28. Changes at home

David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman

28. Changes at home

The passing years had made changes in our household. When Edwin ended his connection with the business, Ray Richard came to our home to board. He had previously been boarding with Edwin. It made almost more of a crowd than we could handle at the time but we knew that this would change.

Our family was growing up. Frances had completed her academic Grade 12, and also a commercial course. She was ready for a job. On July 1 of that year – 1964 – she obtained employment at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Truro. This meant leaving home, and although she was usually back for weekends, there was sadness in the fact that now she would be permanently absent from our home the greater part of the time.

Also, we knew that David and Karla would not be at home much longer either. Karen being younger, would still be with us a few years. When families are young, the idea of their leaving home seems far away. But when they actually do begin to leave, you wonder where the time went, and how it could pass so rapidly.

Like family

We did enjoy having Ray with us. He was so good to us, and to all our family. Ray had been a blessing to us from the time he first came to work in the mill, and now, with Edwin no longer in the business, I don’t know how we’d have managed without him.

Tom Fulton was also still getting his meals with us, but after a year or two he got married, and he and his wife, Irene, set up housekeeping for themselves.

Tom was 60 years of age, and had always been a bachelor. The woman he married had already been twice married. She made a good home for Tom, a home of his own, something he’d never had before.

Needless to add, great changes had taken place in the community during all the years that had passed. Naturally, all the people belonging to the older generation when I first began work, were no longer living. Nearly every farm was in new hands.

Tom Fulton worked at the Blaikie sawmill from 1932 until it closed in 1969

And over the years, there was the tendency for one individual to buy up what had been two or three farms. Farming, like most other things, had become much more mechanized, and required fewer people. But the population of the valley showed little change, as more people took jobs at a distance, and commuted back and forth to work.

Logs get smaller

While we were still able to get all the logs we needed, the quality had been gradually deteriorating. The lumber was probably as good as ever, but it was impossible for us to get enough logs that were big enough to make the larger sizes of lumber – such as 2 x 10 for floor joists. And the total supply of lumber in our millyard was still rather scant, considering the orders that were now coming our way.

As a means of bringing our supply of 2 x 10 into line, I contacted a number of rough lumber producers, and from among them managed to get enough for our needs – along with what we produced ourselves. And we took on another major supplier of lumber, Harry MacLellan, also from the Economy area. He supplied us with nearly one million feet annually until we finished lumbering.

By the end of 1964, I was getting used to lumbering on my own. The balance sheet for that year was gratifying, and I decided to stick to my original plan of operating some four or five years longer. There had been problems in the past, and there would continue to be problems in the future, but I felt that none of these would be insurmountable.

New timberlots

In order to make reasonably certain of a log supply, I bought small timberlots in different areas. Two of these were in Harmony, another was in back of Elmsvale, a few miles from Upper Musquodoboit. These lots, together with the logs we would be able to buy would, I felt, be enough to see us through as long as we were likely to operate.

But there was a weak point here. It was becoming increasingly difficult to hire men to work in the woods. We were not directly involved in this, as Winnie was still doing contract logging for us, and of course he did his own hiring. But the situation was most unsatisfactory to him, and of course we were directly affected by the diminishing volume of logs that he was able to produce.

In bygone years this problem had not arisen to any extent. But now, one might have millions of feet of beautiful standing timber, which would be useless without men available to cut it. It was becoming common custom for a certain class of men to work only a few weeks until they had accumulated some unemployment insurance stamps, then to walk off the job, or deliberately get themselves fired. There were supposed to be laws to deal with this situation, but they were ineffective.

Earning stamps

Many of these cases involved married men whose wives also had jobs. The combined income of the wife’s wages, plus the husband’s unemployment insurance benefits, supplied them with a reasonably good income. When the supply of stamps ran out, the husband might go back to work, but by this time wife, who now had a fair supply of stamps, would sometimes do the same thing.

This situation was bad for a logging contractor. It was infinitely worse for anyone trying to operate a mill. In the woods, if only half the men come to work, it is still possible to operate on a reduced scale. But if only half a mill crew show up, it meant a total shut-down.

A system gradually evolved in our operation that, while unsatisfactory, made continuous operation possible most of the time. Our total staff, including truckmen, was around 25 men.

Extra men

So we hired three extra men to take the place of the absentees. This was sometimes annoying when – now and then – everyone was present, and it was hard to find work for the extra men.

However, at other times as many as eight or nine would be absent. In such cases, if practical at all, we let the yard work go for the day, and brought the men who worked there – usually three or four – into the mill. Then Ray, who was now millwright, would take a job, and I usually found myself doing the sawing. In short, we learned to play it by ear, and to handle each situation as best we could
when the emergency arose.

No one likes to be pointed to as one who is against all the various forms of welfare that are now in existence. But many of these programs – and this certainly includes unemployment insurance – are abused, and so far, no one seems to have found a remedy for this state of affairs.

One example

This difficulty was illustrated by an example some years earlier, when we needed a night watchman. A man was available who could have satisfactorily filled this position. When offered the job, he said he wouldn’t object to doing it one or two nights each week, as this would not interfere with his unemployment insurance, but he would not do anything that would endanger his benefits. One or two nights a week was useless to us, so we didn’t hire him.

A few months later, an unemployment inspector was told of this incident, and was critical of my handling of the case. People like myself, who let such cases pass without reporting them, made such abuse possible, I was told. But I had reasons, I felt.

I told the inspector: “That man would spend the night alone in charge of our mill. Its safety would depend entirely on his vigilance. I wouldn’t like to think I was dependent on a man I had virtually forced to work for me. Loyalty is a very valuable quality in any employee, especially in a watchman. Had I forced this job on him, do you think I could have expected much loyalty from him, or that he would
have cared much whether the mill burned or not?”

No response

The inspector had no answer ready. This gave him a new angle from which to view the situation, and he could see what I was trying to convey – that I would just as soon have nobody there at all, as some one who was doing the job only because he could find no way not to do it.

But at the same time I had only contempt for those who were able to work, yet would rather accept unemployment insurance benefits than buckle down and earn their own living. The payment of unemployment insurance to those truly unable to obtain work is highly commendable. But in the late 1960s there were many people drawing benefits who could – and otherwise would – be working.

During the next two years there was little change in business conditions. The demand for lumber was strong. We never seemed to get enough of it to fill our orders. It’s great to have plenty of customers, but we found out what it was like to have too many. Still, considering the size of our plant, our output was high, and on the whole our customers were well satisfied. And the company prospered financially.

Problems grow

The problems intensified with the passing of time. The winter of 1967 was beginning, and some decisions had to be made. One of these had to do with log-trucks. We had bought a new log-truck during the fall of 1965. It was still in good condition, and we had a good driver, Harold Hamilton.

But the spare log trucks were showing their age and it was necessary to use them frequently. Earlier, we had one or two good drivers for them, but these men were no longer available. The type of drivers who had replaced them were much harder on the trucks. The rougher they used the trucks, it seemed, the sooner they felt we would be forced to buy new ones. Had we been intending to operate for an indefinite period, we would have had no alternative but to do so.

Other problems – most foreseen when I had taken the business over – were looming as well. It was evident now that the five years I had hoped to operate would be all that would be practical, unless I was ready to make a major investment in the plant and equipment. This would involve the purchase of three new trucks, a new fork-lift, a major overhaul of the sawmill, and the building of a new Dutch oven, or firebox for the boiler.

Cost too great

It would have meant an expenditure of around $75,000. Had this siituation arisen ten years earlier, no doubt I would have gone ahead. But it seemed senseless to spend this amount of money unless we intended operating for another five to 10 years. I didn’t feel equal to this.

We solved the log-hauling situation temporarily by hiring another truckman – one who owned his own truck – to come periodically and haul logs for us. And still we managed to keep one of the old trucks in passable shape so it could be used in an emergency.

The winter of 1967 was a good one. In addition to hauling enough logs to supply the sawmill, we also hauled in over 100,000 board feet, storing it near the mill. Weight restrictions on the highway were now relaxed to the point where it was practical to haul logs without breaking the law – much. As always, we were caught with an overload on a few occasions. But one way and another, the mill was never allowed to run out of logs.

Health problems

I had always considered myself reasonably healthy. But of late, if I walked fast, which I often did, I began to notice a gnawing pain in my chest. I realised this had started some time ago, and it had been something I was able to ignore. But since it was now getting more noticeable, I decided to see a doctor. He suggested an electrocardiogram, and also told me I’d be wise to slow down.

This didn’t sound too alarming. We were busy at the time, and my return trip to the doctor was neglected. As for slowing down, I found that if the pain became severe, it went away if I sat down or stopped exerting myself. While I didn’t worry much, it did provide another reason against continuing operation of the business for any extended period of time.

During the spring and summer of 1967 there was an almost insatiable demand for lumber. From mid-May right through into October, the planing mill, in addition to its regular daytime schedule, was kept in operation two evenings a week, as well as Saturday afternoon. This overtime work made an immense difference in production, which frequently exceeded 50,000 board feet per month – fantastic for
the obsolete type of planing mill we were operating.

Keeping it going

The reason for this was simple. A rule had been made that the planer should never stop during working hours unless it was absolutely necessary. Of course, stops had to be made in order to set up the machine for different sizes of lumber. Harvey Ernst was still planing mill foreman, and the stops were kept to a minimum. This involved no particular hardship to anyone, since a spare worker could be brought in from the yard to replace any man for a few minutes’ break.

As far as our market for lumber was concerned, we could have operated a continuous night-shift, and probably would have done so, but it was next to impossible to find enough competent men. I was rather proud of this production record. Each day’s planing was marked in a book, and totalled at the end of each month. This was necessary anyway, as sales tax was calculated on monthly production, not on individual sales.

The output from the sawmill also continued to be satisfactory during this period. But around 200,000 feet per month was all that could be expected, and we were still able to buy what was needed to keep the planing mill in constant operation. This excessive demand for lumber continued on through the fall. In fact, it never let up as long as we stayed in operation.

Decision nears

By late fall it was becoming evident that a major repair job on the mill and mobile machinery couldn’t be put off much longer. Frankly, I didn’t know what to do. There seemed to be three different courses of action available. One, to undertake the major repair job. Two, do a patch-up job on the sawmill, and hope that somehow we could get by for another year with the planing mill and the mobile equipment. Three, to offer the business for sale.

The first reason was rejected for reasons already given. The last one was turned down because I felt it unlikely that there would be any buyers. So I talked over the patch up job with Ray, who decided that with some luck he could keep things going for a year. After that, it would mean either selling the business or closing it down completely.

It was a hard decision to make. I didn’t want to go out of business, but in a year’s time this was going to happen. I think the one thing that finally make the decision was the fact that trouble was developing in the boiler room. The engine was in good condition, having been newly repaired only two years ago, and could be counted on for at least another five years.

Boiler wearing out

But the boiler was getting old. A steam leak had developed where the butt-strap had been riveted onto the main plate, and Ray’s efforts to caulk it were in vain. It was going to be hard to repair. It’s doubtful if it could have been done without taking the boiler to a foundry. This idea was unthinkable. The boiler room would have had to be practically dismantled to get the boiler out, and the whole operation
would have involved an endless amount of time, to say nothing of the expense. Due to the age of the boiler, this expense wouldn’t have been justified. It also needed a new set of tubes – also expensive – and there were thin places in the plate that there was no reasonable way to repair.

But this steam leak wasn’t immediately critical, and though it would continue to get worse, it seemed likely to last one more year. And by that time the Dutch oven, or firebox, would be on it’s last legs, as it was already showing signs of old age.

We decided to try it for 1968. And what was going to happen at the end of that time would have to be decided during the year. It wasn’t likely we’d be able to sell the mill, as it wasn’t easy to find a buyer for such old-fashioned operations. Any buyer would also be up against these same problems of repair. It looked like a matter of closing the mill down.