12. Building a house

David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman

12. Building a house

I went to work in the mill again on the Thursday following our wedding. The new mill worked well, and that winter was a repetition of previous ones. The demand for lumber was strong, and production surpassed all previous records.

During that winter plans were made for the building of a planing mill. Roy was always watching advertisements of mill machinery, and he managed to locate a Yates #108 Moulder, a machine which was by no means up to date, but still was far better than anything we had used in past years. A few smaller machines were also purchased – among them a rip-saw, cut-off saw, a blower and an emery-grinder.

The task of erecting the building and setting up the machinery took time, but when it was done we were ready to resume our dressed lumber business again. This continued as in the past, with the greater part of the lumber being exported rough-sawn, with the side-boards, 2 X 4 and a few other sizes being dressed. By this time most of these were hauled to the Dartmouth Lumber Co.

A place or our own

As the spring and summer months of 1943 drew on, Eva and I became anxious to build a house of our own. Renting from someone else, and with both families living in the same house, was beginning to get on the nerves of both parties. We decided to build that fall. J. W. Bevie or “Johnnie Will” as everyone called him, was the carpenter we engaged.

We did not have enough money to build a house. Far from it. But we did have a little credit, and besides, were not planning to build a mansion. We decided on a bungalow really smaller than it should have been, but which would do for the time being. Things were coming to a point where a move in a short time would be imperative. As the bungalow took shape the rooms in it were small but downstairs we had a kitchen, living room and dining room, two bedrooms and a small sun-porch.

We had planned it with no up-stairs, but there seemed to be room there for one small bed-room, quite low in the center, and lower still at the sides, as you came in contact with the roof, as it descended toward the eaves.

Blaikies’ corner

At the eastern end of the village the Otter Brook Road turns off the main highway. Our new home was built on the northeast corner formed by the junction of this road with the main highway. This placed it within easy walking distance of the mill – only about a quarter of a mile – which was important to me, as I was to travel that road an average of at least four times daily, during the next 25 years.

We liked the location. No doubt we were prejudiced, but it seemed to us that the view across the valley was unsurpassed by any other site available in the village. Both the kitchen and living room windows command a full view of the whole width of the valley, which is dotted by elms almost to it’s southern extremity.

A grove of maple trees, some of them large, line the river bank, near at hand. The slopes of the mountain, a mile distant, are covered with a mixture of spruce and hardwood trees – birch, maple and polar. All of this combined to make a scene very pleasing to the eye, and when the forests at autumn turned scarlet, yellow and gold, a picture that left little to be desired.

The building of a house usually takes in quite a period of time. Part of the reason for this is time loss due to waiting for the cement to harden in the foundation walls, delays caused by waiting for plasterers, bricklayers, electricians, etc. Our carpenter – Johnnie Will – began to work on Sept. 11. Everything went smoothly until the house was ready to be plastered. At that point nearly a month was lost before the plastering was completed and work resumed on finishing the inside of the house.

Moving in

We could hardly wait to get moved in. Early in December the kitchen was nearly finished, at least near enough so we felt we could get along. On December 9 we moved what few belongings we had from our rented apartments, and on that evening we had our supper in our new home.

For a few days the kitchen had to serve as living-room and bedroom. Then Johnnie Will had the dining-room finished, and we moved our bed – the old couch – in there. Later we slept for a week or two in the living room. But finally, early in the new year, everything was finished.

We had no furnace. Instead, we had a camp stove set up in our living room. It was definitely not ornamental, but what a lovely, gorgeous heat it did give on cold winter nights! The best oil furnace in the country could not now give me the same feeling of contentment that I experienced, when, at the end of my days work I sat down beside this stove with a newspaper to read.

The winter of 1944 was a cold one, and unsightly as this stove may have been, it sure kept the place warm. I’m not sure now how long we did keep that stove; it was a long time, ten or twelve years at least.

During the previous summer I had bought an organ. We couldn’t put it in our rented rooms on account of the antiquated instrument which already cluttered up our living room. Now, secure in our own home we brought the organ out from Truro, where I had bought it at C.F. MacDonald’s Music store. As old-fashioned pump organs went, it was a pretty good one, and I enjoyed using it.

As time went on, we kept adding to our small stock of furniture, piece by piece.

Adding a barn

When we decided to build the house, we also made plans for a small barn, big enough to keep a cow and a couple of pigs. This barn was built during the intervals when the work on the house was at a standstill due to delays with plastering or other hold-ups. So on the same night that we moved into the house, we also moved our cow into the barn. We had bought her from Grant Cox a month earlier, with the understanding that she would be kept by him until we were ready.

We got a pig from Johnnie Will, who in addition to his carpenter work, also had a small farm. Looking after these animals added a little to my days work, but it was interesting, and I didn’t mind it. Sometimes, if I was late, Eva would milk the cow. I’ve an idea she was a better milker than I!

During the first winter in our new home we had no electricity. The house and barn were both wired, but due to war time regulations and a shortage of materials we couldn’t get connected to the power line. It appeared there was a ruling that if you were within 500 feet of the nearest transformer.

Fight for electricity

We were only slightly over five hundred feet, but permission was refused. We went along with the refusal until we found out that this was a racket. If you had little pull, or could make up a good enough story, you got the electricity. We had no pull, but I felt we could compose as pitiful a story as anyone else. We sent a letter in to the office of the Power Commission.

Evidently, our appeal was not pitiful enough, as we received a very politely worded reply, regretting the inability to connect us. Rules were rules – they said – and we were farther than the maximum permissible distance from the nearest transformer.

In my next letter, which was somewhat less polite, I mentioned my belief that exceptions were sometimes made, and called attention to the inconvenience of being cut off from the power line. Courtesy also deteriorated on the part of the Power Commission. They bluntly informed me that no exceptions could be made in our case. Their message was very clear: Shut up and leave them alone!

Persistence pays

Well, I knew of a case only a short distance away, where a home beyond 500 feet had been connected, with no apparent explanation. The person did not even have a barn. I wrote again. Abandoning any attempt at diplomacy, I named the party they had connected, and accused them of outright discrimination.

In due course I received their reply, which, for safety’s sake, should have been sent in an asbestos envelope. The opening was blistering and we were informed that the person named had given special reasons that allowed them to be connected. If we could furnish such reasons, they would be happy (?) to do the same for me.

So I wrote them a final letter, explaining the inconvenience and potential danger of carrying an oil lantern to the barn, and going with it to pitch hay out of the mow. (The other chap, having no barn, couldn’t top this story.) I also dwelt at some length on the drawbacks of having no electricity around the house. All this resulted in a letter of several pages.

The Commission’s next and final letter was short, except for what might be read between the lines. They merely stated that they had instructed their service man to connect us, adding, “No doubt this will be gratifying to you”. It was.

Johnnie Will Benvie

Before we get completely away from the building of the house, a word should be added concerning some of the people who worked on it. Outstanding among these was our carpenter, Johnnie Will Benvie. It was a pleasure to have a man like him in charge of the work. He was absolutely trustworthy, and having built a good many houses in his day, he was a very capable man. He had a sunny personality, and was endowed with a keen sense of humor, in spite of the hard knocks that life had dealt him.

At the time our house was built he was far from well, having recently had an operation for cancer of the bowel, which necessitated a colostomy. But he was always cheerful, and ready for a joke. He was a good violin player, and frequently played for dances. All the men who worked on the house had their dinners with us, and we missed them when the work was done.

Our wiring was done by Leonard Johnson. He was a tall, well built man, 80 years old at the time, and long since retired, but still the type of man who never does really retire. Everyone liked him. In a way this was strange, for he had very decided opinions on most points, and to say he was contrary wouldn’t have been stretching the truth too far. He knew his work. Nothing was ever slighted, especially in the matter of safety precautions.


A few years earlier he had to spend sometime in hospital. When it was time for him to leave, the nurse wanted him to go down in the elevator, but he decided to walk down the stairs. “Oh come, Mr. Johnson,” the nurse said. “Take the elevator and I’d show you how it works”. “Lady,” he replied, “I know how it works. I should know. I put it in there!” Which was quite true, but news to the nurse.

After wiring the house, he used to call and see us occasionally, and actually did the wiring when we installed a refrigerator only a few months before his death, which took place when he was around 84 years of age.

We also hired a man with a bulldozer to dig our cellar. But there was also a good deal of work that had to be done by hand. The one who did most of this was Tupper O’Connell. He was nearly 70, but he could still dig. He wasn’t a big man – very short, and somewhat heavy set. I suppose he’d weigh around one 150 pounds. He was a man you needed to “handle with gloves on.”

Sensitive individual

Tupper was illiterate, and he took offense very easily, even when none was intended. No doubt in his younger days he had the type of personality that caused people to make fun of him. When at work, he talked to himself continually. It wasn’t anything unusual to hear him mumble to himself, “I’d better quit, right now.” But he never did.

One afternoon Eva was having a Ladies Aid meeting. This was the next year after we had built the house, but we had hired Tupper to dig a ditch. I was going past on my way to the mill, and heard the old fellow mutter, “I’d better get this finished. Them damned old hens will soon be coming”!

I don’t remember that he smoked, but one thing that would make his eyes shine was to be offered a drink – something considerably stronger than ginger ale. In any case, Tupper hit it off with us pretty well. For a few years after that we used to get him to put in our stove wood for us, and then he stayed with us at nights.

Eva used to get lunches in the evening, and Tupper liked this, and any attention that was given him. He even became quite chatty over a cup of tea. I guess he wasn’t really so much different from most people. He hated to have anyone make fun of him, and who doesn’t.

Murray Salter

Charlie Salter did our plastering. I can’t remember very much about him, except that he was agreeable to work with and did a good job for us. His father, Murray Salter, was the one I can really remember. He worked for us as a mason at the mill a number of years earlier, when he built two dutch ovens for us.

Tupper O’Connell’s disposition may have been temperamental, but Murray was mad all the time. He was one of the most disagreeable and exasperating men I have ever worked with. On this job, I was mixing mortar for him. I tried my best to please him. It was useless. He didn’t want to be pleased.

In a very short time I discovered that it didn’t matter how I mixed the mortar. It was always greeted with obscenity and profanity anyway. This seemed to be his way of enjoying himself, so I decided he might as well have a real good time. If you sent him mortar the least bit stiff, you’d get “For god’s sake, haven’t you got any water there.” If you did add a little water, it would be “Where in hell’s the dipper?”

Mad at everybody

Everyone who worked with him had the same problem. The bricks we were using were old bricks, taken from the coke ovens at the Londonderry Iron Mines. The mine had been closed down years before, and these old bricks could be bought for a very reasonable price. But among them, there were several different sizes of brick.

We tried to keep the sizes separated, but some were so near alike it was hard to tell the difference. If Murray got one that didn’t suit him, he picked it up and drove it as far as he could, and you’d better not be in the way when this happened. Among these bricks was one big one that must have weighed twenty-five pounds. It was too big for him to throw, so for a joke it was taken up along with the others.

I heard him cursing when he came to it. But would you believe it he used this brick. He fitted it in neatly among the others, and when he got done you’d never know the difference. I guess by this time he had caught on that he was something less than popular with the crowd. He also played the violin – he hoped. His playing was limited to a few old-time tunes which didn’t charm anyone. When asked the name of one of these tunes, he would reply, “Chicken Reel”. “I thought so”, someone once told him. “I could hear the chicken’s scratching.”

Yet Murray was a good workman, and when his work was finished, it was well done.

The war ends

The war years were drawing to a close. They were years that no one likes to think about. Everyone was hoping that each week, each month would bring an end to the conflict. Finally, on May 6, 1945, Germany capitulated, and the war in Europe was ended. War in Japan continued another three months, but the outcome was never in doubt.

They Japanese were already hard pressed, and the detonation of two atomic bombs, one at Hiroshima, the other at Nagasaki, practically paralyzed the Japanese into submission. It seems a pity that a massacre such as this should have been necessary. Possibly if the assailing forces could have seen in advance as clearly as it is now seen in retrospect, it might never have taken place. It did hasten the end of the war, which is the only good thing which could be said.

Up to this point, there was little change in mill operations. As the years passed by, prices for lumber improved, and wages became higher. I believe my wages as sawyer were $7.50 per day. The mill work went well, and gave the company’s finances a chance to improve a little, which was badly needed after the fire.

Mother’s death

My Mother died on January 9, 1945. Her health had been gradually failing, but still she was fairly well until Christmas morning, 1944, when she suffered a stroke. I had been in to see her on Christmas Eve, and she seemed to be really well. I talked with her for sometime up in her room that night, and when I left she came downstairs with me. There was nothing then to indicate any trouble.

Eva and I had planned to go to Londonderry for Christmas day, and were over there when it happened. About noon we received a telephone call. Mother had been taken to the Truro hospital, and we went there as soon as we could. She was conscious, but one side was paralyzed, and she was unable to talk. She seemed to know us, and to be aware of what was happening.

At first we hoped this condition would be temporary, but as the days passed there was no perceptible improvement. It was heartbreaking to go to see her, feeling that she understood you, yet you couldn’t be sure, and she was unable to say a word in reply. In two weeks there was no improvement, and she became unconscious with the onset of a second stroke, after which she lived only a few hours.

She was seventy-four years of age. Her health during the past few years hadn’t been good. Part of this stemmed from the fact that she was rather a frail person anyway. Her mind was always clear, and her memory good. How many times since her death I’ve wished to talk to her! Particularly about the older people in Burnside, where she went as a bride in 1887. I think I would be echoing the sentiments of every one around, in saying that Mother was a loveable person, and a very fine, Christian woman. I have missed her sorely.