David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman
16. Emerging ownership
It was now November of 1955. The trees were bare and leafless, and weather colder than normal for that time of year. The ground was already as hard as iron. On the night of December 1, while I was doing up the night chores at the mill, Edwin came down to have a talk. Glenn was putting his half of the business up for sale, and Edwin had been offered the chance to buy. No one else in the family had showed an interest at that point.
The prospect of raising money to buy these shares, with the outlook that in the near future he would likely have to buy Roy’s shares as well, was looking like more of a business venture than he was prepared to embark on.
In short, he was offering me the chance to share equally with him in the purchase of Glenn’s shares, with the understanding that, as time went on, Roy’s shares would also be bought on the same basis.
This development was unexpected. I had thought that either Edwin would buy all the shares, or that possibly George might become involved. This decision requried a fair amount of consideration. I wanted to talk it over with Eva, who would be equally affected, and we later talked until midnight.
46 years old
I had my forty-sixth birthday the previous summer. It seemed old to be beginning a business venture where quite a lot of capital was going to be involved. And would we be able to get the capital? On the other hand, if we turned this offer down, our future prospects didn’t look alluring. If Edwin did raise the money to buy all the shares, it would mean that I’d be working for him the rest of my life, unless I left altogether.
Or, if he didn’t decide to take this chance, then in the near future, the business would likely be sold or closed down, which would necessitate a new move altogether on my part. In any case, I had always had a sneaking desire to have some part in the actual management of the business.
The $10 per day for which I was working in the fall of 1955 didn’t look too fabulous, and I felt that somehow, surely, we could do better than this. As Eva and I ended our discussion that night, we had made the decision to buy the shares, provided we could borrow money from the bank. We hoped this decision was a wise one, for a lot depended on it. When you borrow a substantial amount of money to enter business at the age of forty-six, the business had better pay off. If not, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever have another chance.
December was a real winter month that year. Two or three snowstorms in rapid succession had dumped two feet of snow on the already frozen earth. Then the weather turned clear and cold. Our logging roads were broken out, and the winter was off to a good start. Cold weather continued until January 4, 1956. On that day a thaw began, the biggest I could remember. First there was a heavy rain, and following that a series of mild, beautiful days, that you might you hope for (but rarely get) in April. During the three weeks that followed, all the snow disappeared, and every vestige of frost thawed out of the sodden earth.
On January 10, 1956, the transfer of Glenn’s shares took place. That evening we met at Roy’s home, and the business was completed. From that day on, Edwin and I each owned a quarter of the business, the other half still being held by Roy.
The mild weather continued. We had enough logs in the mill yard to last a week. After they were finished we dressed all the lumber we had that was suitable for the local market, and hauled it down to the Dartmouth Lumber Company. We were then forced to stand idle until colder weather returned. The result was that it was nearing the end of January when we began sawing again.
Operating conditions were poor at that point. The renewal of winter came after a foot of snow had fallen on ground that had had no opportunity to freeze again. With the cold weather back, it was imperative that our logging roads be broken out as quickly as possible, so they would freeze. This was a dirty, disagreeable job, and hard on trucks. By February the mill was running again, but it was a hand to mouth operation to keep the mill in logs.
About the time things began to improve, more snow came, and that was the pattern for the rest of the winter. A fair supply of logs had been cut during the thaw, and we put on an extra truck to try to get some of these hauled ahead for spring sawing.
We plugged along miserably until March 20th. By that time the depth of snow had driven most of the loggers out of the woods. And that night a late winter storm added nearly another foot, accompained by high winds, which caused heavy drifting. Effectively, this put a stop to any further lumbering operations.
Waiting for spring
We reasoned that the spring breakup was already imminent and that a few more days would bring an end to snowfall. But it took longer than we expected. It was April 10 by the time we got the mill running again. And even then snow was a problem, but warmer weather during the next two weeks melted most of it away.
Thus, our first winter as participants in ownership was less than 100% successful. We were not discouraged, however, for we knew better times were ahead. We had enough logs to last until dry weather came – we hoped – and we had a good supply of logs already arranged to last from then until fall.
As if in compensation for the dreary months of winter, the spring was beautiful, one of the pleasantest I had ever seen. By May, the days – or most days – were warm and sunny. The frogs were piping. And it was wonderful once more to watch the fields turn from brown to green, and to see the buds opening into the first delicate green of new leaves. Twice a year the leaves are outstanding. The first is the month or more when they first develop in that light, airy green of spring. The other is the last month, when they are aflame with the brilliant colours of autumn.
May was a dry month, so our truck roads were ready for use earlier than usual. Still, it was near the end of May before we could really go into the woods for logs. In the meantime, Edwin and I had heard that Byron Cox, of South Branch, had a good brow of logs cut. So one evening we went to see him. The logs – which were really nice – were only a couple of hundred yards off the main road, and the
woods road into them was okay for trucks. We bought these logs – around 50,000 board feet – and began hauling them to the mill.
Roy’s health had been poor all winter. And with the arrival of spring the doctor practically ordered him to go to the hospital for a general examination. Among other things, this examination showed that a prostate gland operation was necessary. In due time, following the operation, he was able to get back home, but the surgery was not entirely successful. To some extent his troubles were cancerous.
Roy had always loved the mill. Under our father’s direction, he was instrumental in building the original mill in 1907. Forty nine years had passed since then, and he was as deeply interested as ever. But now, failing health had left him unable to actively participate in its operation.
A good mechanic
Mechanically, Roy was clever. Problems always arise in the operation of a mill, but he was always equal to anything that came up. I always felt that his mechanical ability was unequalled by any of the rest of us. Edwin was probably the best in this respect, but he still lacked some of the natural genius of Roy.
Even when unable to come to the mill, Roy still loved to have us come in and discuss mill work with him. I made a practice of dropping in to see him a couple of evenings a week. He still made an occasional trip to the mill in the summer and early fall, but his working days were ended. However, he continued to oversee the office work, and to discuss with us the various problems connected with the
operation of the business.
With the exception of time lost during the winter, 1956 was a good year. It was good that during the previous years, when we had no share in the ownership of the business, both Edwin and I had taken a keen interest in its’ management. All our lives we had followed the price of logs, and the prices obtainable for lumber, and we knew quite well how these needed to compare in order to make the
business financially successful.
Now, it was up to us to make the arrangements for a good log supply. Already mentioned has been the fact that we usually had one or two contractors cutting our own logs for most of the year. These, supplemented by what we could buy from local wood lots, were usually enough to keep the mill running steadily.
The export market was good. Most of our production was shipped overseas, with possibly a quarter of our cut being dressed for the local market, which at that time meant mainly the Dartmouth Lumber Co., plus sales to a few odd contractors who were building houses.
Edwin and I were both anxious for the time to come when the company’s balance sheet would be made up for the year. Our official year ended November 30, and as the fall progressed, we felt that the year must have been a good one.
J. C. Nicoll
Barrow, Nicoll and Company, the Halifax accountants mentioned earlier, were still our auditors. They usually made up our books in the latter part of December, and this was always done by J.C. Nicoll himself. At that time, all the office work was done at Roy’s home, so at the appointed time, he came and stayed until the office work was up to date for another year.
J.C. Nicoll was quite a character. In 1956 he was a man of probably 48 to 50 years of age, short and heavy set. No doubt the heavy-set part was to some extent due to inactivity associated with his years of office work. His complexion was florid. His hair, what little there was of it, was somewhere between auburn and tow-white.
The unfortunate soul also had a disability, which was a stiff neck. It couldn’t have been any stiffer if it had been set in cement. He was unable to turn his head in any direction – either up, down or sideways, without having to turn nearly his whole body. He was probably used to this, but it was a long time before I got used to it.
The stiffness also seemed to extend to his disposition. If you spoke to him, it was uncanny to watch him turn his chair to look at you. That is, if he paid any attention at all. His partner, Mr. Barrow, was a suave, smooth-spoken man. Knowing the line of business they were engaged in, one might have expected Mr. Nicoll to be much the same. But it was not the case. Yet he was not a poor talker. He could speak well when he wanted.
But these times seldom coincided with the ones when I wished to communicate with him. For example, it was quite common to enter the room where he was working, not having seen him for a year, and to get no reply whatsoever when you spoke to him.
Later on, probably in the evening, he might loosen up and begin to talk. When this happened, it rarely took longer than two minutes before you were in an argument with him. He would sooner argue than eat. And he loved to eat. This was another reason apart from inactivity for his tendency toward corpulence.
A good professional
At the time – 1956 – Mr. Nicholl had been doing this work for five years, and during this period our paths didn’t cross often. But from that time on, discussion of many business details brought us into contact more frequently. And it should be said that he was tops in his profession. He was so good that he was able to keep a lot of detail in his head, a situation which later caused some trouble for succeeding auditors.
Mr. Nicholl was obstinate, and intolerant of errors. He got along with cats and dogs much better than most human beings. In later years, when he was doing his work in our home instead of Roy’s, we had a cocker-spaniel dog, and a half-grown kitten. At mealtime, he was always slipping titbits to the dog. One evening, which did nothing to add to his popularity, Eva entered the room and found him with our kitten in the middle of the dining room table.
It was his custom to work until around nine o’clock in the evening. After that he would watch television, chat if he felt like an argument, and most evenings partake of a substantial lunch before bedtime.
Strong first year
The results of labours on this occasion showed that we had not been mistaken in our assessment of the year’s results. The balance sheet looked good, one of the best to date. This was gratifying. Having borrowed a fair sum of money, a poor year would have been discouraging. We were able to buy a few more shares now, through a dividend payable to us from the company. Thus we bought enough of Roy’s shares so that each of the three of us now owned one third of the business.
By this time the new year – 1957 – had arrived. The mill was running as usual and, since export lumber was selling well, that was mainly what we produced. Work went on without incidents until around mid-winter. Then things changed with Roy.
At intervals of about three months Roy had to go back to the hospital – the Victoria General, in Halifax – for check-ups. It was on Sunday, February 3, that he was taken there for the last time. There was no reason to believe this trip was different from previous ones. I had been in to talk things over with him for a couple of hours on the Saturday night before he left.
He was quite cheerful over what he felt would be another routine examination. We talked at some length about the mill, a subject that never failed to interest him. And when I left that night, he came to the door with me, saying that he expected to be home again in three or four days.
Another heart attack
Late Tuesday afternoon Edna, his wife, received a telephone call from the hospital advising her that Roy had had a further heart attack, and that the doctors were concerned. Knowing his general condition, this sounded ominous. Edna and Edwin left for the hospital immediately, and Roy was able to talk to them when they arrived.
They were somewhat encouraged.
Edna later decided to stay with friends in Halifax, and Edwin came home. But late at night, shortly after his return, the phone rang. Roy had died suddenly between one o’clock and one-thirty in the morning. We were on the same party line, and I heard the ring, about two o’clock. As soon as the line was clear, I rang Edwin, and he told me what had happened.
Roy’s health had been bad for a long time. We should have been prepared for this. And in a way perhaps we were. Yet I doubt if anyone is really prepared for such an eventuality. When I had been talking with Roy the preceding Saturday night, he had seemed to me better than usual.
A great loss
|The sense of loss was stunning at first. All operations at the mill were suspended. During that period all I could think of was the close companionship we had for so many years, finished now, never to return. His body rested at his house, as was still often the custom in small country places.
The funeral was held on Friday, February 8 and the church was full. Roy was genuinely respected throughout the whole valley. I was filled with a numbing sense of a loss, and remember little of the service. Roy was lovingly laid to rest in Riverside cemetery, only about a mile from home. In due course we arrived home from the funeral, yet I was still hardly able to grasp what had happened.
Morris & Roy Blaikie 1940s
Life always continues, however. The next day, Saturday, Edwin and I got together for a long talk. We decided to start the mill again on Monday. Work was probably what we both needed now, as we had five days during which our minds had been solely occupied with the sad events that had been taking place.
I have never forgotten, nor am I likely to forget, the evenings at the mill following this period. Roy hadn’t been at the mill in the evening for a long time. But he was only 68 years of age, and there had always been the feeling that perhaps later on, maybe in warm weather, he would be able to get back. At any rate, those evenings were the times when I was reminded most keenly that Roy had been the life and soul of the mill from the time it was built, was now he was gone.
Edna had taken on a good part of the office work during the previous year or two. She agreed to keep on with these duties. We would take care of the variety of administrative work that goes with the operation of a lumber business. This included setting prices, making up the tallies, keeping track of orders and looking after sales – before the paperwork went to the office.
Normally, the word ‘office’ conveys a business-like atmosphere, suggesting a room containing desks, typewriters, adding machines, cheque-stampers, a safe, and other pieces of equipment, including something in the way of electronic devices, which all contribute to the efficient operation of business. It also conveys the idea of staff to keep these machines in use and maintain operations.
The dining room
Mr. Nicoll therefore must have been amazed, on this first trip to Upper Stewiacke, to be shown into Roy’s dining room, where pretty much the only equipment the room boasted in the way of office accessories was a desk and an antiquated safe. In the end, he chose to do most of his work at the dining room table in preference to the desk.
This same procedure was followed years later in our own home, where we did eventually acquire an adding machine but not much more in the way of equipment than Roy had. Yet I dare say that many fairly pretentious offices have handled fewer business transactions than the number which took place over our dining room table.