21. Spring weight limits

David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman

21. Spring weight limits

We had a large stock of material ready to be manufactured into gutter. Around mid-April, Ray, Tom and I went to Cape Breton on a selling trip. We sold quite a lot of gutter, as well as some of our other products, and along with the markets we had developed the previous year, it looked as if we would have no difficulty selling all we could produce.

Among the customers that we acquired in Cape Breton were Edstern Co-op, Ltd. at Sydney River; Chappells Ltd. and J.W. Stephens Ltd. in Sydney, also Ndovin Lumber and Hardware in New Waterford. These all turned out to be good customers, even the one that I never cared for – J.W. Stephens.

Bill Stephens

The manager was Bill Stephens. On the surface he was smooth and affable, but underneath he was hard and mean, and full of tricks that may not have been outright dishonest, but they shaved the line pretty closely. That was the only place in Cape Breton that we ever had a complaint regarding our lumber.

There was an occasion a year or two later than this that we had taken him up a supply of crown moulding. This stock had been manufactured from good quality fir, and had always been well received by our other customers. But when Mr. Stephens eventually paid the bill for this stock, he deducted payment for around 300 feet of the moulding because – he claimed – it had twisted, and become so crooked it was useless. Since he had given us some good orders, we accepted this settlement, although rather grudgingly, it must be confessed.

Poorly stored

A couple of weeks later I visited his yard in Sydney. It wasn’t hard to see why the moulding had twisted. Instead of being neatly piled, as it should have been, it had been thrown into a rack all crossed up like nails in a keg. Any lumber would twist with this type of handling. I decided there and then that he wouldn’t get a chance to do this to me again, and I didn’t go back to him for further orders.

Inside of two months, the event that I was waiting for happened: Mr. Stephens ran out of crown moulding. As I knew perfectly well, the only crown moulding that he could get would be pine, which he would have to buy from a city lumber yard, where the price would be far beyond the six cents per lineal foot that we had been charging him.

In due course we had a phone call from him, and was he as oily as ever. After passing the usual amenities, he came around to the point. “How soon could you get me five thousand feet of crown moulding?” “Mr. Stephens,” I said, “I’d like to bring you another supply of crown moulding, but unfortunately all our stock is similar to the last bunch which twisted on you”.

Making him squirm

I fully intended to accept his order, which was a good one, but I was having fun listening to him squirm. “Oh, probably that won’t happen again,” he said. “I’m dead out and need the stock badly.” “Well, Mr. Stephens”, I replied, “just so that we understand each other clearly, I’ll send you up five thousand feet, providing you agree here and now to pay for every stick we send you.”

I don’t think he liked the turn the conversation had taken, but I knew he was stuck for crown moulding, and I also knew the type of man I was dealing with. When he replied, some of the syrup had gone from his voice. “Bring it up anyway,” he said brusquely, “I’ve got to have it.”

“We’ll do that, Mr. Stephens”, I answered, “but there’s one more thing: the price has gone up to seven cents a foot”. At this point, the anger in his voice only thinly veiled, he started to argue and haggle. But the phone call was running into money, and he hated to pay phone bills. When I told him that I’d already explained the terms under which we would fill his requirements, he gave in, and put an end to the conversation.

Orders pour in

Business was exceptionally good all that summer and fall. It was wonderful to have order after order for lumber pouring in, but this had a tendency to retard construction of the new mill. Before we went to Cape Breton I had been planing gutter, and continued this task on my arrival home. Altogether, we planed gutter for three weeks, producing a total of around 75,000 feet. That’s a lot of gutter.

After the spring, when the roads had been closed to trucks while the frost was coming out of the ground, the highways re-opened for heavy traffic. And soon after this happened we took a mixed load – mostly gutter and mouldings plus a little lumber – up to Cape Breton. It included an order of gutter for Chappells, gutter and crown for J.W. Stephens, a small order of gutter for Eastern Co-op, and a mixture – gutter, crown, door casings and veranda flooring for Ndovin’s in New Waterford.

The Ndovin’s were Jewish people. Morris Ndovin, the one with whom we usually did business, was the eldest of three brothers. Jews frequently get the name of being hard, unsatisfactory people to deal with. But this was not our experience. Morris Ndovin was a really fine fellow, one whom I liked during all the years we did business together.

There were no arguments over prices, and he always seemed to find our stock satisfactory. New Waterford being the most distant point on our trip, Ndovin’s stock was always piled on the bottom of the load. We generally went there directly after delivering Bill Stephens’ order. Possibly this explained why Morris Ndovin looked so good to us – anything would look good after Bill Stephens!

Travels with Fred

Fred Fulton was still driving our lumber truck, and for the first few deliveries to Cape Breton, I accompanied him. Fred, as always, was a good man, perfectly capable of making these deliveries, and of accepting new orders. But I liked to go along. Business discussions often took place during this trips, and it was a good way to keep in contact with these new customers.

We usually left home early in the morning – never later than six o’clock, and generally drove on up to the head of the Stewiacke Valley, and on through the woods to Lansdowne, Pictou County. There was no paved highway through this area, but we did strike pavement again between Lansdowne and Westville. From there we drove into New Glasgow, and another 40 miles took us to Antigonish.

The main highway now bypasses these towns, but at that time it went directly through them. From Antigonish we went on through small villages – South River, Heatherton, Afton, Tracadie, Monastery, Linwood, Harbour Boucher, eventually reaching the Canso Causeway that connects Cape Breton with the mainland of Nova Scotia.

Beautiful Cape Breton

Having crossed into Cape Breton, we had a choice of two routes – Highways 4 and 5. Number 4 went by way of Cleveland, St. Peters, Soldiers Cove, Irish Cove, and so on, until finally reaching Sydney. But probably the most scenic route is number 5, which goes by way of Whycocomagh and Baddeck.

These villages are situated on the Bras D’Or Lakes and rank high among the beauty spots of Nova Scotia. Baddeck is my favourite. During the summer months it is a real haven for tourists, being located in an area that has much to offer.

The Bras D’Or Lakes provide both boating and swimming, and they are close to the Cabot Trail. Baddeck is a charming village, set among the most beautiful surroundings. Now the summer was passing away. It had been a hard but productive summer, a satisfying one with the new markets we had established.

The new sawmill

By the time November came around, the new sawmill was finished. Ray’s mill, which had served us so well during the summer, was taken down and moved back to Londonderry. Work was resumed in the new mill, and what a relief it was to hear again the steady puffing of the steam engine. All summer we had been listening to the roar of two diesel motors, which had been set up about 100 yards apart. They made so much racket you had to walk nearly a quarter of a mile to carry on a conversation.

Until around 1957, very little planing was done during the winter months. But from that time on, each succeeding winter saw the planers used more and more. The autumn of 1959 found us with stocks of lumber lower than usual. During bygone winters, the normal expectation was that stocks would gradually build up during cold weather, and also through the closed road period of early spring. But
things had changed. We were now planing lumber year- round as fast as we could produce it.

Orders were increasing. The capacity of our planing mill was nearly double that of the saw mill, and there was no way could we possibly produce enough rough lumber to keep the planer going. This was a poor state of affairs, and something obviously had to be done. One way was to increase the capacity of our sawmill. The only other way was to buy rough lumber from some of the sawmills in the area.

Running at capacity

Our sawmill was already cutting at full capacity for a turndown mill. This could only be increased by installing an edger, something we did not wish to do. To put in an edger would force us to rebuild much of the mill, which would be expensive. Worse, it would take more men to operate it, and a larger log supply would be necessary.

Up to the present time, we had been able to saw practically the whole 12 months of the year. But with an edger we felt that there would be periods when logs simply would not be available, and then it would be necessary to lay off part of our mill crowd. This was something I never wanted to do. It made things hard for the men, who had to go looking for another job. Then, when they were needed again, some would not be ready to come back.

It looked as if we might have to buy some lumber. Edwin didn’t like this idea, and it was a subject we never did fully agree on. He felt that the difference between the price we had to pay for the rough lumber, and the price we received for it when it was finished, was too small to allow a reasonable profit.

Scheduling the work

He was right, except that we often had to keep our planing mill crowd around when there was little for them to do. It seemed to me therefore that we could dress considerably more lumber at very little cost in wages.

We finally agreed that we would buy some lumber that winter, which we did. Edwin was never enthused over the idea, and as time went on and we bought more and more, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the arrangement.

The weight limitation which the law imposed on trucks during the spring months had always been too severe to make trucking practical. However, during this spring, the limits were relaxed a little, and we did deliver some lumber. Still, it was far from satisfactory. We could haul only about one-third of our usual load, and it made the cost of trucking high.

Consulting the police

But that spring one of our orders was the supplying of lumber for the building of a new “Dominion” store – in Truro – and we had to deliver the lumber or lose the order. Hoping to make ourselves look better in the eyes of the law, we called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police station in Truro and asked if they would come to the mill and weigh a load for us.

When they arrived, we found that even the small load we had been hoping to haul was over-weight, and it looked as if we’d have to give up the idea. But these officers, having come to the mill and seen our problem, seemed to want to help us out.

Of course they couldn’t very well tell us to overload, but they suggested that we take off one tier of lumber, and in a very subtle way, managed to communicate that if we used reason, we’d be unlikely to be bothered. We did take a tier off that load, but not off the next one, and the law never interfered with us after that.

Situation deteriorates

Over the next few years, this happy state of affairs between us and the law officers deteriorated considerably. The same thing happened to most mill owners. It worked out something like this: when our customers discovered that we could deliver lumber to them during what had always been the closed road period, they soon expected these deliveries to be as prompt as they were at any other period of the year.

But the expense connected with this type of trucking was high, and unless the allowable weights were exceeded to some extent, the cost was prohibitive. In the incident mentioned above, we were only trucking lumber to Truro, around 25 miles. But most of our lumber had to be taken to Halifax, around 70 to 75 miles.

To travel all this distance with perhaps one-third of a normal load was simply too expensive. For a few years, our customers co-operated by paying us an extra $2 per thousand board feet during this period. The amount didn’t begin to cover the additional cost, but it helped, and we decided to continue deliveries.

Judging the loads

There was no way we could tell how much weight we had on our trucks. We always planned to put on what we thought would be at least maximum weight, plus a fair sized ‘bonus.’ The limited weight period lasted around six weeks, and could run as much as two months.

If we were lucky, we might truck for two weeks without having a load weighed. Then if our luck still held, we might be within the accepted 5% of overload. If the load was above the 5% overload, then the 5% was also included in the fine. These fines began at $1 per hundred weight of overload, and escalated from there.

Above 5,000 pounds it was $2 per hundred pounds, while above 10,000 pounds it jumped to $5. Shylock himself couldn’t have done much better. The excuse given for these extortions was that the roads during this period wouldn’t stand such loads. But, as every trucker knew, they were standing them.

Fines accepted

As far as we were concerned, this soon developed into a straight business arrangement. If we could get in a week or more without getting caught, the reduction in our trucking costs would more than pay the average fine. We had lots of company, because everyone in the trucking business was doing the same thing. As years went by this law, in the face of public opinion, became much less stringent, until now, 12 or 13 years later, the regulation weights – which have also increased – are only reduced by around 15% of normal loads.

The roads through the province opened and closed at different dates. The 17 miles of highway between our mill and Brookfield frequently closed at the same time as other highways, but it never opened at the same time most other highways did. We felt this to be unfair, and since the weighing officers only checked this road around once a week, it was a great temptation to put on a full load and hope for the best.

The trouble was, there was no way of knowing which day these gentlemen would select to go looking for victims. And to be caught fully loaded was expensive. I remember one occasion – not the only one, by any means – when the main highway from Truro to Halifax had been opened, and also all highways in Halifax County had their weight limitations removed.

Stewiacke Valley

But the highway from Upper Stewiacke to Brookfield was still severely limited. We were hauling logs then from Upper Musquodoboit, which is in Halifax County. The returning trucks entered Colchester County at a point only four miles from our mill, since we were trucking through a back road “across the mountain.” Nobody ever bothered to check this road, so we were doing nicely.

On this particular day the log truck had to be sent to Truro. Now, we had a nice brow of logs in Harmony, which was near Truro, and there was a quaint little back road that spanned the distance from Harmony to a point on the Stewiacke Valley highway that was only six miles from our mill.

We knew no one would be watching this back road. And we felt that we wouldn’t be taking too big a chance on the other six miles. The date was May 21, three weeks after the road should have been opened anyway, and everybody, including the cops, knew this.

Harold gets caught

Harold Hamilton was driving our log-truck, and he put on a good big load of logs in Harmony, and started for the mill. As we had anticipated, there were no problems on the back road. But this wasn’t our day. A couple of officers had come up the Upper Stewiache highway from Brookfield, and Harold encountered them midway on the six-mile stretch to our mill.

He was flagged down and the load was weighed by the cops, who frankly admitted that they felt the road should have been opened long ago. But they also pointed out that they didn’t make these laws, and were only hired to administer them. Of course, it was no use arguing this point with them. That road was opened the next day – one day to late. The penalty was $168, the second large fine we’d had that spring, along with a number of smaller ones.

We were philosophical about this. We had come to the point where we regarded these expenses as unavoidable and considered them much the same as a garage bill, or any other expense applicable to trucks.