20. Fire strikes again

David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman
1909-1976

20. Fire strikes again

The variety of personalities one encounters on a selling trip is interesting. Usually I dealt with individuals who were quite senior in the business, and most of these people were friendly, and interested in what we had to offer. Occasionally I did strike someone with an inflated sense of importance, and one of these instances involved Eastern Builders Supplies.

Our early dealings there were conducted through the head of the firm, Raymond Ferguson. I have heard him criticised, but our relations with him were always good. However, he had other business interests, and as his lumber business became better established, he began hiring managers, one of whom was a Mr. King.

Mr. King’s personal appearance was not appealing. He was a short, dark complexioned man who always seemed to have a discontented look on his face. And always he managed to convey the impression that the lumber he bought from us was inferior. We checked each load carefully, and we knew any lumber that we sent him would have been accepted without question from our other customers.

Bark worse than bite

Thus, I soon came to the point where I paid little attention to his remarks about our stock. He kept right on ordering, so the lumber must have suited him. But Fred Fulton, our truck driver, hated him. Fred was driving our lumber truck at the time, and he was a superlatively good driver.

Mr. King had too little room in his yard for the stock he kept on hand, and he frequently demanded that the lumber be put in places that made the unloading difficult. In this particular case he had a set of racks back at the end of a passage, which happened to be only slightly wider than the truck, and the load of lumber had to slide off the back end of the truck.

Mr. King wanted the load to land at a spot as near to his racks as was possible without striking them. The previous load had been too far removed, meaning that the lumber had to be carried an extra two or three feet.

Unwarranted fuss 

So Fred, anxious to please him, backed somewhat closer. But the concrete drive happened to be wet at the time and, when unloaded, the lumber slid back and struck the racks. Very little damage resulted – it wasn’t possible, as the racks were no good anyway – but Mr. King made a major fuss. He rushed to the phone and called me, and his account was so grave that I drove down immediately, expecting to find the place lying in ruins.

On my arrival, I found that these racks, built from low-grade lumber, were still nearly intact, but one of the posts had been struck by a piece of lumber, and being shoved off to one side, had let one section of the racks drop down.

It was only necessary for it to be pried up into place and spiked, after which the racks were as good as ever – not to pay them too much of a compliment.

Departing the scene

Fred had a low opinion of Mr. King to begin with, and this little episode did nothing to improve it. Nor was I happy about so much commotion being made over such a trifling incident. But it was one of those things you encounter in the line of business. We were not the only ones who had problems with Mr. King, and he wasn’t there much longer. I never heard what happened, but in less than three months he departed, unregretted by anyone – especially Fred!

Previous to 1957, probably 75% of our lumber had been exported in the rough. From this time on, more than 99% was dressed for local use, and we never did go back to the export market.

With Ray as sawyer, and the planer humming steadily, the hot summer months soon wore away. That first fall after Ray came with us, when the main rush of business was expected to be over for the year, we would not normally have needed a sawyer. I could have gone back to the job temporarily myself.

Keeping Ray

But this never happened. In the first place, Ray was too good a man to part with. And, second, business continued much better than we had expected. Late in the fall, orders became less frequent, but by that time our stock of lumber was low. And we knew it would build up during the winter months, as it had always done in the past.

My biggest fear was that Ray might, after a time, become tired of his job with us. He had been used to faster mills, where more machinery, mainly an edger, permitted increased production. But in a short time he became adjusted to our “turn-down” mill, and settled in as a permanent member of our mill crew.

Sales of lumber that winter exceeded all our previous records for winter business. Hence the stock of lumber in our mill yard did not increase as fast as we had anticipated, and we found ourselves actually buying rough lumber to fill our orders.

Low on stock

By the time March of 1959 came around the slight increase in our yard stock was far below our expectations. Still, the roads would soon be closing, and with a good supply of logs in the mill yard, we hoped to add at least 300,000 board feet, which would give us at least a start for spring business.

Regarding the closing of the roads, during the period when the frost was coming out of the ground it was, and still is, the practice to restrict the weights which trucks are allowed to haul.

Today, the restrictions still permit a reasonable load, but at this time, restrictions were so severe that deliveries were discontinued until the restrictions were removed.

Disaster hits again

A real disaster lay just ahead. Thursday, March 12, was a day of overcast skies and steadily increasing gusts of wind, and late in the afternoon the rain began to fall. As evening approached the storm intensified to gale force winds and heavy rain. We had no night watchman then, so before leaving the mill that night extra care was taken to leave everything safe.

Yet around 5:30 the next morning – Friday, March 13, 1959 – we awoke to find the sawmill on fire. Eva saw it first from our home, and Edwin must have seen it at about the same time, as we both arrived at the mill almost together, Ray coming with Edwin.

It was too late to save the sawmill. Had there been enough steam on the boiler to pump water, the fire could no doubt have been extinguished, as it had started in the back of the boiler room, where a hose from the boiler could easily have been used to quell the flames.

Planing mill saved

By this time our village boasted a fire pumper. This was sent for, and soon arrived. The wind was blowing directly onto the planing mill, and it looked as if it would burn too. If the fire had ever gotten into the interior of the planing mill, there would have been no possibility of saving it. Accumulated dust from the planer, and plenty of grease around all the bearings, would have made it a hopeless firetrap.

While they were getting the fire pump ready, we all worked desperately to keep the fire from getting into the building. Already it had caught on the outside wall, but we kept the inside drenched with water until the pump came to our rescue with water enough to quench the blaze.

This was a different type of fire from the one that destroyed the mill in 1942. At that time everything was tinder-dry, and in half an hour the mill was completely burned down. This fire burned more slowly because of the heavy rain that had fallen during the night. Still, there was no hope of saving the sawmill, except through a miracle.

But thanks to the timely arrival of the fire pump the planing mill remained standing, with only slight damage on the side next the sawmill. As is so often the case, no satisfactory explanation of the cause of the fire was ever discovered.

Crowd gathers

Word of the fire had circulated quickly by telephone, and a large number of people, including our own mill crew had gathered. After the sawmill was levelled, and the real danger to the planing mill was over, most went their way. A few of the men stayed to watch the site during the day. By evening, the fire was down to a point where there was little danger. Still, we did not feel like leaving it altogether. I stayed on the scene until two a.m., after which Edwin relieved me until morning.

We had built a separate building as lunch room for the men, and as this commanded a good view of the fire – now low and smouldering in the sawdust – this is where I stayed while on watch. It wasn’t a cheerful experience. During the afternoon it had turned colder, and by the time darkness had fallen, the temperature was well below freezing.

The sky was gloomy and overcast, with a sullen wind blowing steadily out of the northwest. As it drew on towards midnight the silence became intense, broken only by the wailing of the wind, and the dismal, creaking of bent, fire-beaten sections of steel-roofing clattering against one another – cheerless sounds in a desolate setting.

Major calamity

The fire, coming as it did, when we had been in business only three years, was a calamity. True, the three years had been good ones, but the cost of replacing the sawmill would be high – if we did replace it. My reflections can be better imagined than described. They seemed a perfect match for surroundings in which they took place. It was too soon to decide what to do. In the morning we would
talk things over, and possibly come to some decision. Eventually, when Edwin came, I went home to bed.

Edwin was undecided about rebuilding. I came to the conclusion that we should. In fact, I could see no satisfactory alternative. We still had to make a living, and, being on the edge of 50 at the time, I didn’t relish the prospect of looking for a job in another mill. Still, there was no point in trying to persuade Edwin to do something distasteful to him.

This was the situation that developed between us on the morning following the fire, so we agreed to think it over for a day or two. This was Saturday, and over the week-end it was likely we would come to some decision. I had already decided, or at any rate I felt the mill should be rebuilt, but this was too big a venture for me to undertake alone. However, by Monday, Edwin had come to the same decision – the mill would be rebuilt.

Temporary operations

The frost was still deep in the ground. It was only mid-march, and nothing could be done to rebuild for at least six weeks. And after that it would be midsummer before a new sawmill could be put into operation.

This was too long to wait – we had a good supply of logs in the yard, and arrangements made for a full supply for the summer and fall months As had been the case after the fire of 1942, we faced the certainty that, due to the long delay, our log supply would be damaged by worms. Also, we already had lumber orders on hand, and while these would have to be cancelled, it was unthinkable to be out of production for the entire summer.

It was Ray who supplied the answer. He and his brother, Phil, owned a portable sawmill, which had been rented for the winter, to Arnold Giddens, Eva’s foster brother. This mill had been set up in the woods five miles back of Belmont, and the winter’s work there was nearly finished. This mill would have to be moved out of the woods anyway. Arrangements were made to have it moved directly to our millyard.

Back in business

Our plan was to set this mill up temporarily, which could be done in a matter of two weeks. Ray had, of course, set this mill up many times in the past, and he was familiar with every detail of the job. Everything went like clock-work, and on April third, three weeks from the date of the fire, we sawed the first log in the new mill.

This was a diesel powered mill. It was an excellent working mill that included an edger, which we hadn’t had in our own mill. We decided to set up this edger and use it for a month or more, while we were sawing the logs that were already in our mill yard. Since our trucks were not running, due to the closed road period, we had plenty of crowd to operate this mill, even using the edger, which required four extra men.

Another problem remained. All the machinery in our old mill had been destroyed, including the boiler and engine. The fire would not normally have damaged the boiler, but in this case the boiler was old, and a safety inspection revealed weaknesses that made it unsafe for further operation. This left us without power for our planing mill.

Second diesel engine

We solved this problem by buying a used diesel unit. This was satisfactory, even though we realised that upon construction of the new mill this machine would become redundant. But it seemed to be the only solution, and we felt we could eventually sell this machine for something, when the time came that we no longer needed it.

Having made all of these arrangements, we were back in full production. But that was a hectic summer. Ray took almost complete charge of the sawmill, and I did my best to look after the planing mill. We bought a new sawmill – excluding the power plant – from the Oxford Foundry and Machine Company.

We later located a used boiler, about fourteen years old. Since a boiler will usually last around 30 years – our old one was nearly 40 – we reasoned that this would be a satisfactory arrangement. One factor that helped to persuade us was the price. This boiler was available for $2,000, while a new one would have been around $8,000.

We were also fortunate enough to locate a used engine in good condition, for only $50. It was a 12×12 engine – 12-inch cylinder and 12-inch stroke, considerably more powerful than our previous engine, which had been 11×11.

Edwin takes charge

Then Edwin, with some men to help him, began the task of rebuilding the new sawmill. While this could have been done in from two to three months, we did not plan to do it that way. Ray’s mill was doing good work, and this allowed Edwin to work at the new mill at his own pace, with whatever crowd was available.

All of the foregoing would make it appear that we had conquered the disaster of the fire. Insofar as our production of finished lumber – and our sales – went, we had done just that, and were up to our former levels. But there were drawbacks. The first of these related to finances.

The continuing cost of erecting the new mill, and the extra staff required under this system put a terrific drain on our finances. In addition to the crowd involved in the rebuilding, extra hands had to be hired in the sawmill as well. In the old mill, a large part of the waste – sawdust, planer shavings, etc. – were used in firing the boiler.

Graham Olmstead

The diesel units, of course, were unable to use this waste, and it all had to be hauled into our intervale and burned. It’s difficult to burn sawdust on an outdoor fire. In a short time we had a large space covered with this sawdust, in various stages of combustion. And frequently an east wind would blow the smoke back onto the mill, making it disagreeable for the workers there. As the weather became dryer, there was again a considerable risk of fire, especially at night.

After spending a good part of several nights watching the fire, we realized it was time to do something that we should have done years ago – hire a nightwatchman. Had we done this three months earlier, the old mill would, no doubt, still have been standing. But, in the lumber business – or any other business – it isn’t much use wasting time worrying over what might have been.

Our first night-watchman was Graham Olmstead, who most people affectionately called Dagwood, or Bumstead. Someone thought there was a resemblance to the character in the comic strip, Dagwood and Blondie, and the nickname had stuck.

A likeable character

He was a small man, about 55 years of age, with a heavy shock of greying hair, set above a face that certainly could not be considered handsome. And his personality also took some getting used to. Graham was illiterate, but voluble in his conversation, which was usually sprinkled with a fair amount of profanity. He was unintentionally destructive, a situation we came to look upon as in the nature of a jinx. Added to this, he had a fondness for the bottle. In the early stages of his employment with us, he was careful about this. 

Graham Olmstead
and Lassie 1960s

However, it was always something of a worry to us, especially as time went on and it became more of a problem.

But in spite of all this, Graham was likeable. He had been married, but his wife had left him some years earlier. He lived in a little shack down in Otter Brook, and on coming into our employ, he moved the shack into our mill yard, along with his faithful dog Lassie. As living quarters went, they were nothing to boast about. A henhouse would have looked good by comparison, and perhaps been cleaner! To me, his living conditions defied description. The shack was filthy.

Quick to help

Since he was living so near to the mill, he was around it considerably in the daytime, especially in the afternoon. He wasn’t expected to do any work during the day, but was always ready to help out with any little chore that needed to be done.

Whatever his faults, Graham wasn’t lazy. He liked to help out if he could.

He had some knowledge of a sawmill, having held the job of fireman briefly at one time. A fireman normally keeps the steam engine in order, but with Graham his abilities were exemplified by the old saying: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. We did not attempt to get him to touch the engine, and for some time, things didn’t go badly.