Birth of Big "C" Shingle Mill Company
by Carl Vest
Other than the building of homes, manufacturing does not appear to be a big industry on South Hill. Mostly we are a bedroom community, with employment coming from a long consumer oriented strip mall along Meridian Avenue. But it hasn’t always been that way. In fact historical accounts describe a number of early ventures dedicated to making things.
In the early 1940s, for example, a man named John “Jack” Nicolet started a manufacturing enterprise known as the Big “C” Shingle Mill Company. Jack was born in Tacoma in the early 1890s, but his roots go back to the east coast (Indiana) and before that to Switzerland. He moved his family to South Hill in the 1920s and settled near Woodland School. Initially the family started a chicken farm to produce eggs for sale.
Mr. Nicolet, however, had an interest, and work history, in the wood industry. So in the early 1940s he relocated to some acreage on Lunblad Country Road (now 86th Avenue), near what is now Rogers High School. The farm was actually at the intersection of the Natches Pass Trail (Military Road) and Lunblad Road (at contemporary Glacier Creek Sub Division). It was here that Jack Nicolet started a manufacturing business.
First he purchased a lease on a Section of timber (640 acres) near Ashford, WA. The agreement restricted timber operations to the cutting and removing of cedar slabs and downed timber. A waterway, known as Big Creek, ran through most of the Section and Mr. Nicolet named his company for that stream. Using a cleetrack, a type of tractor, the useable timber was first harvested, trimmed and cut into lengths of 50 inches. These were known as “bolts,” which were floated down Big Creek to a holding pond. From that pool they were loaded onto a truck (a Studebaker vehicle, his son and daughter remember) and moved to South Hill, the route being through Elbe and Eatonville.
When the bolts arrived at the factory they were sawed into 16-inch lengths, known as “blocks,” making them ready for a shingle-producing machine. The blocks were then pushed through a rotating saw, on a carriage; thereby producing a thin tapered slice of wood called a “shingle.” When the carriage was retracted it would tilt and send the block into the saw again, always producing a tapered shingle. Finally, the product went to a clipper-saw, where its edges were trimmed. Shingles were then graded, packed into “bundles,” and stacked. At this point they were ready to sell. One “square” was four bundles, which when used on a roof covered approximately 10 square feet of area.
A gasoline engine, with a leather belt system, was used to power these mechanical operations. A ledger kept by Mr. Nicolet shows that he paid about 20-cents a gallon for gas in the mid-1940s.
Mr. Nicolet operated this business through the 1940s. It provided employment for his family and others. So some 70 years ago South Hill was the home to at least one manufacturing business.
Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.