22. Mill crew problems

David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman
1909-1976

22. Mill crew problems

A problem had developed over several years in hiring competent men. We were fortunate in having a high percentage of really good mill men. But occasional replacements had to be made, and also we had been increasing our staff. This problem had come about gradually, and was destined to become a great deal worse.

In the past, it wasn’t difficult to hire men for any of the jobs connected with our business. But now, for a great many men, pride in their work had become a thing of the past. If a job required a fair amount of physical strength and energy there were few applicants for it.

Two such jobs were those of canterman and lumber piler. The piling of lumber was very simple, but it did require physical strength. It was really a younger man’s job. A canterman’s job had the same requirement. When a log was rolled onto the carriage, it needed to be turned to the proper position for sawing. This required intelligence, strength and co-operation.

A new situation

During all the period during which our business had operated, there had never been much difficulty in hiring men. Some were better than others, but to get a reasonably satisfactory man was no problem. Now it was different. Most men when approached had definite views on the type of work they wanted, which was logical enough.

But it became increasingly clear that the type of work they wanted, didn’t demand the expenditure of much muscular effort. Neither did they wish it to be the type that demanded concentration. At the close of an interview the impression often was that what they wanted wasn’t a job at all – just a pay-cheque.

As more years went by, this condition became rapidly worse, bringing a change to more mechanized mills, and thus doing away with many of these jobs. Yet a good number of mills, including our own, continued to operate under the old system, and as each year went by, it became more discouraging to try to keep a mill crew together. It is ironic that the heavier jobs, really more suitable for younger people, were now nearly always done by middle-aged or aging men.

Donald Burnett

Most of the younger men in our employ seemed all at once to develop physical disabilities. I had never seen so many rugged looking, strapping young people with sore backs and rheumatic shoulders. Fortunately we had one lumber piler, Donald Burnett, who had been with us for 20 years, and was a dependable, steady man. But two such men were required, and in the course of a few years, Donald had a good many partners.

These developments made it clear that more modern mills, which required less physical strength, would soon supplant the older type of mill. This was the subject of another difference of opinion between Edwin and I. He wanted to make a move immediately to something much more modern, and it could reasonably be asked why I didn’t go along with this line of thinking.

There were several reasons for my stand. We had one son, David, the only boy in our family. Edwin also had one boy, Keith. At this point, it seemed unlikely that either of them would go into the lumber business. David was in high school, and his whole ambition was to write. Keith was going to college, and also had other plans.

Mechanization costs

The cost of such a mill would likely have been between $200,000 and $300,000. Even assuming that we could have raised this sum, which was by no means certain, it would have created a burden of debt that would have been with us for many years. I was over 50 years old at the time, and this would have meant living with debt for almost the whole period that I would be able to operate such a business.

We now had our original debt, assumed when we bought the business, nearly liquidated. Perhaps our mill was only an antiquated pile of junk, but we were doing pretty well with it, and it seemed to me that we could continue using it as long as we’d be able to lumber.

Besides this, we didn’t have room for a modern mill. We were already cramped for yard room, and there was no adjoining land for sale. Our own homes were only a quarter of a mile from the mill. In order to rebuild, we’d have had to go looking for a new location, which would have been at a less convenient distance. So, all in all, it was decided to shelve the project for the time being.

Grading lumber

A lot of discussion was taking place at this time regarding the grading of lumber. The custom had always been a straight bargain between buyer and seller, as to the quality of the lumber. From our point of view, this system had worked well, and we had no desire to change it.

Our business had expanded to the point where we were now selling well over two million board feet a year. We had built up a good business, and our customers seemed well satisfied with the quality of lumber we were delivering. A good many lumber producers felt the same way. It’s doubtful that grading would ever have been adopted had not the government taken a hand.

A law was enacted making the use of graded lumber compulsory in certain instances – particularly in the building of houses. Government loans were granted through a special agency – Central Mortgage and Housing Corp. Most people building houses had to get a loan somewhere. And a loan through Central Mortgage and Housing automatically specified the use of grade-marked lumber, and regular inspections were provided to see that this was done.

Agreeing to grade

We might have gone on and ignored the grade. Much of our lumber – probably three quarters of it – would have gone to buyers who didn’t require a government loan. Only one of our buyers – Dartmouth Lumber Co. – planned to stock their lumber yard with graded lumber. Others planned to stock ungraded lumber as before, then when they received an order for graded stock, to order it separately.

With this outlook, we might have survived without the grade. Still, we decided to handle graded lumber when it was ordered. We didn’t want to lose Dartmouth Lumber as customers, and we felt that in time we’d be driven to graded lumber anyway.

None of this is to suggest that our lumber was not, in fact, graded anway. The people operating the type of lumber yards we were supplying don’t buy poor lumber. But the lumber was graded – as we used to say – by the good old maxim of common sense. If you expected to hold your trade, you had to supply a good product. We were already doing this.

Grader hired

A number of men were already being trained as graders by the Maritime Lumber Bureau. One was a man named Parker Reid, who lived not far from our mill. I had never become acquainted with him, but he was recommended by the M.L.B. as a grader who had done exceptionally well in the grader’s course. And on that recommendation we hired him. This occurred around May 1, in time for markets which were usually good during the summer.

There were several grades of lumber included in the course, but the only ones that concerned us were grades No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 – construction, standard and utility. The idiocy of the grading system was illustrated by the fact that, in most instances, construction and standard grades were usually mixed, and sold this way to builders of houses.

The grading system that summer turned into a nightmare for us. Right from the beginning we could see technicalities that resulted in a superior piece of lumber going into a lower grade, while an inferior piece could make one of the higher grades. It’s hard to explain here how this could happen, but it did happen, as our buyers pointed out to us.

Troubles

Yet it was new grader himself who made the situation difficult for us. He was a disaster from the beginning. Before a new grader could begin grading, it was considered necessary for a ‘field-man’ to come from M.L.B. to initiate him into the intricacies of practical grading. A man named Bourque was sent to our mill. He did manage to inject a little common sense into the idiocy of the grade, and if Parker had taken his cue from Bourque, things would not have been so bad.

But he didn’t. To his credit, he did have a fantastic memory. His knowledge of grading rules was perfect. But his knowledge of lumber was considerably less than perfect. In order to be a good grader, it was necessary to have a reasonable amount of judgment, as well as a knowledge of the grade, the emphasis being on judgment.

No two pieces of lumber are identical. Probably the members of the M.L.B. who formulated the grade were responsible. But the system they had drawn up was terrifically hard on lumber if it was followed right to the letter. And Parker followed it to the letter.

10% rejected

The situation was serious from our viewpoint. As far as we could see, as much as 10% of the lumber that was being downgraded by Parker would have been acceptable to our buyers. I went to other mills, and in none of them did I see lumber being as rigidly graded as in our own.

You might ask, “Why didn’t we discuss this thoroughly with our grader?” Well, Parker wasn’t an easy person to discuss anything with, unless you happened to agree with him completely. We knew that he was well regarded in the M.L.B. And we felt it would be poor judgment on our part to turn them against us. Parker had passed the grading exams with flying colours, and of course had been given his grader’s license, which none of us had.

Few among those who have graduated from the highest universities in the land cherish their diplomas as lovingly as Parker did his miserable shred of paper from the M.L.B., which testified that, having passed the course, he was now an accredited grader.

Strong man

Parker was a big, powerfully-built man, weighing nearly 200 pounds. He liked a drink, and while it never kept him away from work, neither did it soften a temper that tended to be harsh at the best of times. Knowing that none of us held graders’ licenses, and feeling that the lumber bureau would be behind him, he showed an utter contempt for our ideas regarding lumber.

We struggled through the summer and fall amid all these difficulties. During the winter there was little grading to be done, and at this time Parker was laid off, but he was on call if he was needed.

In spite of these problems, Parker was really a good worker, and as the saying goes, there wasn’t a lazy bone in his body. If there was no grading for him to do, he would gladly work at any job where he was needed – even piling lumber, or as a canterman.

Versatile

He was a clever workman, and could turn his hand to almost any job. This was really the type of man we needed, and I tried desperately to come to a better understanding with him regarding the grade. But his devotion to the rules was almost fanatical. These were rules that should have been changed, something that did happen later on – but this didn’t help us much at this time.

Of course we didn’t dare use the official grading stamps – which were used to mark each piece of lumber. The stamp indicated the species of the wood, the grade of the lumber – that is, construction, standard, or utility – the grader’s license number, the mill number, and also the name of the grading rules under which we were licensed.

If an unlicensed person was caught stamping the lumber, a stern warning would be issued from M.L.B., and if this happened a second time, our mill license would almost certainly have been suspended. And Parker would have been delighted to pass the word along to the lumber bureau had such a thing happened.

Wormy problem

Sometimes it was possible to put something over on Parker. One day we had sold a truckload of 2×10, which had to be grade-marked. Now, 2×10 is a size always in demand, and we never had enough of it. In this case – as usual – the two grades, standard and construction, were mixed. This was a really good load of 2×10, but it had been sawn from logs that were a little on the old side, and there were a few small worm-holes in some of the pieces.

Standard grade would accept a few of these wormholes, but according to some certain specifications regarding the location of the holes on the piece of lumber. The worms, never having taken the grading course, didn’t always eat the hole in the specified place.

I knew that these pieces of 2×10 were above average in strength, which is their main requirement, since they were to be used as floor joists. Often we’d include in our load a few pieces that Parker considered below grade. But I did want a stamp on all, or nearly all of these.

Filling the holes

In desperation, I got a few sharp-pointed pieces of wood and drove them solidly into the largest of these worm holes. After these pieces of lumber had gone through the planer, these places looked not unlike a small knot.

I saw Parker scrutinizing some of these pieces closely. He was struggling to diagnose the defect he was seeing. Finally, making up his mind that not much was wrong, he wielded his stamp of approval. And the hilarious part of it was that the stamp he used was ‘construction grade’, or No. 1. I’d have gladly settled for a ‘standard’, or No. 2 stamp.

Parker never did find out what these defects really were. If he had, you’d have heard him hollering for miles. He could be profane, and the trick would have made him furious. And of course, he would have told the whole story to the first field man who came to the mill. It was a perfect example of the old adage, what you don’t know won’t hurt you.

Showdown looming

Up to this time we had kept clear of a serious rupture with Parker, mainly because we didn’t want to fall into disfavour with the lumber bureau. But now, we’d had enough. Parker had to go, even if it completely terminated our connection with the bureau. The worst they could do would be to cancel our mill license, making it impossible for us to hire another grader. We didn’t want this to happen, but we had got along without them before, and were willing to do it again if we had to.

As a last chance of reconciliation, I went one evening to see Parker at his home. There had been no grading done for nearly a month, but in a short time, the spring and summer grading would begin. I had just gone once again to other mills and seen what a rough deal we’d been getting on the grade. As far as I was concerned, the rough deal was over.

Parker received me civilly enough. We discussed the resumption of grading that was soon to begin. Then I explained about the grading I’d seen done at other mills, and told Parker point blank that we were not going to continue with the way he had been grading.

Not mincing words

The gist of what I managed to convey to him was that if he couldn’t see his way clear to relax his rigid grade and put at least a number two stamp on more of our lumber, his period of employment with us was soon going to become only a memory.

For a wonder, Parker didn’t fly off the handle. Probably he felt too sure of his position. He coldly informed me that he didn’t make the grading rules, but merely tried his best to follow them. He was obviously telling me what he considered to be the truth. It was also clear that he felt sure the M.L.B. would not allow us to fire him.

I left and came home, deciding to let him meditate on our conversation. I knew that Parker would never give in. But I couldn’t see his position being as impregnable as he believed it to be. We were the ones who were paying him his wages. We were also members of the lumber bureau, and they do not like to lose members. In short, we were now prepared to defy Parker and the lumber bureau as well, unless something was done to give us some relief from this intolerable situation.