Modern Blaikie Mill

The history of the Blaikie sawmill
Upper Stewiacke, Nova Scotia

By Victor Cox

Blaikie Bros. Partnership (BB&C)

When D. Morrison and J. Harris Blaikie relocated their sawmill from Burnside to Upper Stewiacke Village in the spring of 1907, the mill site chosen was on the edge of a wide intervale. The equipment moved to the site included a rotary saw and a planer. Shingle and lath machines were later added, and for a time a grain smasher was operated to supplement revenues from the production of lumber.

Although the site’s southern boundary is the Stewiacke River, the flatness of the land precluded constructing a dam to harness its power. Instead, the mill was driven by a steam boiler fired by lumber byproducts.

Initially this fuel was chiefly slab wood and shavings, as the set-up could not handle sawdust in quantity. For almost twenty years sawdust accumulated at the site, and traces of the pile can still be seen.

Extensive renovations to the boiler room in 1925 added a Dutch oven which could burn sawdust in bulk.

Not all the slab wood was needed to heat the boiler; some was sold to local residents for firewood. The excess was carried to a slab pile via a conveyor chain, to be burnt off as wind conditions permitted. Shavings and sawdust were also sold to farmers from time to time for use as livestock bedding.

Mill Photos [1] [2] • Modern Mill [1]
David M. Blaikie, Sr.. J. Harris Blaikie
Glenn Blaikie Roy Blaikie
Edwin Blaikie Morris Blaikie
Modern Mill Keith Blaikie

From its early days in Burnside, Blaikie’s mill was operated as a partnership. When Morrison, Sr. died suddenly in early 1909, his sons Roy (age 20) and Glenn (age 15) joined their Uncle Harris as partners. In the mid-1920’s Harris retired from the business, at which time Roy and Glenn acquired his ownership interest.

For many years the sawmill crew was few in number, all or most of whom were family members. Most of the logs were harvested from
the partnership’s own woodlots at that time, supplemented by small quantities bought from local farmers. Sawing was somewhat of a seasonal operation; the sawmill often shut down during the winter months while the crew logged on one of the BB&C-owned woodlots.

In later years independent contractors were engaged to log on company lots, and more logs were bought from contractors who cut on others’ woodlots. This allowed BB&C to concentrate on producing and marketing rough and dressed lumber on a year-round basis. The company’s manpower grew accordingly; at its peak it employed about two dozen men directly.

BlaikieMill, Burnside, circa 1900

Blaikie Mill 1960s

Morris Blaikie, sawing, 1960s

Blaikie Mill 2004

Due to the initial capital outlay and later improvements, the operation was usually in debt to some degree. Nevertheless, it did produce a steady if not spectacular source of income for its owners and other family members. By the late 1920’s this debt had nearly been eliminated, but the effects of the Great Depression caused the lumber market to stagnate until just before World War II.

By the set-up’s very nature, boiler explosion and fire were constant dangers. Through constant vigilance the boilers remained intact throughout the mill’s life, but despite precautions the mill operation was struck by fire a number of times. Most of the blazes were contained with minimal damage; however, three caused extensive damage, and two of these threatened the operation’s viability.

A fire of the minor variety occurred on September 21, 1934, a Friday. The mill’s whistle attracted men from nearby farms and businesses; the mill’s own water hoses, assisted by Frank B. Cox’s fire extinguisher, and a bucket brigade quickly quelled the flames. It took only one carpenter a day or so to repair the damages while regular operations continued.

The fire of ’42

The first major fire took place in the late afternoon of July 15, 1942. It broke out under the mill, perhaps from an overheated line-shaft bearing. The mill whistle alerted the community, but the fire was already too far advanced. The building, which housed both the sawmill and the planer, was a total loss, and virtually all of the equipment was reduced to scrap.

After several days’ reflection partners Roy and Glenn decided to rebuild, this time with the planer operations housed separately. Rebuilding of the saw-mill was to take place immediately, while the construction of the planer mill would be put off for some months.

Work on the mill site began early the following week; while most of the mill crew cleared the debris, Roy Blaikie and brother Morrison went to Oxford, NS to order a new rotary saw. The boiler was tested and found to be salvageable, although all its fittings (gauges, valves, and so on) had to be replaced. During this same time a few outstanding orders for lumber were also filled.

Reconstruction following the fire of 1942
7 September 1942 9 September 1942
12 September 1942 18 September 1942

A series of photographs taken by Sidney Cox between July 16 and September 22, 1942 show that cement footings had been poured and erection of many of the stanchions and stringers to support the mill floor had taken place by the 1st of August. Most of the mill
equipment appears to be in place by the 20th, and the smokestack was raised on the 21st. The refitted boiler was fired up on the 26th of August and a small amount of lumber sawn, but full-scale sawing operations did not resume until September 30th.

Construction of the planer building began on August 9, 1943, with a bulldozer levelling off the site and digging trenches for the footings. Work continued whenever crew could spared from the saw-mill operations; by September 6th the cement floor was poured, and normal planing operations had resumed by mid-autumn.

The robust war-time and post-war market for lumber allowed the business to grow and prosper, and to pay down the debt incurred in the wake of the 1942 fire.

Fire Brigade

In the wake of the 1942 fire the mill’s principals continued their efforts, together with others in the community, to establish a better fire-fighting capacity. Ironically, a committee composed of Roy Blaikie, Will Cox and Bev Graham had visited authorities in Halifax in late July of 1941 to seek approval for the acquisition of a fire engine, but their efforts came to nothing.

According to Michael Redden’s 1996 commemorative booklet, it was not until 1946 that the Upper Stewiacke Volunteer Fire Brigade was formally organized to provide an alternative to ad-hoc bucket brigades. Munroe Johnson of Newton Mills had been a fireman in the RCAF during World War II, and the expertise he acquired then was put to good use when he returned home after the war.

Blaikie Brothers & Company participated in the establishment and ongoing support of the Brigade. Edwin Blaikie was one of those who helped acquire and assemble the materials for the first fire fighting equipment. Over the years the roster of the Brigade has included several members of the Blaikie family or their spouses, including Edwin Blaikie, Keith Blaikie, Robert Densmore, and Leon Miller, as well as numerous others from the mill crew.

Blaikie Bros. and Co. Ltd. (BB&CL)

By now BB&C partners Roy and Glenn were over fifty years old. Both were in declining health and more frequently unable to devote a full-time effort to the mill operation. The addressing of the issue of a timely succession of ownership was becoming more and more important with each passing year.

In 1952 the partnership was incorporated as a limited company, Blaikie Bros. & Co. Ltd., with Roy and Glenn as equal shareholders. As with the predecessor partnership, the shareholders would change with the passage of time. Glenn underwent several operations for cancer shortly thereafter and was never able to go back to work on a full-time basis. Roy had a severe heart attack about 1953 and was unable to return to work for several months.

During Roy and Glenn’s frequent absences, it was necessary for their youngest brother Morrison, Jr. (Morris) and Roy’s elder son Edwin to make more and more of the day-to-day management decisions. As events unfolded, this would stand them in good stead.

When Glenn retired in January 1956, Morrison and nephew Edwin each bought half of Glenn’s shares and became a 25% shareholder in the company. Over the next months the two purchased some of Roy’s shares, giving each a one-third interest in the company.

When Roy died suddenly in February of 1957, Morrison and Edwin each acquired half of Roy’s shares. This arrangement had been agreed upon at the time that they bought Glenn’s shares, although it took place many years earlier than anyone had anticipated.

The company was still reeling from the loss of Roy when it was hit by its second major fire; on March 1st, 1957 the ‘lumber house’ burned down. Mouldings, finish, gutters, and so on were stored on the ground floor of the building, while the second floor was used as a glazing room. The sawmill and planing mill buildings were far enough away to go undamaged, so their operation continued without interruption. The building was not replaced, effectively ending the manufacture of windows.

The following two years passed relatively uneventfully. The export market declined substantially, but this was offset by an increase in domestic demand. The hiring of a new sawyer allowed Morris to concentrate on developing the company’s customer base. Lumber sales reached an all-time high, and BB&CL sometimes had to buy rough lumber from other producers in order to fill orders.

It was too good to last; the firm’s third major fire began in the early morning of Friday, the 13th of March, 1959. It was first noticed around 5:30 a.m., and the community’s fire brigade was very quickly on the scene. They saved the planer building with only minor damage incurred, but the sawmill was destroyed. The boiler was heavily damaged, and an inspection established that it was not worth refurbishing.

According to an anecdote contained in the booklet prepared by Michael Redden in 1996 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Upper Stewiacke Volunteer Fire Brigade, Glenn Johnson was the first fireman to arrive at the scene. He attempted to carry the two-man portable pump down to the nearby river by himself the next men to arrive found Glenn hung up on the barbed-wire fence separating the millyard from the adjoining pasture.

Again the decision was quickly made to rebuild, and a diesel unit was purchased to power the planer mill on a short-term basis. A diesel-powered portable sawmill was brought in from the Belmont area within days and went into operation April 3rd, three weeks after the fire. This portable mill produced high-quality lumber very efficiently, so it was not necessary to rush construction of the new boiler plant and sawmill. After over eight months under diesel power at the mill site, the new steam-powered plant was put into operation in early November, 1959.

With the passage of time the mill machinery was becoming more outdated, and the two shareholders disagreed on their future plans. Edwin felt strongly that the plant should be modernized at an early date. Morris, however, preferred to continue on ‘as is’. The mill was obsolete by current standards, but it was well-maintained and still in excellent condition.

Mill crew, 1960s

Moreover, Morris was not prepared to go deep in debt again to finance the $200,000 to $300,000 of capital improvements required. Ultimately he and Edwin decided upon an orderly liquidation of the operation, and as a first step most of the timber lots were sold in the autumn of 1963.

While Edwin was determined to establish a more modern and streamlined operation with his share of the proceeds, Morris was not ready to retire. Neither wanted to see most of the workers lose their jobs. After much soul searching Morris decided to try to continue on alone with a view to keeping the business going for another five years or so. In his own words, “It was doubtful that I’d want to operate longer than that anyway, because by that time the machinery would be really obsolete, and I was likely to be heading that way myself.” A mutually agreeable price for Edwin’s shares in the company was soon arrived at, and the transfer took place on January 31, 1964; Morrison was now the sole shareholder.

Edwin worked for the company for another three months before he began operating his own portable sawmill on various woodlots in Newton Mills and on Stewart Hill. This mill concentrated on the production of stud wood for residential construction, and through an agreement with Edwin, Morrison’s company bought almost all of the new operation’s production. As Morrison was to say in his memoirs, “This arrangement with Edwin still kept us closely associated, and it was almost like a continuation of being in business together.”

The company operated profitably for the next several years, thanks to an excellent market that absorbed all the lumber that could be produced. Other factors, however, such as competition for good sawlogs, new government regulations such as the minimum wage, increasing difficulty in hiring quality workers, and the continuing deterioration of the physical plant meant that its end was near.

To compound his problems, by the middle of 1967 Morrison was experiencing health problems. He was now fifty-eight years old and retirement looked much more attractive than it had four years ago. After assessing all these factors, Morrison decided to operate the mill for only one more year.

Over the first few months of 1968 informal negotiations were held with Edward Creelman of Brookfield Box Company Limited (BBCL), with the possibility of operating the site as a division of BBCL being considered and rejected. By late summer a deal was struck whereby BBCL would acquire all the company’s assets except its accounts receivable and two small lots of land. Furthermore, BBCL offered jobs at their Brookfield plant to all of the employees.

The closing date for the sale was left flexible as Morrison wished to finish sawing all the logs to which he had committed, and to sell all the remaining lumber. The sawing of lumber went on at the site until October 29, when the supply of logs was exhausted. At the sawmill’s closure, most of its crew went to work for BBCL.

The planing of lumber continued for almost two more months. On the afternoon of December 20th the last rough lumber in the yard was moved into the planing mill in preparation for next day. By the end of the morning the last piece of lumber had been planed, and at mid-day on Saturday, December 21st the noon whistle echoed through the Valley for the final time.

The remaining mill crew were then laid off; those who chose to accept employment with BBCL began there after the Christmas break. Early in the New Year BBCL transferred some of the mill equipment to its Brookfield site, and unwanted assets were sold off over the next few months. The sawmill building was torn down soon after the sawmill equipment was removed, but the planer building was used to store sundry surplus assets. The smokestack was left standing for several years until it was taken down as a safety precaution.

In addition to the partners/shareholders, the mill provided employment for numerous other members of the family over the years. Morrison Sr. ‘s second son, Alden (1891-1916) worked there briefly; he is said to have been skeptical of the operation’s prospects over the long term. By mid-1910 Alden had left Upper Stewiacke for the greener pastures of Truro; when World War I began he was working there as an engineer. Enlisting in the Canadian Army, Alden went overseas in the autumn of 1914; he was killed in action in Belgium on June 3rd, 1916.

Morrison Sr.’s second-youngest son, Thomas (1907-1929), was almost blind from birth and attended the Nova Scotia School for the Blind for a time. There were numerous tasks that he could safely perform around the mill yard. He sometimes carried deal (rough sawn lumber) from the sawmill to the deal stacks, and he helped in the boiler room. When the crew was at a woodlot he helped at the brows (log piles), and also cut firewood and kept the fire going in the lunch shack. Tom died in April of 1929 after being ill since the previous autumn.

Roy Blaikie’s younger son, George (1921-1993), worked at the mill for several years before joining the Canadian Army in June of 1942, mid-way through World War II. After his discharge from the Army in 1946 he returned to work at the mill, and continued there until early 1957. At that time George took employment at a garage in Bible Hill, and he and his young family moved to that area.

Sidney Cox (1917-1997), who later married Roy’s daughter Jean (1923-1998), began working at the mill in the mid-1930’s. He left for a few months in the autumn and winter of 1939-1940 to cut logs on a timber lot. In March of 1940 Sidney returned to work at the mill, staying on there until 1968. When BB&CL ceased its saw-mill operations in October of that year and sold most of its operating assets to Brookfield Box Company Limited (BBCL), Sidney was among those who went to work for the latter company in Brookfield; he remained there until retiring in 1981.

Robert Densmore (1921-1974) of Noel, Hants County, began work at the mill shortly after World War II’s end. In 1947 Bob married Roy’s youngest daughter, Ruth (1925-1999); he continued to work for the company until the early 1960’s. After leaving BB&CL Bob was employed as a framing carpenter in the house construction business for about ten years; he died in 1974 after several months’ illness.

Muir Patterson (1916-1997) of Upper Stewiacke worked at the mill for a time in the 1930’s and 1940’s. He married Nina Blaikie, Glenn’s second daughter, in 1943. He left the mill to return to farming, and later drove a school bus for fourteen years.

The mill also provided casual employment for younger members of the Blaikie clan during their school days. Included in this number were Glenn’s son Leslie, Edwin’s son Keith, and Morrison’s son David.

Muir Patterson

The most actively involved of these was Keith; outside of school hours he could most often be found somewhere around the millyard. Keith’s first driving experience was probably behind the steering wheel of a fork-lift truck. Later on, he graduated to the power trailer that was used to haul logs from various woodlots to
the mill. This writer has vivid memories of seeing Keith driving that fully-loaded vehicle as fast as it would go down Otter Brook Road, a cloud of dust billowing in his wake.

As the eldest son of Sidney Cox, I lived in Otter Brook, about four miles from Upper Stewiacke Village. Thus, I had little opportunity to be around the mill during operating hours. During my high school years I would occasionally go to the Village on the school bus after school. Sometimes I would do errands for my grandmother until the mill closed for the day; at other times I joined other young relatives in using the millyard as a playground.

My one brief experience as a casual employee of BB&CL occurred in June of 1963 or 1964, and amounted to less than a week’s work. The first two days or so were spent with a small crew hauling poor quality lumber from Upper Stewiacke to Brookfield and loading it onto boxcars bound for a pulp mill in Liverpool, N.S. The last day was spent on a log truck with Frank Kennedy, whose regular partner, Harold Hamilton, was off work.

Harold Hamilton

Frank and I hauled several loads of logs from the woodlot at the rear of John Fulton’s farm in Otter Brook, and there was a cold, driving rain for most of the day. At one point as we were putting on the last load I heard Frank yell at me; I turned to see a huge butt-log rolling down the brow at me. One of us (probably Frank) got a peavy on the log before it could steam-roller me. Had it rolled a few more feet I would likely have ended up in Chapter 12 of my great-uncle Morrison’s memoirs.

Edwin Blaikie Lumber Ltd. (EBLL)

As noted above, Edwin Blaikie purchased a portable hydraulic sawmill in the spring of 1964. After operating it on woodlots in Newton Mills and on Stewart Hill for over twelve years, he acquired the old BB&CL millsite from Brookfield Box Co. Ltd. in 1977 and moved his milling operation down to the Village. Besides being closer to his home, the site gave him the space he and his son Keith required to expand their operations.

The new sawmill building is located much closer to the highway than its predecessor and is powered by electricity. The existing building which once contained BB&CL’s planers and other specialized equipment again housed a planer, albeit a much smaller one.

The burning of waste slabs is only a distant memory. Logs are now debarked before being sawn into lumber. These slabs and the ends produced when the lumber is cut into eight-foot lengths are fed into a chipper. These chips are in turn shipped to a pulp mill
in Pictou County. The sawdust is used by many local farmers as a bedding for livestock. Even the bark can be used; it is trucked to the aforementioned pulp mill and burned to generate steam to power part of the complex. Like the pig’s oink in a modern-day abattoir, only the whine of the saw and the planer go to waste.

As was the BB&C operation before it, EBLL is very much of a family business. Edwin Blaikie (1914-2000) retired from the mill in the 1990s but retained an ownership interest in the company until his death. In EBLL’s early days, Edwin’s nephews Bruce Cox and Brian Densmore (sons of long-time BB&C employees Sidney Cox and Robert Densmore respectively) worked for him for a time before going on to other careers.

In 1973 Edwin’s son Keith left the electronics firm NCR to join his father and now operates the business. Included among the dozen or so current employees are Bruce Cox, Keith’s first cousin, and Jon Eastman, sawyer (son of Frances (Blaikie) Graham from her first marriage), his second cousin. Roy Graham, Frances’ husband, worked at EBLL for several years.

Blaikie’s Corner

Although it does not appear on any sanctioned map of the area, Blaikie’s Corner is well known throughout the Stewiacke Valley. It can be found at the T-intersection where Otter Brook Road ends at Highway 289 on the eastern outskirts of Upper Stewiacke Village.

The first Blaikies to settle here and provide the corner with its nickname were Morrison Blaikie, Sr. and James Harris Blaikie. The two brothers had purchased thd farm from the heirs of the late Fred Bentley in the spring of 1907. While continuing to farm part of the property, they used much of the lot between the highway and the Stewiacke River for a mill site.

For several years the house on the north side of the highway was the only residence on the property, overflowing with family members spanning three generations. In 1913, prior to construction of a house across the road for eldest son Roy and his bride-to-be, Edna Fleming, the brood consisted of Elmira Blaikie and her ten children, her mother-in-law Olive, and brother-in-law Harris.

In late 1940 Roy’s elder son Edwin began building a house just east of his father’s residence on the same side of the highway. He and his new bride Olive moved into the house in 1941 after boarding at the Margeson residence for several months.

About the time Roy’s youngest brother, D. Morrison Blaikie, Jr. married Eva Gray in 1942, he purchased a small lot on the northeast corner of the intersection from Martin Fulton. After renting quarters in the nearby Frank B. Cox residence for several months, the couple decided that it was time to build their house. The cement basement was poured in late summer, framing was begun on
September 11th, and they moved into the house on December 9, 1943.

When Roy’s younger son, George, returned to Upper Stewiacke after World War II, he bought the A. L. Margeson property which was situated on the northwest corner of the intersection adjoining the original Blaikie farm.

At the mid-point of the Twentieth Century there were five separate Blaikie dwellings (plus the sawmill operation) clustered around Blaikie’s Corner: Glenn, Alice and family; Roy and Edna; Edwin, Olive and family; Morrison, Eva and family; and George, Dorothy and family. With the passage of time, all these properties have changed hands, but most remain within the Blaikie family.

George Blaikie and family sold their property to Homer Johnson and family in 1957 and moved to Bible Hill, N.S. Mrs. Johnson, now a widow, sold it to Stewiacke Valley Baptist Church in the 1980s; the house was later torn down and a church and minister’s manse built on the property.

Glenn Blaikie and second wife Grace sold their property to Howard and Shirley Graham in the 1970s and moved into a nursing home in Bible Hill, N.S. As of the summer of 2002 Howard’s widow, Shirley, still resides there.

Upon the death in early 1987 of Edna Blaikie, widow of Roy, her house and lot were inherited by her son Edwin. Later that same year he sold the property to his niece, Lori, and husband Donald Cox. As of the summer of 2002 the Cox family still resides there.

Upon the death of Eva, widow of D. M. Blaikie, Jr. in 1989, her eldest daughter, Frances, inherited the property. As of the summer of 2002 Frances and husband Roy Graham reside there.
Upon the death of Edwin Blaikie in January of 2001, his son Keith inherited the property.

As noted earlier, the millsite itself passed out of Blaikie hands for a time. After its acquisition by Brookfield Box Company Limited in 1968 the site sat idle for nine years. In 1977 the site was reacquired by Edwin Blaikie he moved his sawmill there from Stewart Hill and utilized the site to expand his operations.

The Blaikies in Upper Stewiacke
A chronology of noteworthy events

1907 Brothers D. Morrison and J. Harris Blaikie acquire a farm in Upper Stewiacke and the family moves there (January).
The sawmill equipment is moved from Burnside (circa May).
D. Morrison B1aikie, Sr. dies (March 7).
D. Morrison Blaikie, Jr. is born (July 28).
1914 Edwin Blaikie is born (May 27).
1916 S. Alden Blaikie dies in World War I (June 3).
1938 J. Harris Blaikie dies (May 6).
1942 Keith Blaikie is born (May 18).
The building containing the sawmill / planer burns (July 15)
The boiler is fired up and some lumber sawn (August 26).
Sawing operations resume fulltime (September 30).
1952 The business is incorporated.
1956 Glenn Blaikie retires and sells his shares to his brother D. Morrison Blaikie, Jr. and nephew Edwin Blaikie.
1957 Roy Blaikie dies (February 6).
Morrison and Edwin acquire Roy’s shares in the company.
The lumber drying house burns (March 1).
1959 The sawmill building is destroyed by fire (March 13).
1963 Most of the company’s woodlots are sold.
1964 Edwin Blaikie sells his share of the company to Morrison.
Edwin Blaikie sets up a portable mill in Newton Mills.
1968 Morrison agrees to sell certain of the business assets to Brookfield Box Company Ltd. (August).
Sawing operations cease (October 29).
Planing operations cease and the sale closes (December 21).
1973 Keith Blaikie joins his father Edwin in business.
1976 Death of D. Morrison Blaikie, Jr. (March 3).
1977 Edwin Blaikie acquires the old millsite from BBCL and erects a new sawmill building on it.
1980 Death of W. Glenn Blaikie  (September 15).
2000 Death of Edwin Blaikie (January 31).