26. Operating alone

David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman
1909-1976

26. Operating alone

The sawmill had already been shut down for three weeks, and it was going to take more time yet before it could be started. That would depend on the condition of the roads, but would likely be around May 1. It was time to begin looking for another sawyer.

Winnie Patterson, our logging contractor, suggested Everett Welch, who lived in Economy, around sixty miles distant. Everett was looking for a job for the summer. Winnie’s recommendation sounded all right, so I gave him a phone call. Everett said he guessed he’d better come up and look things over, so we settled on a day for the interview.

He turned out to be young, only 33, a big and heavy-set man weighing all of 200 pounds. Dark-complexioned, with a pleasing manner, and rather good-looking in spite of his weight, he impressed me favourably. He was also musical and a good dancer, qualifications which didn’t add much to his ability as a sawyer, but didn’t detract from it either.

Four children

Everett was married, and had four children, so they would have to have a place to live. Here, Winnie stepped into the gap again, offering to take them into his home. This could not be a permanent arrangement, as Winnie didn’t really have enough room, but they could make do until they could decide how the job was going to work out. So it was settled, and we finally got the sawmill running during the first week of May.

By this time lumber orders were pouring in, and our stock on hand was dwindling. Since the business was now completely in my hands, I was free to buy lumber as needed. And if we were going to fill our orders, it was imperative that this be done soon.

We had already bought lumber from time to time from Fred Gahan, who lived in South Branch, about eight miles distant. Now, I made a bargain with Fred to supply us with all the lumber he could produce for an indefinite period. His annual cut would likely be anywhere from 500,000 to one million feet, and this would be a great help in filling orders.

Edwin’s new mill

Edwin was still working in the mill, but he had bought a small mill of his own, built for sawing studs – two by four, eight feet long. And now it was time for him to leave our mill and begin setting up his own. I hated to see Edwin leave. We had worked together over 30 years, and had been in business together for eight years. But the decision had been made.

The wisdom of getting a new sawyer and a planing mill foreman was now evident. These skilled jobs were now in excellent hands. Also, Ray’s uncanny ability with machinery was invaluable. With him in charge as our millwright, breakdowns and problems with machinery came only at rare intervals. Everett, while not as fast a sawyer as Ray, was very steady, producing good cuts of lumber day after day. And Harvey Ernst was doing an excellent job as planing mill foremen.

While these were the most highly skilled jobs, others were important too. The job of tallyman and trimmerman was also an important one. Tom Fulton had been doing these jobs for years, and he was absolutely dependable. He was never an absentee. On the few rare occasions when he didn’t come to work, arrangements were always made in advance for someone to take his place.

Good millmen

Tom had excellent judgement regarding the trimming of lumber. One who lacks this judgement either wastes lumber by trimming of unnecessary amounts or else leaves wood on the end of a piece of lumber that should have been taken off due to too much bark, or to some other deficiency.

There were other men who deserved mention at this time, some of whom have been referred to earlier. The two main truck-drivers, Harold Hamilton on the log truck, and Fred Fulton on the lumber truck, were both exceptional men. Hedley Tree, who drove the fork-lift, was in a class by himself. He was a good mechanic, and could practically rebuild the lift if necessary. He could do far more work
with it than anyone else in the crowd. And if he was given a specified order of lumber to bring down from the yard, he almost never made a mistake.

Another employee was of similar high calibre, but his disposition was another matter. I never had trouble with him personally. But he was one who didn’t get on well with his fellow-workers, and it wasn’t unusual for him not to be on speaking terms with one or another of them. This sort of thing among a crowd of men isn’t good. Hard feelings, one way or another always result in poorer performance.
But nothing is ever perfect, and it’s safe to say that for the type of mill we had, and the number of men employed, our production was above average.

Lonesome feeling

Still, it’s a lonesome feeling to be all on your own, with 25 employees. Business decisions were now entirely up to me, and at times things could get hectic. Almost from the beginning of that spring, we had lumber orders coming in faster than we could fill them. It’s embarrassing to have too many orders. These were nearly all from good customers, and naturally they each felt that their order was the one we should be working on. Lots of diplomacy was required.

Occasionally we did have to turn an order down. But more often than not we could negotiate something acceptable, usually by adjusting timing of the order. Once we had agreed on a delivery date we never planned to let the customer down. On the few occasions we had breakdowns that made delivery impossible. In such cases, the customer was always notified, and if he could wait, a new delivery date was set. By and large, our customer relations remained good.

Year by year, however, workmen were becoming less dependable. This problem was general, and anyone with a crowd of men was well aware of it. Absenteeism, rather than an occasional occurrence, became general. About the only way out was to hire two or three extra men, whose jobs would be flexible, and who could take the place of those who didn’t show up.

Coping

It isn’t hard to see that such a situation is far from satisfactory. Naturally, it was planned so that each man was on the job best suited to him. When a substitution had to be made, the “flexible” person who filled in was seldom as good on the job. But all of this was becoming a way of life in the business world, so we accepted it, and went on, doing the best we could.

Eva was a great help in any part of the business that could be done from our home. As well as keeping the books, she made up the payrolls, frequently took lumber orders over the phone, and often went out with the car to look for someone to take a job in the mill if we happened to be short-handed.

At this time the general demand for lumber was average. Why, then, were we virtually swamped with orders? Years ago, I had seen that continuous orders, resulting in a steady flow of lumber through the mill, and on to our customers, was a system that would allow the lumber to be produced at the lowest possible cost.

Pricing policy

But if you are going to get these orders, you have to show your customers reasons for giving you their business. So we always planned to have prices slightly below average. The economy effected by continuous delivery far more than offset by the small reduction is price. Also, prompt deliveries were important to customers, and when we promised lumber, come hell or high water, our lumber was there on the day we had agreed to deliver it.

Our stock was low, and even though we were now getting a fair amount of lumber from Fred Gahan, it soon became obvious that we had to have more. I was acquainted with a lumber operator – also living in Economy – named Cecil Perrin. In fact, during bygone years, we had even bought some lumber from him. Everett Welch, our new sawyer, told me that Cecil had a good cut of logs which he would be starting to saw right away.

I contacted Cecil at a good time. The buyer he had been selling to had gone out of business, and Cecil now had to look for a new market. We were able to make a deal with him that called for him to deliver his lumber right to our mill. We would unload it with our fork-lift, dress it and haul the finished lumber to Halifax, or wherever we had a market for it. Cecil expected to have at least one million feet, but our stock was so low, I wasn’t worried about getting too much.

Buying from Edwin

By this time Edwin had his mill set up and in operation. It was a small mill, designed to saw only studs, or 2 x 4, eight feet long. I made a bargain with him to buy all he could produce. These eight foot studs sold well, and we never did had enough of them to supply the market. This arrangement with Edwin still kept us closely associated, and it was almost like a continuation of being in business together.

During the summer a law was passed, establishing, for the first time, a minimum wage in Nova Scotia. This minimum wage wasn’t high. Our present wage scale was above it anyway, so we had nothing to worry about. But it did have the effect of making the poorer class of workman more independent than ever.

No matter how little good they were, if you kept them on the job at all, you were required to pay them this stated amount, whether they did anything to earn it or not. This law may be a good one, but I’ve never felt that it was fair. It imposes on the employer an obligation to pay at least the fixed minimum to the workman, but it imposes on the workman no obligation whatever to earn this amount.

Workers’ rights

A combination of laws was now making this type of workman very truculent. If he was fired, he would be paid unemployment insurance. If that wasn’t enough, he could usually get some other form of welfare. Thus, the workman too often really hoped he would be fired, and it is easy to imagine the effect this had on the quality of his work. But if you did fire him, the man you hired to replace him frequently turned out to be no better. So mostly you just ground your teeth and put up with workmanship that would have been unbelievable 20 years earlier.

Fortunately – as we’ve already mentioned – we had exceptional men on all the key jobs. Had it been otherwise, we might just as well have closed down while we were still solvent.

The weather during that spring and summer was exceptionally favourable for our business. As if in compensation for the foul weather which we had experienced during the winter months, fine weather began around May 1, and except for a few days when we did get a little rain, the good weather lasted all summer, and into the fall months.

Log supply improves

This was exactly what we needed. The good weather encouraged the cutting of logs – something we had to have. I was lucky enough to pick up some new business along this line, and with it and the logs cut by Winnie Patterson, our contractor, we were getting along pretty well. Winnie was still logging on the Mattatall lot – the one which we retained when we sold the rest of our timberland.

This problem of a log supply was one that had worried me from the time when we had decided to buy Edwin’s share of the business. If a time came that we couldn’t get a regular log supply the business was doomed.

Around midsummer, the last of the logs had been cut on the Mattatall lot. It was necessary to keep Winnie logging, and I was lucky enough to buy a small timberlot out on the Smithfield Road, about five miles from our mill. This would last for some time, and meanwhile we’d watch out for other timberlots that might be for sale.

Local log sellers

A good part of our log supply came from local people, mostly farmers, who owned a piece of timberland, and wanted to cut logs themselves, which they would offer for sale.

There was competition for these logs. Two other mills in the area needed these logs as badly as we did. Anyone who had logs for sale looked at three different things: First, was the purchaser financially sound so that payment would be assured? Second, what was the price he would be paid per thousand feet? And last but not least, which mill had the highest recovery rate of lumber from the logs that were cut?

There were two ways to calculate the quantity of lumber in a brow of logs. One method was to scale each log in the brow, which meant measuring the length of each log, and it’s diameter at the smallest end. You then consulted a ‘scale-rule’ which gave you the number of board feet which the log contained.

Imperfect system

This system wasn’t too bad, but there were flaws in it. It was hard to make proper allowances for crooks, and other defects in the log. Also, because it was based on a system of averages, it wasn’t always accurate. And it was time-consuming.

The other system, which we used was simply to saw the logs, and pay the supplier for the actual amount of lumber recovered from them. This, too, could have it’s drawbacks. Some sawyers were more skillful than others in getting maximum recovery.

It is safe to say that a brow of logs sawn by a skilful sawyer will produce from 10% to 20% more than would be obtained by a novice, or by a sawyer who lacked instinctive ability in this respect. Our settlements with our customers seemed to be satisfactory, and I felt we’d continue to get our share of the logs offered for sale.

Scale and price

There were exceptions. On one occasion a man came to sell me logs, and he wanted to scale them himself. I knew this man well, and I knew that he was honest. But I didn’t know how much he knew about scaling logs. His brow of logs, according to his scale, should saw 14,500 board feet, and he wanted me to look them over. Then we could talk business. This was agreeable to me, so I went. He was absent when I got there, but, according to his wife, he would be home shortly. This suited me, as it gave me a good chance to look over the logs.

It was a good brow of logs. I made a mental estimate of the approximate number of logs that it would take per thousand and then I counted the logs; when I had finished I knew that if my judgement was worth anything, there was more than 14,500 feet of logs in that brow.

At that time, our price for logs was $32 per 1,000 board feet. When this man came back, I told him that I was willing to buy the brow of logs at his estimate. Then he told me he wanted $35 per thousand for them.

Exceeding scale

There was no way of knowing exactly how much lumber we’d get from these logs except to saw them. He had explained his terms; I could either accept or reject his offer. I decided to accept it, and then and there I gave him a cheque in full payment.

It was some time before we sawed these logs. When we did, the tally was over 17,000 feet. In this case, everyone was happy, but I doubt if he’d have been all that happy if he had known about the 17,000 feet the brow had produced. I felt no obligation to enlighten him.

When the scaling was left to us, as it usually was, we made certain that the individual was paid for every foot of lumber we recovered. But having sold these logs at his own scale, and at his own price, he should have been happy, and I never did re-open the subject. As mentioned, this was an exceptional case, as normally we paid by mill-tally.