Canada's 1st North American Lumber started in Rivers


By Sheila Runions

Banner Staff

North American Lumber was founded in Rivers in 1906 and today, has yards in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. To coincide with Canada 150 celebrations and more specifically the lieutentant-governor visit to Rivers on Friday, June 9, Rivers and District Chamber of Commerce decided to honour this longevity with a bronze plaque.

Chamber president Dave Falkevitch made the presentation at a luncheon that day and all were surprised when MP Robert Sopuck presented the company a certificate of congratulations. Sopuck told the 65 guests at the invitation-only lunch it was, “an honour to be here; Rivers is such a beautiful community. North American Lumber has been so dedicated to your community; how many companies have been around for 111 years?” The certificate said, “Congratulations! North American Lumber on the celebration of 110 years of business in the community that started it all. Thank you for your ongoing commitment to serving Rivers and area.” Falkevitch said, “It is a great pleasure and honour to present North America Lumber, a made-in-Manitoba success story, this plaque. I really want to acknowledge your part in our history and our community.”

Local manager Ken Tait had hoped the company president would be able to attend to accept the award; instead Manitoba/Northwest Ontario operations manager Gary Barrault was the official representative. Upon acceptance from the chamber he read some history of the company, as requested in advance by Falkevitch.

North American Lumber was founded in 1906 by Edward A. Konantz, then owner of Citizen’s Lumber Company of North Dakota.  To put this in perspective, this was the same year the Wright brothers received a patent for their famous “Flying Machine.” Mr. Konantz and his partner, Charles Lee, saw an excellent opportunity for the establishment of a lumber company in Canada. There was a strong economic climate and the building of Grand Trunk Railway across the Prairies offered the means by which stores could receive supplies. The very first lumberyard was founded here in Rivers in 1907. The present location on Second Avenue opened in 1960, and was previously occupied by Head and Shannon Lumber Company. The business continues to this day, with the experienced leadership of manager Ken Tait. I would also be remiss if I didn’t thank Glenn and Marion Maguire, of Rivers.  Marion worked at the store for 20 years and Glenn managed the store and was with North American for 40 years.  

The company’s first head office was located in Saskatoon; however, in 1908 an application was made to move the  headquarters to Winnipeg. The request was granted and NAL’s head office remains in Winnipeg to this day.

During the First World War, North American Lumber began publishing a monthly magazine for its customers, Chieftain – A magazine of inspiration for the Homebuilder, which contained information about the building industry as well as the company’s many products. The pages were later filled with articles that ranged from tips on home building and renovation to barn raising, including floor plans, recipes and even writing contests. Communication and travel systems were not what they are today, making the publication a valued link between head office, managers and customers.  

The effect of the Depression was felt across Canada, and NAL was no exception. The company’s rural yards were hit hardest, but by 1936, 56 stores survived the worst of the Depression.  

During the Second World War, the Department of National War Services placed many restrictions on what North American Lumber could sell or use, but the company prospered as many farmers were able to invest in new barns, storage sheds and houses. Gordon Konantz, the founder’s son, took over as company president from 1944 until his death in 1954. During the ’40s and ’50s, NAL continued to grow and diversify, meeting the ever-changing needs of post-war society, purchasing several yards in Saskatchewan and rural Manitoba. North American Lumber made an important contribution through the development of the Ezy-Built business – including garages, cottages, homes and farm buildings. These were building packages that contained all the necessary framing components, all pre-cut, with each piece numbered. Once delivered, the pieces were easily assembled. The pre-fab business that followed was a natural progression. This part of the business flourished over the next two decades, thanks to the increasing demand for housing in Western Canada.  

With the do-it-yourself trend that emerged in the early ’50s, NAL began to focus on a wide range of new products, catering more to the retail customer. In 1951 Bill Konantz, the founder’s grandson, joined the company; he took over the role of president in 1962 and remained so until 2005.  

The company continued to diversify into the construction industry, with the inception of a ready-mix concrete business. The construction industry was booming with schools and industrial buildings in great demand. North American Buildings division built many churches and schools in rural areas. In 1967, at the height of NAL’s expansion, the company boasted 80 locations. During the ’70s and ’80s however, as people and business gravitated to larger centres, many of the rail lines disappeared, along with the communities surrounding them. By the time NAL celebrated its 80th anniversary in 1986, the company consisted of 30 branches throughout northwestern Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. There were also three prefab truss factories, three concrete plants and a distribution centre, with trucks replacing the railway as the mode of transportation for supplies.

In 2001, Bill Konantz’s daughter Martha Konantz joined the company as the fourth-generation family member to carry on the North American Lumber tradition. Since then, the company has updated its accounting and point of sale systems, acquired or renovated several stores, and restructured and streamlined the company’s operations to focus on its retail and contractor sales business. We currently have 11 locations in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Our goal is to do everything we can to fulfill all our customers’ building and home improvement needs, and to deliver a positive customer experience every time. Our business was built on serving the local community and I would like to end by thanking the town of Rivers for your support for the past 111 years.

Rivers Banner has in its possession an NAL history written on June 23, 1960 for the grand opening of the new yard. At that time, then president H. Steinthorson said, “Our first yard at Rivers was constructed in the year 1907, before Grand Trunk Railroad accepted shipments into Rivers. Materials both for construction of buildings and for stock were hauled from Wheatland; we started making sales at Rivers after mid-summer of that year. It was in the late summer of 1906 that Edward A. Konantz, created this organization which was destined to become one of the larger distributors of building materials to the people of Western Canada. In January 1907 Charles Lee became general manager of the operation and remained so for many years; he opened the yard at Rivers in the late summer of 1907. The location of this present yard is now on the site then occupied by Head and Shannon Lumber Company; the first site we occupied was abandoned.”

According to the Remembering Rivers and Area history book of 2013, W. R. Head & Co. (or Head and Shannon Lumber Company) sold to its opposition — NAL — and NAL had its first yard on First Avenue. In 1973 North American demolished the office built in 1960 so they could enlarge the yard and its storage. The 1960 building was a two-storey structure which had a home upstairs for the manager and Les Kenyon rented space on the bottom floor for his barbershop (1962-73). NAL is Rivers’ oldest operating business; coming second is this newspaper, which was started in July 1908. The lumber yard has been managed by 17 men in those 111 years with Maguire as the longest-serving manager; the second longest-serving manager was Darrel Harris, who put in 12 years with the company from 1950-62. 

Barrault took the plaque, certificate and flag back to headquarters so he could show president Martha Konantz and other employees. When the bronzed hardware is returned from the head office in Winnipeg, Tait and staff will determine the best front-facing outdoor location for it.