David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman
15. More family changes
In memory it is never possible to re-capture all of the past. During the years that followed, we both had plenty of hard work to do, but it was rewarding. We were both well, and our little family’s health was buoyant and boisterous.
Looking back, it’s hard for me to understand how we ever got all the work done, especially during the summer. We had a cow to look after. We had also branched out somewhat into the pig business. In the winter, the cow and four pigs crowded our little barn to the limit, but in the summer we kept over a dozen pigs most of the time.
We had fenced in a yard back of the barn for them to run in, and I built a little shack where they could sleep. We bought these pigs when they were around four weeks old, and kept them until their weight was around 160 to 180 pounds, which took around six months. It is interesting to watch a pig grow; after they get above 100 pounds you can almost see the difference in size day by day. And the cash addition to our income, supplied periodically when these pigs were ready to be sold, was always warmly welcome.
During these years we always had a large garden. From it, we usually had a good crop of vegetables, but for two or three months a lot of work was involved. Occasionally we were able to get someone to bring a cultivator and clean out the weeds between the rows of vegetables, but more often this had to be done with a hoe. In the early part of August the work became easier. By that time everything had grown to the point where hoeing wasn’t necessary.
We had beans and peas – lots of beans. But the peas never did too well for us. We also had more carrots and parsnips than we could use, beets, radish and lettuce, and loads of tomatoes. Cabbage and cauliflower also seemed to grow well. Our turnips always had club root, or some other serious defect, so after a year or two of trying we gave up planting them.
Gathering this all in during the autumn months also represented more work. But it was rewarding to see the potatoes in the bin, the carrots, parsnips and other vegetables in the cellar, and the kitchen windows lined with ripening tomatoes – and buckets more of them up in the attic.
Late in the fall of 1947 Roy became sick. His illness was some sort of a nervous breakdown. The wear and tear of years of responsibility were beginning to show. The business had grown considerably, and most of the executive work had fallen on him. It was imperative that relief be provided. The firm of Barrow, Nicoll & Co., chartered accountants, of Halifax, were engaged to help straighten out the affairs of the company, and to set up a new system of bookkeeping.
All that winter Roy was unable to come to the mill. Edwin and I were used to the responsibility by then, but we did miss Roy’s day to day presence. Very often in the evening I went to see him, and filled him in on the days events at the mill. Previous to his illness he had always come to the mill in the evening to give the boiler final attention for the night.
I had this to do now. It was merely pumping the boiler full of water, shutting off the water-glass, opening the drain taps so nothing would freeze, and shutting the boiler room up for the night. It didn’t add very much to my day’s work, as I could start the pump – or injector – and let it run while I filed saws.
But I missed the leisurely companionship Roy and I had always had during those winter evenings.
Reflecting on life
What were my thoughts, alone at the mill during those long winter evenings? I was now thirty-eight years old. Was I satisfied with my life up to that point? And more important, would I be satisfied to continue the same routine on through the years until age forced me to retire? And what would I retire on? By this time we did have a few dollars put by as a sort of emergency fund, but on my income at that
time, there was no possibility of laying aside anything worthwhile for retirement.
Roy’s illness had forced some serious reflection on my part. I had never given much thought to ownership in the business, having felt that it would eventually be passed on to Roy and Glenn’s families. Why then did I stay? I’ll never be able to answer that question but subsequent years proved the wisdom of my decision to remain.
One thing was certain, I was getting old to make a complete change of occupation. Here, at least, I had steady work. It isn’t easy to make such a change when you are settled in your own home with a wife and family. I had been involved in the lumber business for twenty-three years, and I knew that it was too late to make a new start at something else.
One with the mill
There was another intangible factor involved here. The work I had been doing had grown on me during the years. I had become part of it, as I had also become part of the community in which I lived. Looking ahead into the future raised a good many questions. The answers were unknown to me then, but as the years passed they became clearer. All I knew then was that my job was important to the little business, and I couldn’t find it in my heart to go away and leave it.
That was a hard winter, in several ways. The day before Christmas we had a terrific snowstorm. The roads were blocked nearly everywhere. A number of people drove to Truro on the morning of the storm. All had trouble getting home, and by twelve o’clock on Christmas Eve, there were 23 or 30 cars stopped at Lee Dickies, at the lower end of Otter Brook. Tom Fulton was driving one of these cars, and around one o’clock he arrived at our place, cold and hungry. He had left his car there, and a number of people had come up on a truck. Even so, he had to do a good deal of hard shoveling to make it through.
By the time Christmas was over and the roads broken out, we started the mill again. But we were plagued by more snow. For the next two weeks, in fact, there was a succession of small storms, which made continuous work impossible. Then better weather came, we were able to get logs to the mill, and things began to get back to normal.
After the middle of January the weather became very cold. Night after night the thermometer fell below zero Fahrenheit, frequently -20, sometimes even colder. But by this time our logging roads were in good condition, and we were able to get along.
In spite of the cold weather, the mill worked well that winter. We had no trouble with the saws, which in itself was something to be grateful for. Only those who have been subjected to the ordeal of running a badly-working saw in hard frost have any idea what torture it can be. The cold weather remained unabated until the middle of March, after which rains came, bringing with them the annual spring
This reminds me of David Miller, who had great faith in changes of the moon being influential in creating changes in the weather. That March, the moon was due to change on the seventh. There was no doubt in David’s mind that this change would bring an end to the unseasonably cold weather.
Waiting for the moon
The seventh of March arrived, but the cold weather continued. On March 13 it was -20, and also -20 on March 14. A moderating trend then set in, and in a couple more days it was raining. “I knew it” David commented. “I knew when the moon changed we’d have warmer weather”. Well, nobody argued the matter with him. To me, the proof seemed hardly convincing.
I felt he was allowing the moon plenty of time to operate. By this time it was nine days since the moon had changed. The weather had to warm up sometime, whether the moon changed or not. But to David, it was more proof of what had been handed down to him for generations, any doubts about which would be as sacrilegious as doubting his Bible.
By the time Spring came around again, Roy was back at the mill, for at least a part of every day. His health was much improved. But he had aged during his illness, and he never again achieved the virility that had been his before his illness.
Work went on in the mill as usual. There were changes but these were so gradual as to be hardly noticeable from one year to the next. There was more emphasis placed on the production of mouldings, especially gutter, but we never seemed to get enough good quality pine to supply the markets that could have been developed.
The export market for rough lumber continued good, so a great deal of our production eventually landed in England.
The stock market
An entirely new subject is going to be introduced here – the stock market. It seems out of place at this point, but assumes more importance later on. This may come as a surprise, since we did not have a lot of money. But we had put a few odd dollars aside, and one day, on reading the financial page of the daily paper, I came across an advertisement for the sale of 4 1/2 % shares of Morsly Paper Company.
These were preferred shares, which meant nothing to me, as I didn’t even know the difference between a stock and a bond at that time. Interest rates were low then, government bonds only paying 3%, and so 4 1/2 % looked pretty good.
I decided to ask our bank manager for his opinion of this investment. Now, I didn’t know this, but bank managers as a group have a low opinion of stocks. Perhaps their estimation may be justified. I’m still not sure. But when I spoke to the manager, his advice was: leave stocks alone.
Taking a chance
However, if I insisted on tempting fate by buying stock, despite the many pitfalls, he said this one presented about as few hazards as any he could think of. So, in spite of his pessimistic advice we bought five shares. These were one hundred dollars par value, selling at $49.50.
Looking back at that stock after a number of years, an analyst had to be pretty cautious to advise against it. It was in a strong company with well established earnings, and was about as safe as a stock could be. We never made much money on it, for it wasn’t that type of stock. We drew the dividends regularly, and eventually sold the shares for a bit more than we had paid for them.
Our next venture into the stock market was less fortunate. We had been getting literature on some mining stocks from a firm of Toronto brokers.
Fortunately these people – C. E. Hepburn & Co. Ltd. – have long since had their license cancelled. But it wasn’t cancelled soon enough for us. Looking back now, we were unbelievably credulous, or maybe gullible would be the correct word.
They recommended two stocks most highly, neither of which I’d even give a second look now. One of these stocks was Quebec-Labrador, which held a few acres of moose pasture in the Labrador area. That is what I know about it now. But they had glowing accounts of the stock, and we opened the door for trouble by buying 1000 shares at 60 cents per share. Then we sat back and waited for fortune to roll in.
The shares, listed on the Toronto exchange, remained around that price, or a few cents more. In a short time I got a telephone call from C.E. Hepburn & Co. I felt flattered getting a phone call from Toronto. The person who called was Mr. Hepburn himself, and he was a smooth talker.
I once read in a book about an individual who, given a half hour’s time, could talk his grandmother into buying a set of false teeth for a hayrake. This chap was in the same class. He explained to me the fabulous amounts of iron ore in the area. This much at least, was true. According to him, Quebec-Labrador was a fast developing company, and a wait of even a week or two was likely to result in higher prices for the shares.
Waiting for take-off
In short, the time to buy was now, he said. In six weeks this stock would be selling at ninety cents per share. And in less than six months, the price would be $2.50 to $3.00 per share. This was all very pleasant to listen to. Even given my gullible condition I didn’t exactly believe it, but I did feel he might be telling the truth. I asked him if he was sure of his facts.
“I’m as sure as that day will turn into night, Mr. Blaikie,” he replied. “I’m sure enough that I have bought twenty thousand shares myself.” Maybe this was true. I doubt it, though. But it dispelled my fears to the point where I bought a thousand shares of Quebec-Labrador stock – with borrowed money.
While we were awaiting our fortunes on Quebec-Labrador we became interested in another stock promoted by the same broker. This was Silanco in the Cobalt area in Ontario. More telephone calls followed. To quote Mr. Hepburn, this company’s prospects were stupendous. A silver-cobalt mine was being brought into production, and at the present time a smelter was being constructed.
When the smelter was completed, the stock, now cheap at around 50 cents per share, was certain to advance rapidly to at least a couple of dollars. Again we swallowed the bait, and within a week or so had bought 1500 shares, at prices ranging from 50 to 58 cents per share. We also bought into a third stock – International Uranium, so that all told we had invested around two thousand dollars – all of it borrowed money.
By this time the original investment in Quebec-Labrador should have been beginning to pay off. But it didn’t. It had crept up to 67 cents per share, but then it dropped to 40 cents. Silanco, which he had recommended as an outstanding sleeper, was doing somewhat better, and had risen to 65 cents. A sleeper, in broker’s language, a stock that is about to rise rapidly while the public is not yet aware of the fact.
We were not very happy over the Quebec-Labrador, but since Silanco was starting to come, we felt it would be only a matter of time until Quebec-Labrador did the same. This did not happen. What did happen was that, in three months, Silanco suddenly dropped to 35 cents per share, while Quebec-Labrador was down to 30 cents.
And the International Uranium, bought at around 40 cents, never rise. It had slipped back to about 25 cents.
During this period we had learned, the hard way, some of the vagaries of the stock market. From the beginning we had almost no chance at all, a fact was well known to our illustrious broker. More misfortune lay ahead. Perhaps we should have sold out at these prices and taken our loss, but there always seemed to be the possibility of recovery.
As anyone familiar with the stock market knows, it seldom moves only in a single direction. Thus, just when we were desperate enough to sell, one of these stocks would advance a few cents, enough to fill us again with hope. But in a short time they always came tumbling down. When we finally did get to the point of selling, we didn’t dump them all at once, and I can’t remember all the selling prices. What I do remember – with appalling clarity – is that we recovered less than a quarter of our original investment.
Silanco was the last stock to go. At that point I sent a letter to our ex-broker, who, though I didn’t know it then, was soon to have his
license cancelled. The letter went something like this: “Sometime ago, you recommended Silanco to me as an outstanding sleeper. Truer words were never spoken. It was an outstanding sleeper. It still is.
And two years, of patient, wistful waiting has convinced me that it always will be. In my final letter to you, please forgive me if I fail
to thank you for an experience that was painful, but instructive.” It came as no surprise us that this letter remained unanswered.
Our youngest daughter was born on April 1, 1951, four days before Eva’s 41st birthday. Previous to this we had thought our family was complete with three children. But it was not so.
Frances, now six years old, was excited by the coming event, and managed to communicate her excitement to David and Karla. They were all looking for a little brother but happily settled for a sister after finding that was what they were going to get anyway. We named her Karen Irene. At nine pounds, three ounces, she was at birth the largest baby in our family.
This time, we arranged for Mrs. (Charlie) Butcher to keep house and care for the family. She came with us sometime before Eva went to the hospital. She was very familiar with children, having had a large family herself. She was a very warm, loveable person, at that time sixty-three years of age. Our children adored her, and she seemed to think a great deal of them too. She took complete charge while Eva was in hospital, and stayed with us for a month after Eva returned home. She died in the early 1970s, at age 82. She was one of the kindest people I have ever known, and was so regarded by everyone.
As a baby, Karen was very little trouble. She was well, or at any rate she had no health problems as a baby, though some did develop later.
Roy’s health had deteriorated. Part of it was simply that he was growing older, yet the decline during these years was faster than normal. We were not aware that he had any heart symptoms, but his next illness turned out to be a heart attack. I’m not certain of the exact timing of this event, but it must have been in 1952 or 1953. The attack was quite severe, and he was bedfast for a month or more. He was not taken to hospital, but was treated at home by our local doctor.
A heart condition is usually slow to respond, and his was no exception. Still, as the months went by, he was able to come to the mill again, and eventually to do some light work. He was around 63 or 64 at this time, and it was quite evident that his health was failing.
Glenn’s health hadn’t been good either. He had had a series of operations that left him only partially able to continue working. Thus, the feelings I had experienced during the winter evenings of 1948 returned with doubled force. Change was in the air.
In 1955 Glenn had a serious operation for cancer of the bowel. He spent two months in hospital, and was in critical condition a good part of the time. When he was able to come home, his recovery was as good as could have been expected, but the passing of the summer months made it plain that he would never again be able to resume work in the mill.
Once again the Autumn months arrived with their never failing beauty. Before they were over, Glenn’s decision to sell his share of the business had become final. The changes that I had visualized were at hand. But what form would they take? Glenn’s son, Leslie, was through school, and had gone out to work, so I didn’t consider it likely that he would come back to the mill. Edwin was still working in
the mill, while George was driving the truck. It was a foregone conclusion that Edwin would be getting some, if not all, of Glenn’s shares, but would the others participate also?