The European settlement at Te Waimate developed as a timbertown, home to a small but thriving sawmilling industry from the early 1860's. Over 9000 hectares of black and white pines, totara, ngaio, broadleaf and other native forest covered the slopes of the hills providing building materials for the rush of runholders who were quick to take up freehold sections, and saw-milling became a major industry.
The  demand for timber from the fast growing seaports of Timaru and Oamaru gathered pace. Shortly after he arrived, James Bruce worked as a bushman at Waimate and the bush suffered its first major fire on 18th Nov 1865 when sparks from a billy ignited a patch of dry fern. The sawmillers escaped with their lives, but  little else - a grim warning that fires were the result of pure carelessness - travellers failing to extinguish cooking fires, shepherds burning grass land too near the bush, or foresters billies setting scrub alight.
By 1867 James had the first steam saw-mill in Waimate  near Garlands Bridge, in the very heart of the bush.

Wise's New Zealand Directory in 1872-3 Waimate: James Bruce, timber merchant
In 1872  James Bruce successfully tendered for 20,000 totara and black pine sleepers for the railways - the price was 3s 6d a sleeper  
Alpheus Hayes a Canadian came to New Zealand in 1871 and he found employment on building the Rangitata bridge. He made several journeys to Waimate Bush to select material for the bridge, and seeing the possibilities of the timber trade, settled in Waimate at the end of that year opening a mill just above Bruce's and was very successful until the bush fire of 1878. He extended his tramway after the fire further into the bush to open up 400 acres of good timber, principally totara and black and white pine and kept the saw-milling business going till the early nineties, when he sold out and took up farming.
James Bruce was first chairman of the Waimate County Council. 4/1/1877
1877 Evening Post, 22 September 1877:
Last night a crowded indignation meeting was held at Waimate to give expression to public opinion in regard to certain remarks of Mr. Wakefield in the Assembly in reference to the people of Waimate. Mr. James Bruce, the Chairman of the Waimate County Council, was in the chair. A series of very strong resolutions were adopted, condemnatory, of Mr. Wakefield's action and affirming the absolute necessity of getting a new Resident Magistrate's Court erected. Mr. Wakefield was afterwards burned in effigy.
The railway arrived in 1877 and by year's end, but despite five saw-mills cutting furiously they were unable to meet demand - Bruce's and Hayes' were the most important. Just when prosperity seemed assured, the growing community was overwhelmed in the exceptionally dry spring of 1878. 
On November 12th a strong nor'wester fanned a grass fire to frightening proportions and flames from the great sawdust heaps that were always quietly smoldering spread over the surrounding bush, and soon fires were burning in several places. By 4 o'clock in the afternoon, the five saw-mills and about 70 cottages had been destroyed. By night the bush was burning over several miles and when the fire was eventually put out eight days later, 70 families were left homeless after the destruction of their cottages, many lost their possessions, and one of the country's finest totara forests had been destroyed, the bush had disappeared except for two areas known as Bush Point and Kelceys Bush.
Fortunately no lives were lost but the timber industry was finished. There was hardship and it was twenty-five years before Waimate regained thet 1,400 of population it possessed at the outbreak of the great bush fire.  Read here
James Bruce left Waimate and at Timaru he started to build his flour, oats (Royal Flouring Mill) and saw mills in late 1878. He bought the sailing ship "Nightingale" and shipped kauri logs for his mill  building, floated them ashore, hauled them up the beach with an engine and over a bridge above the railway to the site of the works. These fine mill buildings were destroyed by fire in '81 The fire damage was estimated at 17000 as the mill had a capacity of 100 tons of flour a week - very big for those times.
Timaru Herald, 15 Feb 1881: The brigantine Sarah and Mary is daily expected from Kaipara, with a cargo of timber for Mr James Bruce.
James Bruce started rebuilding immediately. He went to America to study the latest methods of milling - he charted the "Campsie Glenn" and brought back in her the first complete roller mill plant to be installed in NZ. and superintended the installation of the new machinery himself. His enterprise had been backed by Julious Mendelson and when Mendelson died in 1882 the mills closed down for a time. A company was then formed to take over the mill. The Royal Flouring and Oatmeal Mills (Bruce & Company Ltd) bought the mill in October 1883 and work resumed. James Bruce was manager of the mill, but in 1885 there was a dispute with the managing director. Bruce was dismissed and the company liquidised. The Timaru Milling Company was formed in 1886 and took over the running of the mill.  (Src Anderson "Sth Canterbury"; Src. Photo: Sth Canterbury Museum) Read more
Death: Bruce - At Latter street, Timaru, on Oct 24th, James Bruce, in his 73rd year
OBITUARY: Timaru Herald; Oct 24 1903
Obituary: James Bruce. The late Mr Bruce was a man of mark in the early days of South Canterbury, first as a saw miller at Waimate. He then established a sawmill at Timaru and erected the first flour mill, which was burned down. He re-erected it on a larger scale as the first Roller mill in the colony. Later he lived for some years in Wellington but returned to Timaru two years ago an invalid.