Jesse Tinsley, Associated Press
A worker sorts lumber recently in the DeArmond Mill in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The soon-to-close mill, owned by Stimson Lumber, is the last one operating along the Spokane River.

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) — Sawmills create their own industrial symphony, and Joe Hoesche has a keen ear for it.

From his office, the maintenance supervisor listens to the rumble and shriek of machinery and knows whether the DeArmond mill's equipment is working in harmony.

The rhythmic slap of boards comes from the stacker, piling two-by-fours into neat rectangles.

The pebbles-in-a-can sound comes from the blower, whisking chips and sawdust into bins.

But when the hog starts to vibrate like a bell, well, that's a problem. It means the bark-chewing machine is choking on rocks.

The sounds are part of a soon-to-be-extinct way of life on Coeur d'Alene's waterfront. Sometime this week, the mill will saw its last log. A few days later, the final piece of lumber will finish curing in the kiln. The DeArmond will close.

"It's the last sawmill on the Spokane River. It's a piece of history that's going away," said Hoesche, who has spent two years photographing and filming the DeArmond's operations.

Record-low lumber prices, the result of a shaky national housing market, sped up the inevitable. Squeezed between an expanding North Idaho College to the east and offices and waterfront condos to the west, the DeArmond occupies 17 coveted acres.

Stimson Lumber Co. planned to operate the mill into 2009 and then sell the land to Black Rock Development's Marshall Chesrown. But lumber prices tumbled. "The decision to close it at this time is market driven," said Mike Telford, the mill's manager.

The closure provides an opportunity for North Idaho College, which is working on a $10 million financing package in hopes of purchasing the property from Chesrown.

"We see this as a logical and cost-effective solution to the higher education needs of the region," said Kent Propst, spokesman for the college, which has a 4,500-student enrollment.

But Propst said he'll miss the smell of fresh-cut fir. The scent of sawdust was the first thing he noticed five years ago when he arrived on campus for a job interview. It fit the native Nebraskan's image of north Idaho.

New sawmills are sleek and automated. The DeArmond, built in the late 1940s, still relies on manual labor for many tasks.

"There's not a whole lot of technology in this mill," Telford said.

Still, the DeArmond has enjoyed a reputation for high output and low operating costs. The Douglas fir two-by-fours and two-by-sixes rolling off the line this week were marked "Stimson Premium." The lumber will be sold at Home Depot.

About 70 workers will lose their jobs when the mill closes. Sawyer Ken O'Riley is 62, old enough to retire, though he isn't sure it will suit him. He's worked at the DeArmond for 38 years. The mill's hustle is second nature to him.

"I'll miss the doing," O'Riley said. "Slowing the pace is going to be hard for me."

In the early 1990s, Crisy Carlson took a night shift job at the DeArmond to pay for her NIC tuition. The job turned into a 17-year detour.

"I like physical work, and I like working outdoors," said Carlson, 43, who wears a blond ponytail under her hard hat. "I'm a certified grader, and I can operate a lot of the saws."

Wages about $16 to $18 an hour, plus health insurance and regular bonuses, kept Carlson, a single mother, at the mill.

"It's a man's world," Carlson said, but one that accepted her. After the DeArmond closes, she may pursue long-stalled plans of becoming a teacher.

The mill workers will gather on Friday for a barbecue. They're calling it "The Last Supper."

In June, the mill's equipment will be sold at an auction. By year end, all traces of the DeArmond will be gone.

That's why Hoesche, the maintenance supervisor, has worked to capture the DeArmond on film. He's assembled a small picture book, and he plans to create a larger, yearbook-style publication.

Hoesche, 41, credits the forestry products industry for giving him career-path opportunities. The former line cook started as a temporary worker at another sawmill. He worked his way into a supervisory position.

And he isn't done with sawmills yet. Stimson has offered him a job at its mill in Plummer, Idaho.