27. Local loggers

David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman

27. Local loggers

One of the hardest problems we had to deal with was the cash advances we were frequently called on to make on logs. It worked something like this: a person would find himself hard up, and decide that the easiest way out of his difficulties would be to sell a few logs. Unfortunately these logs were usually still growing back in the woods, and it took a little time to cut them.

But the necessity for immediate cash being imperative, he would come and ask for an advance. Many such people were far from reliable. If an individual’s reputation was hopeless, his request had to be refused. But of the many requests of this nature that came our way, there were a good many that were borderline.

If you gave them the money, they’d begin cutting logs. If you didn’t, they would go and try their luck with someone else. And if they did begin cutting, they might cut enough to cover the advance, or they might not. There was no way to be sure. You simply had to take a good many chances in this respect, or your mill would be shut down for lack of logs.

Judgment call

About the only thing you could do was to fish around until you found out just how far you had to go out on a limb in order to get the logs. Some losses were inevitable in such a system. These had to be regarded as an additional expense incurred in assuring a sufficient log supply.

Of course, most of these people got the cash advances in good faith, intending to cut the logs as agreed. They just never got it done. Frequently, before they were squared up, calamity descended on them again, and they would be back for more money. Having had dealings with this type of people on many occasions, and noting the signs along the way, it wasn’t too hard to predict the result – a fair
sum of money was paid out for logs that never materialized. But at least these people floundered around and made some sort of an effort to square their account.

There were also a few crooks who solicited advances which they never intended to make good. A fair number of these could be named, but I’ll only mention two at this point – two really classic examples.

Troublesome customers

The first individual already had a few logs cut when he made his request for money. We were needing logs badly at the time, or I’d never have begun dealing with him. My aim was never to overpay him for what he had cut at any given time. However, he did cut quite a few logs, and things seemed to be going well. But you can’t always watch everything all at once, and eventually I gave him more than the worth of the logs he had cut at that particular time.

The result of this was predictable. He immediately began selling his logs to another mill operator. The amount of money involved wasn’t too serious, and I did nothing about it, because there really wasn’t much I could do. I just charged the incident to experience, and forgot about it – temporarily.

Three years went by. Then on a cold winter’s day, I accidentally heard that this fellow had just finished yarding up a brow of logs beside a little-used main road that ran through a strip of woodland. There were no houses in view of this brow of logs. So an idea struck me.

Grabbing the logs

If I went to negotiate with him about these logs, I’d have gotten nowhere. And long before I could have set any legal machinery in motion, the logs would have been gone. But if we were lucky enough to get them hauled and sawn into lumber before he discovered they were gone, there would be very little he could do about it.

Early on the following morning, long before daylight, I sent one of our truckmen, Frank Kennedy, down after a load of these logs, having first explained the situation to him. In a couple of hours he arrived back with a nice load of logs. “See anybody, Frank?” I asked him. “Not a soul,” he replied. “Well, go back down and get another load,” I told him. Away he went, and soon came back with a second load, which I knew would be enough to square the account.

I would have sent Frank back again, but he mentioned that in the next load there would be a lot of poplar, and we didn’t really want any poplar logs.

Surprise call

I went to the telephone and called up the man who owned the logs. When he came on the line, I started talking to him as though it was only last week we’d been dealing together, instead of three years ago. Calling him by name, I said, “We’re hauling your logs now. There’s quite a lot of poplar in the next load, and I was wondering if you’d be able to sell these anywhere else. We don’t have much market for poplar right now.”

“My God,” he said “you’re not hauling that brow of logs, are you?” “Well, yes we are”, I told him. “I supposed they were cut for us, as we never did get squared up on the dealings we had.” At least this guy knew when he was beaten. “Oh God,” he said again, “I sold those logs to Edward Creelman – at Brookfield Lumber Company – and drew a hundred and forty dollars on them.”

“Well now,” I said “that’s too bad. We won’t haul any more of them.” We didn’t need to haul any more of them. Our account would now be square, and when you’re dealing with a louse like this, it’s a good place to terminate business relations.

Visit requested

He then asked me to come and see him. This I agreed to do. But first I went to see Edward Creelman. I knew Edward well. He was a good fellow, and I’d had plenty of business dealings with him in past years. Also, he was the one who had bought our timberland not long ago.

I found it was true that Edward had advanced $140 on these logs. When I told him the whole story, he just threw back his head and laughed. “You did exactly the right thing,” he said. I told him I knew this, but still we’d left him holding the bag. “Don’t worry,” he replied, “I’ll battle it out with him somehow.”

On going to see this chap, what do you suppose he suggested? Since we were now square with him, he wanted us to buy the rest of his logs. Then, of course, he would conveniently forget about his obligation to Edward Creelman. Of course I told him no. In the first place, it would have been poor business ethics. And it’s poor satisfaction dealing with someone that you have to watch sharper than a
cat watching a mouse.

Legally untouchable

As anyone might surmise this type of individual usually has his business affairs arranged so that there’s no way you can legally collect anything from him. I’ve often wondered why such people have never undertaken bank robberies, or some other form of burglary. It can’t be their moral convictions that deter them, for obviously they haven’t got any. It must be that, in plain English, they simply haven’t
guts enough. This man we could get along without. I didn’t tell him this in so many words, but when I left I had the feeling that he must have grasped the message.

The other case was different. But once again I was well aware of the type of individual with who I was dealing. And really I had no one but myself to blame for the outcome. This chap – call him Shylock – came to me one beautiful spring evening, wanting to sell me 50,000 feet of logs.

Of course we needed logs. But knowing him to be more slippery than any eel, I waited for the inevitable request for a cash advance. It shocked me when it didn’t come. This man could really talk, and he had personality. He was, he explained, cutting these logs in Dean Settlement, about ten miles distant. They were cut on a woodlot off the Dean Backroad.

Spinning a tale

He specifically mentioned a good-sized tree along the backroad, and it was at this point you turned onto the woodroad. It still being early spring, the woodroad wasn’t yet dry enough for trucking, but two or three weeks of dryer weather would be all that would be necessary. At present, he was only beginning this operation. He had two men cutting for him, and they now had from six to eight thousand cut. He expected this operation to be completed by June first, and by that time, hopefully, the road would be ready for trucking. After all this explanation, there was still no mention of a cash advance.

Then he left the subject of logs, and began discussing a truck garage he was planning to build. But it would be September before he got around to it. Would we, by that time have any lumber – second grade would do – that we could sell him to build this garage?

Of course we had lumber. That was our business. And we had second grade that we’d be glad to sell. But if we waited until September, the whole operation would be over. It would be better to sell it to him now, so that the price would be absorbed into the settlement for his logs. So I asked him if he wanted the lumber now. “Well, I don’t need it until September,” he said, “but I suppose it would be all right now. I might get a chance to work on it a little during the summer.”

Caught in trap

I should have realised that I was walking into a trap. But right now was a very convenient time to get out his garage order, and it would take only a few thousand feet of logs to pay the bill. I had no faith in him, but I did suppose he had a few logs cut. Anyway, I agreed to send the lumber over during the next week, which we did.

A couple of weeks went by, and I thought it would be a good plan to drive over and have a look at his brow of logs. I knew the Dean Backroad pretty well, and from his description, the wood road leading off it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

When I came to the part of the road where the wood road should have turned off, I was at a loss to find it. Where was it? I looked for the big tree which Shylock had described as a landmark, and found it hard to understand how so prominent a landmark could have disappeared so completely.

Complete fabrication

In the midst of my perplexity, a man I was well acquainted with, happened along. This was Tim Dean, a reliable person whom I had known for many years. He lived on this same back road, and of course knew the whole area well. According to him, there was no such tree, there was no wood road, there were no logs, and Shylock owned no timberlot that he knew of, where he could cut any logs if he
wanted to.

In short, the whole story of the logging operation had been a complete fabrication. I had fallen for it, and given him what he wanted – lumber to build his garage. Needless to say, he never paid for this lumber, nor did I ever send him a bill. I felt foolish over having deliberately walked into his trap. In spite of the fact that his reputation was well known to me, his talk regarding this lumber
operation had sounded genuine. As well as telling me where the fictitious wood road was supposed to have turned off, he had described what it was like – the distance to the brow, the hills along this road, a little steam that would have to be bridged. Also he wanted to know the length of logs that would suit us best, so they could cut them to the best advantage in the woods.

It certainly was a well organized crime. It indicated real genius – maybe he deserved to succeed. In any event, we’d had bigger losses in the past and survived them. So, considerably chagrined, I wrote the episode off to experience. Maybe Shylock should have been a politician.

It is unfair to conclude from the foregoing that the people from whom we bought logs were dishonest. The great majority of them were reliable, and it was a pleasure to deal with them.