It is safe to say that Thomas Leask was a man of vision. Vision was what was required when viewing Joseph’s Prairie in May, 1898.
For Thomas, it was the fact that a town was to be built. A town requiring lumber — lots of lumber. That required a lumber mill and that, in turn, fell handily under the domain of Thomas Leask.
He wasn’t the only Leask to grab the future of Cranbrook by the lapels and give it a shake. His brothers George, John, James and Andrew all made their way to Cranbrook in the early days.
They were hard-working, second-generation Scottish craftsmen and all were involved in the construction business: Thomas cut the lumber, George constructed the buildings, John, the tailor, constructed the clothes and both Andrew and James joined in where needed, including forays into the sale of general merchandise.
Thomas’ main thought upon viewing the lonely prairie was to send for the sash and door machinery from his family mill in Ontario and get to work. He secured a plot of land on the west side of the railway tracks and by late October he had the necessary equipment on the site. Manufacture of sashes (windows) and doors began soon thereafter with construction to enclose the Leask Brothers buildings to follow.
It was not the only lumber company in town, of course, but its selling point was the manufacture of precisely-milled wood finishing products at a lower cost than imported items. By early 1899, the factory was running at full capacity and, being the only company of its kind in the southeast Kootenay, filling orders throughout the district.
The following spring, J.C. Slater of Waterdown, Ontario, arrived to take charge of the inside millwork, leaving Thomas free to attend to outside business. The first of a number of brothers to move to the city, Mr. Slater soon formed a partnership with Mr. Leask. With additional Slater brothers Ferdinand, Ed, and William settling near the mill, the area gradually became known as Slaterville.
In April, 1900, more land (five acres all told) and equipment was purchased in order to build a sawmill adjoining the sash and door factory. One week after construction began the Leask & Slater Lumber Co. was employing 30 men and turning out up to 20,000 feet of lumber per day. The enterprise received a commercial stamp of approval in September, 1900, when the CPR put in a railway siding at the mill, saving the half-mile wagon trip to load the railcars.
The Sash and Door Factory name, as such, came into existence in November, 1902, when Leask & Slater, at the top of their game, sold their interests to a co-operative association formed by their employees H. A. McKowan, C. Gaskill, E. Slater and M. Johnson. The original owners continued to run the sawmill until a buyer could be found. August, 1903, saw the sawmill and accompanying timer limits — approximately 9,000 acres — sold to John Hanbury’s manufacturing company of Brandon, Manitoba, although the sawmill continued under the management of J. C. Slater. The day of the small, independent lumber yard was slowly and inexorably drawing to a close.
The Sash & Door Factory continued to grow and prosper, purchasing 8,000 acres of timber rights near Elko in the spring of 1904 and erecting a sawmill there. Later in the year a new ownership comprised of H.A. McKowan, Albert and William Slater, Allan Nicholson and John Spence re-formed as the Cranbrook Sash & Door Co., a name that would hold a place of prominence in the local lumber industry for decades to come.
The entire factory was powered by a 50-horsepower engine which also ran the fire pump connected to hoses throughout the complex. The machinery included molders, planers, scroll saws, band saws, fret saws, lathes, sanders, mortise and tenon machines and trimmers and a drying kiln with a capacity of 50,000 feet of lumber. The complex formed a visible skyline to the immediate northwest of the city which would remain for many years.
By 1905, the Sash and Door Factory, employing about 25 men, was booming right along with the city of Cranbrook. Many of the older homes around town still feature products of the mill: windows and doors, fancy turnings, stairways, balusters, newel posts, grille work, church pews and windows, school and office desks, fancy brackets, porch work of all kinds, office and bar fittings, mantle pieces, gable ornaments, screen doors, lath, shingles, flooring, siding, ceilings, store fronts, carved wood work of all kinds and stained, coloured, leaded, plate, frosted and art glass.
As the community grew in both size and wealth so, too, did the larger homes and businesses require appropriate adornment and the Sash & Door Co. was on the job.
In the ensuing years Thomas Leask continued to work in the lumber and construction business throughout the district. It may be said that he died with his boots on, suffering a heart attack in February, 1930, while constructing a house opposite the old St. Eugene Hospital. Survived by his wife Ann (née Boyter), daughters Mary, Margaret and Dorothy and his son William, Thomas Leask along with his brothers and the Slaters, left an architectural legacy that may be viewed to this day throughout the city.