Lino and Santina Punis, owners of Lino’s Sales Ltd. in Burns Lake, will celebrate 50 years of marriage soon, and recently celebrated 41 years in business in Burns Lake.
Although the beginning often carries the future within itself, settling down in Burns Lake wouldn’t have been a concept to the 20-year old Lino Punis as he and two close friends rowed a tiny boat barely big enough for the three of them across a harsh Adriatic Sea under a hot July sun.
From his hometown of Pulo, then part of Italy (now Pula, Croatia), an ancient Roman city on a northeast peninsula in the Adriatic Sea, Lino and his friends rowed for 24 hours straight across the 150 kilometres that separated Pulo from Italy. They were escaping a futureless life under the Communist rule of General Tito’s Yugoslavia which gained control of Lino’s homeland after World War II.
“We had four oars in the water all the time,” Lino said. “One of us stood to row in the middle, and two others were at the front and back with one oar each.”
“The sea was so rough you didn’t have a second to spare. If you didn’t pay attention for three seconds and let the boat turn sideways it would have been turned over.”
The boat was narrower than a modern aluminum fishing boat, with a flat bottom and sides barely a foot and a half high. If the danger from being capsized wasn’t serious enough, the threat of patrolling Communist torpedo boats added urgency to the situation.
“They were patrolling all the time, shining their floodlight across the sea. If they saw you, they would ram your boat.”
“We had a fluorescent compass from an World War II airplane,” Lino said. “We stayed Northwest to a certain degree and we landed exactly where we wanted.”
In Italy, free of a fruitless life under Communist rule, Lino looked for opportunity and found CN Rail was hiring for railroad work in Canada.
A fully qualified marine mechanic by training, Lino still had to bend the truth to get hired by CN. They were looking for labourers, so he told them he had no qualifications other than a willingness to work.
That’s what CN wanted to hear, and before long he began his Canadian journey in Halifax in 1957 after a 15-day steamship trip across the ocean.
“CN paid for the ticket, but we had to work it off.”
He worked his way across Canada for CN, starting at the labourer’s wage of 95 cents an hour.
It wasn’t long before his skills with machinery came out and his was promoted to machine operator, which meant $1.25 an hour.
By 1961 he was working in the Burns Lake area when he met his future wife Santina Rossi, born in Celano, Italy, near Rome. Like Lino, she travelled by steamship with her family. Her father worked for CN and brought the family to Burns Lake in 1954.
Lino and Santina courted for two years and married in 1963.
By 1962 Lino was tiring of swapping out rails for CN and had paid off his travel debt.
“I quit with CN in Rose Lake,” Lino recalled. “We were changing rails all the way to Smithers, but I was tired of it… there were a few times when I had to remind my foreman to pay me as a machine operator and not a labourer.”
A short while before Lino left CN, he was playing soccer against locals, including players from the Omineca sawmill. He made a tackle during the match that left his opponent with a broken wrist.
The broken wrist meant a job opening at the Omineca sawmill, and Lino took up the offer to work for the mill loading lumber into boxcars. It was hard work but it lead to conversations with the owner of the mill, Norm Peterson, who like Lino, had shipyard work experience.
The shared experience and Peterson’s recognition of Lino’s mechanical background quickly led to a millwrighting position in the mill, and to Lino settling down in Burns Lake
“I bought my first property in Burns Lake on Pioneer Way. The lot was $900.”
Married to Santina, he spent the next 10 years working in Burns Lake and Houston mills as a mechanical foreman.
In 1972 an opportunity arose in Burns Lake. Bill Glanville’s business and shop in a small timber-framed building, where Lino’s Sales is now, became available. Glanville had taken a bad financial turn on a venture to underwater-log Ootsa Lake, and wanted to sell the business.
“Bonnie Lambert told us about the business for sale,” Santina said. “We thought it was a good idea at the time.”
The first six months were hard. They were unknown in Burns Lake and had to operate on a cash basis with no one willing to give them credit.
“It was all cash on delivery,” Lino said, “And there wasn’t a lot of business at the start. I wore out a lot of brooms with nothing to do but sweep the shop.”
“We wondered if it was crazy for Lino to quit a good job at the mill to go into business for ourselves,” Santina recalled.
Specializing in heavy duty repairs Lino quickly built up a good customer base, starting with the fuel delivery trucks necessary to keep the more than 30 small sawmills in the area running.
Santina has always been a part of Lino’s Sales. To this day she keeps a paper ledger with no interest in switching to a computer.
“I like it that way, but it makes it difficult to balance the books when you’re trying to find a few missing pennies,” she said.
Today Lino’s is a family business, with their son Marco, daughter Gina, and grandchildren Katherine, Kian and Daria.
Lino and Santina are still in the shop everyday.
“Take the ‘re’ out of retired – that’s me,” Lino said.
In 1988 Lino switched from heavy duty mechanics to working on recreational machines, which led to the modern Lino’s Sales well known in Burns Lake and throughout the region.
Lino and Santina have been back to the old country to visit family often, but Burns Lake has been home for a long time.
“The Adriatic Sea is a deep green and blue. You could see 100 feet down. We would pick grapes, walnuts and figs right off the trees, whatever you wanted,” Lino recalled.
“When I started working for CN in Mannville, Saskatchewan, it was the end of March. I wrote to my mom and dad – it looks like I’m in Siberia.”
With the cold winters and hot summers around Burns Lake, Lino and Santina have built a business that caters to both perfectly.