In order to get a satisfactory look at the foundation upon which the PLIB is built, it is necessary to go back to the days before the turn of the century. When a lumber buyer at that time ordered a cargo of lumber, he did not know exactly what he was going to get, nor did the manufacturer himself, until the stock was piled on the dock. The parcel might contain boards that were one inch thick at one end and close to two inches thick on the other. Of this he could be sure - there wouldn’t be many knots because the loggers of that era didn’t bother with logs above the first limb. Beyond this, the buyer could only hope and pray for the best. Someone has aptly said selling lumber in the early days was more of an adventure than a business.
The chaotic condition that existed in the lumber trade eventually brought manufacturers to realize the need for a means of certifying the quality of their products in the marketplaces. It was these conditions that led to the formation of the PLIB when, in 1903, a group of Oregon, Washington and BC lumbermen and then members of the Pacific Coast Lumber Manufacturers Association met and formed the Pacific Coast Lumber Inspection Bureau with the goal of bringing some standardization to the process of lumber trade. The pioneer organization exceeded the hopes of its founders and in 1906 it was agreed that a more formal organization was needed to lend greater prestige to the certification process and to meet the demand for increased services. The original Articles of Incorporation, which remain in PLIB’s archives, were signed on October 27th, 1906 by E.G. Griggs of St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Co., E.G. Ames of Puget Mill Co, and Richard H. Alexander of BC Mills, Timber & Trading Co., Vancouver. The first article amended the name to Pacific Lumber Inspection Bureau.
Much of the credit for the formation of the bureau belongs to Richard H. Alexander, recognized for years as one of the foremost figures in BC lumber circles. R.H. Alexander was an ardent believer in associations and lent untiring effort toward their affairs. His greatest work in that direction was the formation of the PLIB and he is largely responsible for its international character. The Alexander family interest went beyond Richard. His son, Fred Alexander, served the Bureau faithfully from its inception to his death in 1941 as the first Secretary-Manager. Another son, R.H.H. Alexander was Secretary of the BC Lumber & Shingle Manufacturer’s Association.
From its inception, the primary objectives of the Bureau were straightforward - to provide an agency to certify that lumber grades, tally and order requirements had been complied with by the shipping mill, and to correct abuses that had crept into the lumber trade from both the manufacturing and receiving ends. The fundamental principle of the organization over the years has always been to conduct fair and impartial inspections at points of manufacture and loading.
PLIB was organized and continues to operate as a non-profit organization. Originally, the members purchased a single share of stock for the sum of $1,000, and the Articles of Incorporation stated that no person, firm or corporation could hold or own more than one share of capital stock. Although PLIB was set up as a non-profit organization, it was not until July of 1977 when, under the direction of Secretary-Manager George Thompson, the Bureau was restructured and gained recognition by the U.S. IRS as a tax-exempt organization. This restructuring from a stockholder organization to a membership based organization had long range implications.
From its modest beginnings with nine original stockholder members in 1906, the Bureau grew rapidly every year as new mills joined. By the first Annual Meeting in January 1907, just a few months after the Articles of Incorporation had been signed, PLIB had 23 stockholders, and the growth continued. PLIB membership reached a peak in terms of number of mills in 1924 when 311 manufacturers used the services of the Bureau. Another boom in the 1950's brought the number just shy of 300.
A look at the current PLIB membership roster reveals a mix of new members along with many who have been with the Bureau since they began operations. This is mirrored in the current Board of Directors’ membership, many of whom have been associated with this organization for decades and for multiple generations. Despite being competitors who may have opposing interests, PLIB’s Board of Directors have successfully guided the Bureau through 100 years of change keeping the common good of all members foremost in its actions - a true testament to their integrity.
Of course, central to the day to day operation of the Bureau throughout its history has been the lumber inspector. Early on and for most of its history, PLIB, rather than the individual mills, employed the lumber inspectors and these men were responsible for grading the lumber at the mill. There were two types of inspectors, resident and transient. The former, though not a member of the mill staff, reported to work with the other mill employees on a day to day basis. The transient inspector had similar duties except that they were required to travel from mill to mill, usually providing service to mills that were too small to require a full time inspector. During the 1920's and 1950's, PLIB employed over 700 inspectors at a time plus numerous supervisors who traveled to the mills overseeing the inspectors. By the early 1980's, the system of using inspectors employed by the Bureau had changed, and most inspectors that were once on the PLIB payroll were employed directly by the mills.
One of the finest written tributes to the PLIB lumber inspector appeared in the 1956 British Columbia publication Seaboard. The description is reproduced below and is a testament to the respect and authority that these men and the PLIB had developed in its first 50 years.
Bill Nicholson, grading pencil tucked in hat band, steel measure in one hand, runs an expert eye along the face of the timber destined for a mine in South Africa. It is on grade, he notes; dimensions well within the specifications. He nods briefly and the heavy timber rumbles along the steel rolls to join others waiting for export.
Bill Nicholson adds the piece to his tally sheet and turns critically to the next. He is the “man between”, the protector of the buyer on one hand and the mill owner on the other.
In the same mill there are others like him, men selected for their lumber know-how, top marks in grading schools, and practical experience. They are responsible neither to the mill nor the buyer - but to their own independent organization, the Pacific Lumber Inspection Bureau.
These men can recite ‘R’ List and 15 List, or any other export grading code by paragraph or page. They read boards and timbers flowing toward them endlessly down greenchains, and drychains, and timber conveyors all over the Canadian and American Northwest. Because of the constant watch of these intent, denim-clad men, manufacturing standards remain high and constant. The buyer can rest confident that he will receive the quantity and quality he contracted for.
Bill Nicholson and his fellows are the guardians of grade. Their role as watchdogs of lumber quality is indispensable and one that has increased in importance since the creation of the PLIB fifty years ago.
Bill Nicholson in mackinaw and denim pants, marking pencil in hand, does an important job for manufacturer and buyer alike. He is the watchdog of quality... the guardian of lumber grade in the Pacific Northwest.
It has, in fact, been contended at times that the Bureau, being a co-operative body supported by the lumber manufacturers, must favor the supporting mills. Contrary to that contention, the Bureau maintains that any inspection organization, be it a co-operative, private or governmental agency, will fall of its own weight unless it is absolutely fair in all its dealings. Fairness has been the aim of the Bureau during its 100 years of existence, together with the endeavor to live up to the motto of F. W. Alexander, PLIB’s first Secretary-Manager:
When there are two parties to a bargain, it is only reasonable that the interests of both should be protected.