David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman
17. Changes in marketing
I continued at this time to saw and mill operations went on much as before. But there were some changes. A short time earlier we had decided to get a truck with a dump body for the purpose of delivering slabwood to local customers. Previous to this the slabs from our logs were cut into stove wood and carried out of the mill on a conveyor chain, where they fell to the ground in a pile. Customers came and hauled away what the wanted from this leftover material. This procedure had become unsatisfactory.
Everyone wanted the best wood available. So there was a tendency for each person to throw aside the poorer pieces. And in a short time, such an accumulation of undesirable leftovers would build up that we had to bring in a bulldozer to clean the place up.
Under this new system, the dump truck was backed directly under the conveyor chain, and all the wood, large and small, dropped directly into it. Nothing was left to accumulate. Even so, the sale of wood was never a very satisfactory business, even though it
continued as long as the mill remained in operation. Stove and furnace wood was a by-product of our operations, yet the price it commanded was so low that the cost of delivery left little profit.
The situation was complicated by some poor accounts. A good many customers paid for their wood as soon as they got it. But some didn’t. Of these, some did pay within a reasonable time. But frequently our bills were ignored. Perhaps a year later, when their wood was done and they needed more, a bill might be paid – or they would change to another supplier.
As time went on, however, suppliers of slabwood became fewer and fewer. Bigger, more automatic mills were gradually driving the smaller operators out of business. Up until about 1950 there were quite a number of small mils in our area. These operations might saw anywhere from 100,000 board feet to a million or more of lumber each year. But one by one they closed down, or curtailed their production to a point where they might as well have shut down completely. At the present time, I know of four small mills not too far distant, but their combined production would probably be less than a million feet.
Bigger mills could have produced a large quantity of firewood. But they never became involved in this business. Instead, they installed machinery for manufacturing pulp chips, and transported them to paper companies for use in making paper products. This required the use of a de-barker, which removed all the bark from the logs, and a chipper, which cut the slabs into small pieces, or chips.
However, the cost of this machinery was impractical to install it in a small mill. If we could have installed it, we would have been assured of saleable products from the whole log, except the sawdust, which, while not sold, was used for fuel in a steam-powered mill such as ours. But steam-powered mills were becoming scarce. Also, most local residents, by this time, had turned at least partially to oil as a source of fuel. A few people still cut some hardwood.
When Edwin’s brother, George was last mentioned in these pages, he had returned from the War overseas, and had gone to work with Glenn on the log truck. Glenn did not continue much longer on the truck, and Fred Fulton was hired instead to work with George. This arrangement lasted until after the business changed hands.
Then, on short notice, George decided to leave. I think he may have been disappointed in not becoming a partner in the business, although there may have been a difference of approaches if he had. Edwin and I had similar ideas regarding operation of the business. George’s ideas were different.
I felt he and Edwin would have had disagreements as partners, and he and I would not have seen eye to eye with him either. The possibility of his entry into the business was considered at one stage but nothing was decided. Meanwhile, George had an offer of work at a garage in Bible Hill, which he accepted, and thus he ended his connection with what had now had become a business operated by myself and Edwin.
As business affairs were being wound up after Roy’s death, it was necessary for Edwin and I to buy the shares that had belonged to Roy. This situation had been foreseen, but we had not expected it to occur for some years. As a result, it created further debt for us to carry, but we were able to make the necessary arrangements, and after having done so, we each owned half of the business.
With so many things to be looked after, in addition to the operation of the business, spring was upon us almost before we realized it. The fields turned green again, and the leaves appeared on the trees. Spring is a life-giving season that contrasts with the mood of sadness and decay each autumn. And we were glad to see it come. The winter had not been easy, and it isn’t well to be always looking back into the past. There was plenty ahead to take our attention.
We had another fire during the winter. The building we called the ‘lumber house’ burned down. The downstairs part of the building we used for the storage of mouldings, finish, gutters and so on. The upstairs was used as a glazing room. The building burned late one evening around March 1. The cause of the fire was unknown.
As far as we knew, no one had been in the building for the previous two or three days. And right or wrong, we ended up blaming the fire on faulty electric wiring. There seemed to be no other conceivable reason why the fire should have occurred.
The building and its’ contents were destroyed. Included, ironically enough, was a fire pump which, under happier conditions, might have saved the building. The pump was right inside the door, and it was saved, so I supposed it was incorrect to say everything was lost. This pump, however, was the only thing salvaged. All the mouldings and quite a lot of pine finish, plus the gutters, and a large quantity of glass, paint, and other materials were lost.
There was nothing we could do about the loss of the building, and it was never re-built. It’s loss just about spelled the end of the window business, which had never been very profitable anyway. To have continued it would have meant the building of a new glazing room, which we decided against. An unused barn, still on the property, was made to do for the other items formerly kept in the lumber house.
The export market, which had been excellent for since World War Two, went into a sudden slump that spring. We got rid of our winter’s cut before things went bad, but after that we knew it was of no use to continue sawing export lumber sizes. Yet with all the obligations we had assumed, we were in no position to cut down on our volume of business.
There was only one thing to do: saw our lumber into sizes for the local market, dress the lumber, and most important of all, sell it. We were already selling lumber to one retail lumberyard, Dartmouth Lumber, and we had occasional customers in Truro.
We had to have more customers. Edwin had plenty of good points in the business, but selling lumber was not one of them. I had no selling experience either, but decided I had to give it a try. My plan was to contact only the Halifax lumber companies whose records were well known to us, and whose financial ability was unquestioned.
An unfortunate experience had occurred during the latter part of the previous winter which had led us to be cautious in extending credit to unknown firms. During February we had sold all our export lumber, but except for two carloads of 2×6, 2×8, and 2×10. A Montreal firm advertising for these particular sizes was brought to our attention.
This firm, called Ex-cel Plywoods, was foreign to us. But I felt that if anyone could get reliable information, it would be our bank manager, Mr. Peters. So he got in touch with his affiliates in Montreal and came back with a good credit rating. This allayed our fears, for I had always had considerable reverence for advice given by bank managers. Now, I know that while they do their best, they are far
At this point I telephoned the Ex-cel purchasing agent, Mr. Pinel, whose name was pronounced Pin-EEL. The ‘eel’ part of his name was most appropriate. He was as smooth and suave as the Mr. Hepburn, the crook who sold us the Silanco and Quebec Labrador, had been. His price for this lumber was good, in fact slightly more than we had expected to receive, so we began by selling Ex-cel our first carload, a shipment valued at around $2,200.
The roads were soon going to be closed to trucks, so after a further talk with our bank manager, who once more gave us his blessing, I made my second call to Mr. Pinel. We had been afraid that on account of his premium price, he might be very particular regarding lumber quality.
Still, what we had sent them was good stock and when I inquired about the quality to Mr. Pinel, he assured me that it was very good. So we sold him a second carload. The terms included payment in 30 days, and as only two weeks had elapsed since the first carload was shipped, it was too soon to begin worrying about payment. Or so we thought, anyway.
The first inkling of trouble came about 10 days after we shipped out the second carload. A call came to us from the Canadian National Railroad station in Truro telling us that our second shipment of lumber was standing unclaimed in Montreal. This didn’t sound good to me.
The crooks flee
I immediately put a call through to Mr. Pinel but was told by the switchboard operator that the Ex-cel Plywood people were no longer in the building, and were not expected back. This was disturbing news. Unable to think of anything else to do, I phoned Mr. Peters, our bank manager. He offered to write to the Montreal branch of the Bank of Commerce. But this was too slow. So he accepted our
suggestion that he make use of the telephone instead. But he told us sorrowfully that this would mean two long-distance calls, as the Montreal branch would have to get the information, then call him back. Well, with a carload of lumber standing on demurrage in Montreal, the telephone calls looked cheap to me, so I told him to go ahead.
That evening, he called us back, and sadly informed us that we had been dealing with a bunch of crooks who had vacated their office and disappeared, leaving not so much as a fountain pen to be seized by creditors. There was no hope of any compensation whatever. No matter how you regarded their morals – and we didn’t think they had any – it had to be admitted that they were clever operators.
How they were able to fool the bank to this extent is hard to understand. The Bank of Commerce got its information from the bank that Ex-cel had dealt with. I’ve often wondered if this bank didn’t have a few chestnuts they wanted to pull out of the fire, and so gave out a report that was something less than accurate. It was little comfort to know that we were not alone in our grief. Quite a number of Nova
Scotia firms were involved, many of them sustaining losses greater than ours.
Bank makes amends
Our Bank used us well. They felt guilty about the erroneous information they had given us, and they offered to look after the sale of the second carload to a reliable firm. Eventually, they sold it to the Montreal Lumber Co. for a price considerably less than we were supposed to get from Ex-cel Plywoods, but an amount that they promptly paid.
Furthermore, Mr. Peters refused to accept any payment for his services. He felt badly about what had happened – as did we – and said that the least the bank could do was to let it go without charge. This was appreciated. Later, we sold several more carloads to Montreal Lumber. The loss of a $2,200 account at a time when the export market had just gone bad added little to our peace of mind. But it was this knowledge that led us to the previously stated decision to stick to firms that we were pretty sure were reliable.
It wasn’t an easy time to sell lumber. A lot of producers were in the same situation as we were, and there was plenty of competition. We had one advantage over most of these producers. A great many of them operated solely for the export market, and produced only rough lumber.
Dressed lumber only
At one time this wouldn’t have been such a great drawback. The bigger Halifax lumber yards had dressing facilities, and more often than not, bought rough lumber which they dressed themselves. But to a great extent this practice had passed. One by one they disposed of their planing machinery, and now they bought only the finished lumber. Hence, mill-operators who produced only rough lumber were forced to ship their lumber to a dressing mill and have it planed before they could deliver it to their customers. This added both expense and delay.
We were fortunate in having planers and re-saws. We could provide what was required with little delay. Yet sales were spotty at first. About all that could be said was that we did make sales enough to keep us busy during the summer.
One thing we soon found out. If we were going to operate by supplying the local market, we had to carry a much greater volume of stock than we had ever done in the past. Almost from the beginning we received calls for “house orders”, the complete range of sizes required to frame a single house and board it in. It was necessary to have such sizes as 2×6, 2×8 and 2×10 on hand constantly, and to have it sorted into the various lengths.
This required more room in our lumber yard, a problem we solved by making use of what was originally a hayfield. And as time went on, even this space became cramped. We needed many, many piles of lumber in order to ensure that the right lengths and sizes were available.
For example, 2×6 was piled in lengths all the way from eight feet to 20 feet – 13 separate piles. But it really required more than that, for we sawed both 2×6 and 4×6. The 4×6 was later re-sawn into 2×6, so that made thirteen more piles. The 2×8 and 2×10 were handled similarly. These were the commonest lengths. But besides these, we had 2×3, 2×4 and 2×5, which usually went in random lengths and did not need to be sorted, and 2×12, which was usually sorted.
We also had one inch boards, which called for five more piles; pine boards and 2″ hemlock in various sizes; juniper fence posts; piles of second quality or cull lumber; a few piles of hardwood, and also piles of 4×4, 5×5, 6×6 and 8×8. Together, these many piles took up a respectable amount of territory.
Fork lift truck
This didn’t happen all at once. Our yard enlarged gradually, and it was around this time that we got our first fork-lift for moving lumber about the mill-yard. Looked at in retrospect, this old lift was a pitiful affair. It would move about 700 to 800 board feet of rough lumber at one time, and around a thousand feet of dressed lumber. This was far from adequate, but our only previous way of moving lumber was to load it by hand onto a truck, and then unload it wherever we wanted to put it. So it’s capacity would have been a big improvement, had it not been such a temperamental machine.
If it started, especially in cold weather, you breathed a sigh of relief. But you soon learned not to breathe it too quickly. The lift apparatus was hydraulically operated. And this part of the machine was at least as temperamental as the motor. It was maddening to get a lift load of lumber up three or four feet into the air, and then have it refuse to go any further. Had the machine not been such an absolute necessity, it probably would have been driven over a bank in disgust.
We later retired this primitive piece of machinery, and got two more, which were an immense improvement. But even these were nothing compared to the ones that came out a few years later.