10. The early 1940s

David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman

10. The early 1940s

I haven’t tried to follow the fortunes of the rest of the family. It would only turn a story that is already confused, into one that is completely bewildering. But a few words are necessary regarding my brother Harry, whom we left, early in this story, working in Blaikies Garage in Truro. In 1926 he and Wilfred Nichols bought the business from my Uncle. They continued to operate it as partners until 1956, when harry and his sons bought Wilfred Nichols’ interests, too.

I used to be in around the garage occasionally. They were agents for the Chrysler line of cars, which included Dodges, Plymouths, De Soto’s, etc. During the spring of 1940 I was seized with the desire to buy a car. Previous to this, I had driven Glenn’s car, paying for it on a mileage basis.

But my driving up to this point was limited, both by lack of finances, and by other interests. However,I wanted one now, and intended to have it. Needless to say, cars were a good deal cheaper then than at present, but money was scarcer too. By that time my wages had risen to $3.25 per day. I never did have very much use for finance companies, and I had money enough to buy a car.

1938 Dodge Coupe

One day in early spring – May 4th to be exact – I was in Truro, and found the very thing I wanted. At Harry’s garage, they had a nice little 1938 Dodge Coupe. It had 26,430 miles on the speedometer, and it was known that the speedometer had never been set back. it was, of course, only two years old, and I paid $565.00 for it.

Wedding bells – 1942

I have owned several cars since that day, both new and old, but the thrill I got on driving this one away from the garage far surpassed any that were given me by the other cars. From this time on I got out around quite a lot more.

Tom Fulton was working with us then. I was still staying at Glenn’s which was our home place, and Tom boarded there too. Saturday night was open night in Truro then, stores, garages, almost all business places were going strong. We worked until six o’clock on Saturdays at that time, but after that Tom and I often went to town.

Bowling and dancing

By the time we had finished work, got our supper and cleaned up, it would be nearly eight o’clock by the time we arrived in town. But that was all right, it was about that time when people were really getting out anyway. The bowling alleys were open, and part of our evening was usually spent there. Sometimes we went to shows. It was no trouble to entertain ourselves, and it was usually after midnight when we arrived home.

There were occasional dances around the village and outlying sections of Upper Stewiacke. When I first started going to these, around forty-five years ago, they were mostly “house dances”. Comparatively few people could go to these, as the size of the house imposed its own limitations. Still, there were often too many. Several of the homes we went to had two rooms given over to dancing.

Changes come with the years, and this is as noticeable on the dance floor as anywhere else. Then it was all square dancing, mostly waltzes and polkas, with an occasional lancer thrown in for good measure. The music was supplied by local talent, and I doubt if it would be much appreciated by the younger group of the present day.

Old time music

But we liked it. I still love to hear those old waltzes played on the violin, with an organ or piano, and maybe a guitar for accompaniment. Practically all the violinists – ‘Country fiddlers’ as they were called – played altogether by ear. Some of them were really pleasing.

I can still hear Jack Taylor playing Where the River Shannon Flows, for a waltz. Other favorites wereHome On The Range, The Dying Cowboy, Springtime In The Rockies, Let The Rest Of The World Go By, My Wild Irish Rose and so on.

You could go on and on naming them. Tunes played for polkas included a wide variety, but a few of the ones I liked best were Flowers Of Edinburgh, Soldier’s Joy, The Fishers Hornpipe, Lord MacDonald’s Reel, The Devil Among The Taylors and St. Annes’s Reel. Dozens more could easily be named.

I was never an outstanding dancer, but did learn enough about it so I wasn’t too conspicuous in a set. And I really did enjoy it. As cars became more common, the house dance pretty well went the way of all the earth. The dances after that were conducted in village halls or schoolhouses, and sometimes some enterprising party would build a makeshift ‘Dance-Hall’.

Summer of 1942

Now, to get back to the mill again, where we left it after a very satisfying day of sawing in March. Events followed the same pattern, that is, a continuation of the export market, with some dressing of lumber as a sideline, and this state of affairs lasted a couple of years.

The mill then consisted of one fairly large (not large enough) building, with a smaller building built onto the north side of the larger one. In the smaller building, we sawed shingles, and in the upstairs part of it, Edwin made some window sashes. In the larger one was the boiler and engine, the sawmill, and on the south side were our two planers – a ‘Cowan’ molder, and an old ‘MacGregor Gourlay’ for surface planing.

That summer – 1942 – was very dry. Day after day the weather was sunny and hot. Rain came only at rare intervals. On the afternoon of July 15th we were dressing a load of lumber. Like so many of the days that summer, the sun was lazing down out of a clear sky, and a brisk wind was blowing out of the west. By this time the afternoon was far spent, and I was looking forward to supper time.

I was feeding boards into the planer, and all at once, almost under my feet, I noticed a wisp of smoke, drifting up through a crack in the floor. The Mill was on fire!

Mill fire

Instantly all was chaos. The fire spread with unbelievable rapidity. We had a small fire-pump, but in the length of time it took to start it – possibly a minute – the whole south side of the Mill was on fire, and you couldn’t get close enough to spray any water on the fire.

Someone – Sid Cox, I believe – blew the whistle until the fire drove him out of the boiler room.

In the wild haste to do something – anything – no one ever thought to shut steam off the engine. One of the few things that I can coherently remember is seeing the Mill, ablaze from one end to the other, with the engine, line-shaft and planer all running at full speed, phantom-like, in the midst of the flames.

Eventually the steam-pipe was soon struck by something – probably a piece of timber – and broken off above the engine. A great hissing cloud of steam arose amid the flames, but the noise which it created could scarcely be heard amid the roar of the fire, and the shouts of the men, who by this time were trying frantically to move some of the lumber which was piled nearest the blaze.

Burned to the ground

In an incredibly short time, no more than half an hour, the mill had burned to the ground. There was still fire: it would take sometime, and a good deal of water to drown the flames that still blazed from piles of sawdust and refuse.

At first it seemed impossible to accept what had happened. In the space of less than an hour, the mill was reduced to a twisted mass of junk. We were all too dazed to grasp the true meaning, or the implications, of what had happened, or what it would involve. By nine o’clock that night only a couple of people were needed to watch the dying fire, and by next day, what little remained of it was easily extinguished.

The cause of the fire was never satisfactorily determined. It started underneath the mill, close to one of the bearings of a line-shaft which was belted onto the planer. It was possible that this bearing could have become overheated and started the blaze. On the other hand, I was working on the floor almost directly above the bearing, and I had never smelled anything to arouse my suspicions.

A hot bearing – that hot – always makes a pungent odor easily recognizable to anyone who has had experience around a mill.

Theory in doubt

So that theory never really satisfied me. The slab fire was out at the time, so that could not be considered a possibility. It wasn’t that a spark from the smoke stack was responsible, as the fire started under the mill. No one will ever know. The theory of the hot bearing was the one generally adopted.

A couple of bewildered days went by. Would the mill be rebuilt? The decision was up to Roy and Glenn, they being the owners of the business. Still, it was almost a foregone conclusion that it would be rebuilt. Roy, the eldest, was 53 that year. He wasn’t ready for retirement, and the mill business had been his whole life up to that point. The fire had occurred on Wednesday, and the decision to rebuild was made before the weekend.

There was no time to be lost. There still remained two to three hundred thousand feet of logs which had been cut the previous winter. They were certain to be damaged before a new mill could be completed.

Worms always started getting into old logs at about this time of year, and it was very difficult to explain to them that we had just experienced a disastrous fire, and would they please feed on someone else’s pile of logs until we re-built the mill.

Boiler salvaged

Of the machinery that had been through the fire, there was little of any value, except the boiler. Both planers, all the sawmill machinery, the shingle machine, three steam engines, the machinery for making window sashes, as well as all the belts, wrenches and other tools, all the saws, everything that goes to make up the miscellaneous equipment of a sawmill and woodworking plant, had been destroyed.

In the brief minute or two, when some of the smaller equipment could have been carried to safety, everyone was trying to do something about the fire – a hopeless task. But the boiler, being filled with water was not damaged, although all the fixtures, steam gauge, safety valve, water column and injectors, also all the piping that went with these fixtures, were useless.

The first thing necessary was to clean up the mess that had been left by the fire. While this was being done, Roy, Edwin and I went to Oxford to order machinery for the new mill. There were some improvements made in the type of machines, yet it was largely a duplicate of the previous sawmill. We decided to build a separate building for the planers, and to leave this until the following year.

The new mill

It won’t be necessary here to go into the piece by piece building of the new sawmill. By around October 1st it was ready to go, and we were hard at work on the old logs, which, as it turned out, were not very badly damaged by the worms. Maybe they did take pity on us!

There was, of course, a financial cost connected with the fire. The Depression years had been far from profitable. However, there had been two relatively good years prior to the fire, and these practically saved the life of the company at this point.

Even so, it created more debt, and the building of the planing mill, planned for the next summer, would add to it. The company’s bank credit was good, and we were never held up by the lock of finances.