutions of higher education, including the University of Washington and Yale University Forestry Schools. They had senior students conducting studies on their land, and they consistently employed graduate students in their forestry operations as interns.  They maintained their own nursery at the Libby plant and supported an aggressive reforestation program.

The J. Neils Lumber Company and family were civic and community leaders and made donations of their time and money to ensure that communities would grow.  Julius Neils had a marvelous memory and the patience and ability to impart knowledge to others, which in his later life was reflected in his business leadership. In addition to his dedication to his business, he was extremely devoted to his church and firmly grounded in his faith. To quote Paul Neils:  “As we look back on the growth of the company, on the continuing accomplishments, we should not forget how hard was the work, and how slender were the immediate rewards.  Profits were not diluted by generous dividends; rather, they were spent for more timber and more efficient equipment. With such a policy the company continued to grow and prosper.” Julius and Mary Neils had 13 children, Julia, Martha, Anna, Ida, Paul, Walter, George, Martin, Marie, Henry, Gerhard, Marcus, and Victor.