David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman
24. The night shift
Leaving the subject of grading for awhile, we’ll go back to the point where the scarcity of rough lumber was beginning to bother us.
As mentioned, we had started to buy some lumber to fill our orders, and to keep the planing mill running steadily. There was usually a period of from three to four weeks, at the time of the closed roads in the spring, when the planing mill wasn’t operating steadily. We decided to run a night-shift during this period.
Getting a crowd to operate this night shift was easy enough. At that time Ray Richard was our daytime sawyer. I sawed at night, Edwin did the trimming and tallying, and the night watchman was the fireman. The rest of the men were recruited from the planing mill crowd.
This arrangement worked fairly well. A mill always seems to run well at night, and production was good. But I never cared much for a night operation. I guess it takes a while to get used to it. I didn’t sleep any too well in the daytime either, partly because this was a change I found it hard to get accustomed to, and partly because of interruptions which broke up my sleep period.
The day-shift stopped work at five p.m. Our night shift started at 5:30 p.m., and had a straight five-hour run until 10:30 p.m. This didn’t seem too bad. Normally, we’d be up until around that time anyway. At 10:30 we took half an hour for lunch, and during that time I also had to file the saw. Thus, I barely had time to finish my lunch when eleven o’clock arrived, and it was time to start the mill again.
Being somewhat revived by this short stop and the lunch, the hour from eleven to twelve passed quickly enough. But after midnight the time seemed long. At that hour, there is a feeling that any human being should have sense enough to go to bed. So the time from midnight until three a.m. seemed endless. Perhaps this was partly caused by insufficient rest during the day.
At three o’clock I again had to file the saw before leaving the mill. By the time I got to the house and had a cup of tea, it was usually around 4 a.m. by the time I got to bed.
Eva was always on hand to get the lunch ready, and her sleep was also broken up. Then, she had to get up again at six o’clock to get breakfast. This always woke me up. I generally got to sleep again, but only to be disturbed by the rest of the family, who got up shortly after seven.
When they left for school quietness again descended, but usually not for long. The ringing of a telephone is a dismal sound when you are trying to sleep. At such times I thought that if Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of this machine, had died when he was young, his passing wouldn’t have been regretted.
Eva always answered the phone, but it was usually some matter connected with lumber, so I often ended by taking the call. All I got between 6 a.m. and the hour between 11 a.m. and noon was a series of cat-naps. So I usually gave it up, and got up for the rest of the day.
Most days I spent an hour in the mill during the afternoon. I’d saw for an hour for Ray, which gave him a chance to file any dull saws, and also to have a break himself. He always came to the mill in the evening and gave me a half hour break.
While I didn’t like this night shift, still it was a change, and it never lasted long anyway. It probably resulted in the sawing an extra 100,000 feet of lumber, which we sure could use.
As time went on, Edwin became more discontented with the manner in which the lumber operation had developed. I had trouble understanding why. There was nothing the matter with our business, as far as I could see. The volume of business had increased. Our balance sheets at the year end were all that could have been expected. Nonetheless, he had arrived at the point where he was feeling the need to close the business down.
It’s hard to carry on a business when both partners see things differently. I had no wish to leave our business. Had I suggested that we make plans to modernize, Edwin would no doubt have been willing to continue. This had been his idea for some time.
My objections to modernization have already been stated. It looked to me like an unnecessary risk at a period in our lives when we were beginning, for the first time, to be reasonably comfortable financially. Now, some 10 years later, when I can look back at it with the advantage of hindsight, I still feel the same.
Some of the earlier modern mills had serious weaknesses. We might have had one of these, requiring costly changes while we were deeply in debt. Meanwhile, there was no sign we were going to have any serious business problems in the near future.
Mill running well
As we both knew, our mill would be worth very little if we tried to sell it. Yet it was a good mill, in spite of approaching obsolescence. To me it was simple: we were doing well with equipment which had little sale value, so why not continue to use it as long as everything went well?
We had paid our debts. We had a lot of current book accounts which, added to our timberland, would give us a fair amount of money if all was turned into cash. The latter was what Edwin wanted to do, and what I did not want to do.
Eventually, however, I saw no alternative but to go along. What I would do when the business was closed down I did not know. But it was no use for us to carry on. My feelings at this point can be better imagined than described. I was about to do something I didn’t want to do, and there weren’t too many alternatives.
Resigned to closure
I considered buying Edwin’s part of the business myself. But this would have meant borrowing a large sum of money. Maybe I could have done it, but it would have meant new debt hanging over my head for years. So I did not pursue the idea.
I had feelings of nostalgia at the thought of the old family business being shut down. It was built by my father and my older brothers, and had now been operating over 55 years. It had seen good times and bad times. It had survived both World Wars and the Great Depression of the thirties. As a small but successful business, it was now at it’s peak. The thought of closing it down was intolerable to me. Still, I knew that the time of this closing, regardless of what we did now, was not many years distant.
Edwin was more realistic. He had plans of his own, now in the summer of 1963. He wanted to sell the timberland during the fall, to continue operations during the coming winter, and to close it down in the summer of 1964.
Timber for sale
We had one timber lot – we called it the “Mattatall” lot – that we were currently logging. There was only one real good winter’s logging on it, and we would finish it before closing down the mill. Reluctantly I agreed to go along with these plans.
We had eight timber lots for sale. About half of these had a good part of the timber already cut. But together these lots added up to a
considerable land area, and along with the lumber still left on them, there was a lot of young growth to eventually become lumber.
The Reynolds lot was the one held longest by our company, the lot I had worked on during my first two winters out of school. The Weir lot was smaller, and had been pretty well logged, but it included a hill of very fast growing timber, which would be unlikely to be ignored by any prospective buyer. The Sam Johnson lot in Newton Mills was completely culled, and there wasn’t too much left on the Dunlop lot in Meadowvale. The Gould lot, back of Otter Brook, still had a fair amount of lumber left.
Very little cutting had been done on the Luther Miller lot in Meadowvale, and the Philip Cox lot, also in that same area, still had a lot of uncut timber. The best lot of all, the Homer Johnson lot, in Burnside, was one we had hardly touched, and there was a lot of beautiful timber on it.
Reluctant to sell
It was hard for me to think of parting with these lots. They were part of the business. Roy had been instrumental in the purchase of all of them, and the business would be nothing without them. But the business was apparently destined to close down anyway. So a decision had to be made on the best way of selling them.
What we should have done was to have sent notices to all the lumbermen in the area that these lots were for sale, and to have called for tenders on them. But I agreed with Edwin’s suggestion that we contact Edward Creelman at the Brookfield Box Co. We felt he would certainly be interested, as we he was constantly looking for timberland.
I left Edwin to contact Edward Creelman. As we had foreseen, the prospect of this much timberland looked too good to be turned down without investigation. He decided to put cruisers on all these lots in order to determine as closely as possible how much standing timber there was. Of course this would take time, but this was only mid-summer, and he thought a couple of months would be enough to complete a thorough cruise.
Sale terms agreed
During this time our business at the mill, which was excellent, continued as usual. But before we knew it, summer was over. And by late September Brookfield Box Co. had completed the cruise of our timber lots. Edwin and I had discussed the price, and decided on a proposed sale price. He was anxious to sell, and to assure such a sale, he was ready to settle for a lower than I felt we might get. We
finally compromised on a quote that was still rather less than what I thought the timberland was worth. But there’s no point speculating on what offers we might have received.
When Edward Creelman arrived, Edwin happened to be away, so I had a chance to talk to Edward alone. I did add an extra $1,000 onto what we had agreed, and this figure was accepted with no bargaining whatever. So now, with the exception of the earlier mentioned Mattatall lot, our timberland was sold.
It took time to arrange for a transfer of this timberland. This involved routine red-tape, such as the running of lines, and also the legal work that had to be done by lawyers, who never seemed to be in a hurry. But by late November, with the woods bare and leafless, and with the onset of colder weather, the transfer was concluded.
Business still brisk
We had been busy, and were still busy in the mill during this period. In fact, orders were coming in faster than we could fill them. It seemed a pity to close down such a thriving little business. I had been doing some serious thinking regarding the future, but no satisfactory plan had so far suggested itself.
With nearly all our holdings of timber sold, it looked as if the plan to close was near completion. True, we could still buy a good quantity of logs at roadside, but with no timberland of our own, we’d be at the mercy of the sellers.
The sale value of what was now left of the business was very small. Other than timber, the assets owned by our company were mainly mobile equipment – trucks and forklifts. Our finances were now in excellent shape. We had a good deal of money owing to us in book accounts, and this, together with the proceeds derived from the sale of the timberland, presented a satisfying picture.
There was something worth thinking about here. The mill and the equipment, which would command very little if put on sale, were still
usable, and would remain usable for some time. A new idea came into my mind. Since we were going to virtually give away these assets, why not give them to me?
Up to this time I had never seriously thought of taking the business over and operating it on my own. I felt it would involve the investment of too much money, and such a business would be a rugged undertaking for one owner. But now a moment of decision had arrived to think about doing just that.
Eva and I talked the matter over at some length. It was obvious that some new plans had to be made before we could consider an approach to Edwin. Since he was responsible for the operation of the re-saw, I had to know that I could get another qualified man to accept this job. I had felt for some time that we should have had such a man anyway. As I was responsible for the planer, the man we needed had to be qualified to keep both of these machines in order.
New job for Ray
And that wasn’t all. Ray Richard was still our sawyer. If this deal went through, it was my intention to hire another sawyer, if I could find one. Ray and I talked this over, and he agreed to take on the job of general millwright, which he was well qualified to do.
There was also the question of a bookkeeper. Up to now, Edna – Roy’s widow – had been acting in this capacity. She was, of course, Edwin’s mother. If he left the business, I felt it unlikely that she would want to continue. Also, she was already well past normal retirement age. Eva felt that she might be able to undertake this job. She had had no previous experience, but then, neither had Edna when she first took on the job.
While Edwin’s desire to close down the business was as strong as ever, he was uncomfortable about throwing a lot of men out of employment, as there was no other industry in the community for them to go to. So he welcomed my suggestion of continuing to operate the business.
I explained to him our tentative plans. Before I could agree to buy his share of the business, I had to be sure of a good planing mill foreman, and another sawyer. Edwin agreed without any hesitation to sell to me if I decided to buy. All he wanted was a day or two, to settle on a price.
The price he suggested looked reasonable to me. It was agreed on then and there. The matter of the actual transfer would be simple. Since the company was incorporated into 250 shares, of which he held half, it would only be necessary for him to deliver to me his signed off share certificates.
If this took place, I was going to have to raise some $40,000. But since the proceeds of the sale of timberland were now in our company’s account, I didn’t anticipate much difficulty. In setting his price, Edwin had placed little valuation on the mill, or even on the mobile equipment.
It seemed unlikely that I could lose much. If I couldn’t make a go of it, the value of the book accounts alone would nearly compensate for the venture. As I said to him, I’d try it for a year, and if that year was satisfactory, I’d plan for four or five years more. It was doubtful that I’d want to operate longer than that anyway, because by that time the machinery would be really obsolete, and I was likely to be heading that way myself.
By far the most important requirement was the selection of a planing mill foreman. Selection may not be the right word, for it suggests a number of possibilities. I realised only too plainly that there weren’t going to be too many possibilities. Anyone who had a good planing mill foreman would to their best to keep him. But luckily, I did have an idea where to start.
Spencer Brothers and Turner Ltd. had a large, well-equipped planing mill in Truro. I had met their foreman, a man by the name of Harvey Ernst, and heard it rumoured that he was not that happy with his present job. Also, business was not going particularly well for that firm, and they were planning to lay off some men. A phone call put me in touch with Harvey, and we arranged to meet on the next day.
A likeable man
Harvey was a tall man of Dutch descent, as his speech clearly indicated. At that time he was fifty-six years of age. I liked Harvey from the beginning. He had a distinctly different personailty than Ray Richard, but his honesty and capability were qualities that stuck out all over him.
I learned that Harvey was definitely going to leave his job. But naturally, before committing himself, he wanted to come out and have a look around our mill. On the following Sunday, he drove out to Upper Stewiacke with his wife. Her name was Emelyn – “Em”, for short. She was a woman who prided herself on always saying what she thought, and this did not always mean something pleasant.
Harvey was a good enough talker, but if Em was around, he didn’t get a chance to say as much as he normally would.
They stayed and had supper with us and our get-together was enjoyable. Before leaving Harvey agreed to come and stay for at least a year. As his present job would end on February 15, he wanted to begin working with us at that time. While I’d just as soon have waited longer, I agreed to this, for had I not done so, he would certainly have found employment with someone else.
Stroke of luck
This was a real stroke of luck for us. Such a man is hard to find, and to get one so easily seemed too good to be true. What had looked like our worst problem was now solved. As to hiring a new sawyer, I decided to let that wait for a month or two.
At this point, it was time to come to a definite understanding with Edwin. I certainly didn’t want to push him out of the business. There was still nothing to stop him reconsidering his decision to sell. The fact that I had just hired a foreman would still be all right, because we were needing one anyway.
Edwin’s ideas were unchanged. We decided to make the arrangement final on January 31, 1964, and on that day he gave me his signed-over share certificates. And though he continued working in the mill for three months longer, I was now the owner of the business. Our relations had been friendly during the whole transaction. And his work for the three months that followed was good – far above average.
A hard winter
This particular winter was a hard one for lumbermen. Early in December the weather became very cold. Around the middle of the month we had our first major snowstorm. We shut the mill down for three days at Christmas, and during this period it was bitter. Our night watchman, Graham Olmstead was in charge of the boiler during this period. I went to the mill on Christmas afternoon.
Graham had told me it was lovely and warm in the boiler room, but I had a suspicion not all was well. When I went in, the place was freezing. No damage had yet occurred, fortunately. So I instructed Graham to build up the fire and to warm the place up.
My instructions must have gone unheeded, as next morning the steam-gauge was frozen, and whenever one of these instruments freezes, it is useless, and will never work again. Fortunately, we had another one on hand. They are both expensive, and hard to get. But more problems with our night watchman would were to come.
During January we had repeated snowstorms, one following closely on the heels of its predecessor, until the snow-level in the woods was so deep that most people gave up any attempt at logging, and we had difficult getting enough logs to keep the mill running. These conditions may have helped Edwin to confirm his decision to sell. Certainly, three or four feet of snow didn’t provide much of an
inducement to continue.
As the winter progressed, there was little improvement. Through January and February we did get enough logs to keep the mill running. But normally, during this period, we were able to fill our millyard with enough logs to last through the period of restricted weights on the highway.
This year, it was impossible – as it was a struggle to keep day-to-day operations going – and when the winter finally broke late in March, we had less than a week’s sawing in the mill yard.
There was only one thing to do. The sawmill had to be shut down indefinitely, or at least until a log supply became available, and this would likely be around May 1. The weather had been difficult for our customers in Halifax too, and orders were not very plentiful.
But the planing mill was kept running on a part-time basis, and there was a fair amount of maintenance work to be done. All of these events could have been discouraging to me, having just committed myself to a new investment in the business.
But I knew it couldn’t last forever, and it gave me a chance to do something that been in my mind for sometime.