David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman
29. Preparing to close
On a cold frosty night in January, we had a call from Edward Creelman, the president of Brookfield Box Co. The errand that brought him couldn’t have been important, as I can’t remember now what it was. But our conversation gradually drifted onto the lumber business in general, and it’s prospects for the future.
When he discovered that we were considering selling the business, he surprised me by showing a possible interest in it’s purchase. This led into a long conversation. It ended, of course, without anything definite being decided, as it isn’t often that one makes such a decision on the spur of the moment.
But before he left, he knew what our production was, and had examined our balance sheets for some years back. These showed nothing to be ashamed of, and I was only too glad to produce them. Before leaving, Edward made a suggestion that came as a surprise on my part: If he did buy our business, would I consider operating it for him?
This idea didn’t appeal to me. If I was going to have all the headaches connected with the operation of the business, there seemed little point in making the sale at all. I did tell him, though, that I’d manage it for a year, and also felt it only fair to explain some of the problems that could be expected to arise in the near future. These were problems that gave him cause for serious thought, and I felt it unlikely that the deal would ever go through.
The winter of 1968
The winter of 1968 was a good one by lumbering standards. It was cold, and there were no severe storms. The logging roads were soon frozen solid – a marvellous help to us in hauling logs. Again, to avoid buying another truck, we hired Ralph Graham to haul logs for us. We still had one log truck in good condition, and could haul logs faster than the mill could use them. This was good, as it let us gradually accumulate a stockpile for the spring months.
Winnie Patterson was logging a lot that lay in the Lindsay Lake area, a few miles below Upper Musquodoboit. And Frank Kennedy was cutting logs on a lot out the Harmony Road, some 10 miles from the mill. These two operations, together with what we were able to buy from farmers and other loggers in the area, promised to give us all the logs that would be needed to keep the mill in steady
Orders for lumber continued to come in faster than we could fill them. Altogether it looked as if this would be another year of maximum production.
The deal for selling the business to Brookfield didn’t materialize. Edward decided against carrying our business as an additional operation. However, he did indicate an interest in buying the assets of the company. These included the mill, mobile equipment – the trucks and fork-lifts – a fair amount of timberland once again, and of course also the mill site and the farm land that it included. But this was mid-winter, no time to complete such a transaction, and the plan was shelved for the present.
Over the past years a great change had taken place in our winter operations. Less than 15 years earlier, the planing mill seldom operated in cold weather, our operations being limited almost exclusively to the sawmill. The difficulties of operating planers in the winter have been mentioned. Snow and ice freezing onto lumber are the main cause of the trouble, inevitable during cold weather.
But in recent years, more and more contractors were building houses continuously – winter and summer- and this created a constant demand for lumber. Production was slower in the winter, but we had become much better organized, and our output didn’t drop badly – probably not over 10%. And this winter was better than average. The good weather also meant better than average production in the sawmill. Still, it wasn’t anywhere near enough to fill our orders.
Harry MacLellan, one of our contractors from Economy, had bought a good-sized block of timberland in Otter Brook, about three miles from our mill. His cut of around five to six thousand feet each day was a great help.
Even then the supply of lumber in our yard kept gradually shrinking. If we could get by until spring without running out, we knew we could count on Cecil Perrin – also living in Economy – for a further supply.
He had plans made to saw a million feet, and would likely begin deliveries around May 1. Along with some further supplies we could count on from a few smaller mills, this should give us lumber faster than we could plane it, which was good, as our yard supply was far below normal.
During those clear, cold winter days I listened to the sound of the mill more consciously than ever before. The shrill screech of the saw cutting through a log, the drone of the planer, and the steady puffing of the steam engine were audible for a great distance in such weather. As I listened, nostalgia crept in. I knew it would be our final winter in the lumber business.
The days were lengthening. Almost too soon, it seemed, warmer weather proclaimed the arrival of spring. And we were busier than ever. Early in May we again began working overtime in the planing mill: two evenings each week – sometimes three – and Saturday afternoon. Orders were coming in faster than we could possibly fill them.
At this point further discussions took place with Edward Creelman regarding the purchase of our business. There was no more suggestion of operating it as a going concern. We were both busy at the time, and our talks were limited to short conferences whenever we happened to meet.
No direct transfer
Since our business was an incorporated company, I’d have preferred to sell him our shares. The transfer would then have been very simple, from our viewpoint. It would have involved arriving at an agreed price, and our endorsement of our share certificates, as we had full control of the business. It could then have pased directly to Edward, or perhaps it should be said to Brookfield Box Company.
But this deal didn’t appeal to Edward. Nobody likes the job of collecting outstanding accounts. It would have been only natural for him to assume that a significant amount of these would be uncollectible. I knew they were good accounts – mainly – most of which would be automatically paid a couple of months from the time the business was closed down.
So what it boiled down to was the possibility that he might make an offer for all the assets of the Company except the book accounts. It was now the month of June, and still no actual offer had been made. We were both busy, rushed by more offers than we could fill, so we planned to get to the details of price when we had more time – if that moment ever arrived.
Coming to terms
It certainly wasn’t going to happen during the summer, as there was an unprecedented demand for lumber. There’s a limit to the capacity of any business, and many orders had to be refused. During July the weather was fine, dry and hot. And in August these conditions changed little.
Early in August I decided that something must be done, either to confirm the sale of the business, or to confirm the fact that the deal had fallen through. A two-week vacation was due for our mill crew at the end of August. Since business was so demanding, most of the crowd agreed to settle for a week’s vacation, plus double pay for the other week.
It was around this time of the year that we normally began to make plans for the coming winter. It still looked as if we only had two choices – either sell or close down. But we had to know. Finally, around mid-August, Edward and I got together for a discussion. We arrived at a price, and the agreement, which had dragged on for months, was finally closed.
All assets sold
The price, as suggested earlier, did not include the book accounts – the most valuable part of the business – but did include all other assets of the company, except two small pieces of land which I was reserving for personal reasons. So Brookfield Box Co., would become owner of the mill, it’s complete equipment of tools and appliances, around 30 acres of land surrounding it, all the trucks and
fork-lifts, as well as the balance of the timberland which we still owned.
Long before this agreement was made, word of the impending sale had leaked out among our mill-crowd. In fact, I had made little effort to keep it secret. The effect of the announcement varied with the individual. A few, those who had been employed only a short time, did not much care. But others, particularly the older men, were concerned about the loss of their jobs.
Thankfully, Edward Creelman offered jobs to all of our employees who wanted them, relieving me of the feeling of throwing men out of work. His offer wasn’t unanimously accepted, but more than half our men did go to work there. However, this time was still some distance away. A decision to close such a business can’t just be decided on one day, and done the next.
We had a lot of lumber in the yard. Cecil Perrin had just finished his deliveries to us, but we were still committed to buy Harry MacLellan’s fall cut of lumber, and we also had an understanding with several smaller operators that we would buy their cuts. And a good supply of logs still remained to be sawn. Just how many was hard to say. There were small browns of logs scattered over quite an area, and Frank Kennedy was still logging a piece of timberland a few miles out the Harmony road.
We could have got out of a lot of this work, and shortened the time involved in closing down. Edward Creelman would have taken all the lumber in our yard, and would have been glad to buy the logs. But I didn’t want to do it that way. The decision to sell had not been made soon enough, and this could easily be seen now. Still, I wanted to close it down in an orderly manner, by sawing all the logs to which we were committed, dressing all of our lumber, and delivering it to the market.
In short, when we came to the end of our lumbering operations, I wanted our mill yard to be completely empty of either logs or lumber. It was soon evident that this wasn’t going to be easy. The end of August came, and we had our week off. During this time I made some off-hand calculations regarding the time it would take.
Million board feet
At this point there was around a million feet of lumber in the yard. As always, the amount of logs was uncertain, but we had to refuse any further offers of logs which would no doubt be made to us. It looked as if we might finish sawing late in October. And the planing mill would likely be kept busy for at least another month. This would bring it to perhaps early in December, and by this time some cold
weather, as well snow and ice, could be expected.
Normally our overtime work ended early in September. This year, however, it was important to get on with the work, and it was near the end of October when those involved decided they didn’t want to keep it up any longer. I didn’t blame them. It had been a long summer, and working so many nights until nine o’clock had become a drag.
The days were short now, and it was dark when the evening work began. This didn’t affect work in the mill, which was well lighted, but it’s hard to light up a whole mill yard, and this created difficulty in operating the forklifts. By that time, the supply of lumber in the yard was shrinking. It looked as if we could finish in less than two months. Before the end of that time, we’d be sure to strike some cold
weather, but with luck we should be done before the winter really closed in on us.
The dreamy Autumn days were passing. We were coming closer and closer to the closing down of the mill, yet all of these events seemed to have an air of unreality about them. I knew the end was coming, yet it seemed impossible that it would arrive. The old familiar sounds were the same – the shriek of the saw, the blast of the whistle, and the steady whine of the planer had not changed. But while I knew we were at a point where closing, it was still hard to believe.
During this period photographs were taken of the mill in full operation. This was something I had always intended to have done. And it had to be now or never, for the time would soon come when the yard would look bare and desolate, part of the mill crew would be gone, and it would no longer look like a lumber operation.
These pictures were taken by Al Eastman, who later became Frances’ husband. He was a photographer, and the pictures he took are ones I wouldn’t want to part with. Two enlarged ones showed the mill sharply outlined against the distant mountains, the yard still well filled with lumber, and a crisp autumn wind carrying a trail of smoke from the stack.
A thriving picture
The same breeze also whirled the exhaust steam from the engine and safety valve across the intervale. These pictures were more than satisfactory, but Al went on to take what turned out to be a full album of pictures. The men were shown working at their different jobs, the trucks and fork-lifts still in use, and instead of an operation about to close down, it looked as it had for many years, a thriving
lumber business still in its prime.
Meanwhile, we were being forcibly reminded of the precarious condition of the mill. The Dutch oven had to be repaired frequently – a patch-up job was all that was possible – and I was mortally afraid it would cave in before we were finished. The tubes in the boiler were giving trouble. One tube in particular had to be welded nearly every week, and it was becoming obvious that welding would soon be
Perhaps the most ominous threat was the decrepit condition of the slab chains. The short chain, built for conveying stove-wood, was worn out. Frequently a link would break, and while this could be welded, it was unsatisfactory, and the breakage was getting progressively worse.
The long slab-chain was still in good condition – as far as the chain itself was concerned. But it was driven by a set of level gears, a small gear being meshed into a much bigger gear. The bearings that kept these gears in mesh were bolted onto woodwork that was becoming rotten. Occasionally the gears would be forced apart, which nearly always resulted in broken cogs.
Broken cogs are not easily repaired. It could be done – a patch-up job again – by a welder, or by threading in bolts to take the place of the broken cogs. It was going to be a matter of luck if we could get along without a major breakdown until the sawing was finished. Fortunately, we had Ray there to do these repairs. He was a wizard at this type of work.
Ray was one of the men who intended to go to work at Brookfield Box when our own operation was finished. His own home in Londonderry was too far distant to drive to work every day, so we asked him to stay on with us. He was happy with this plan, so the arrangement seemed to be settled.
The Thanksgiving period came later than usual that October. Thanksgiving Sunday was Oct. 14, and the mill was idle the next day, it being a public holiday. The weather was as near perfect as October weather can be, which meant that it was ideal. October can be cold, rainy and disagreeable, but this year it was a succession of bright, sunny days, warm in the afternoons and frosty at night.
Autumn beauty can be almost unreal. The still, crisp mornings, the warmth of the afternoon sun, and the moon shining down at night from a sparkling sky create a season of loveliness, this year felt all the more keenly by the realization that our mill operations would soon be over.
Yet there was much work still to be done before the actual closing down. Knowing this the men might have worked on the holiday, but I didn’t feel like asking them to do this. So on Tuesday, the day following the holiday, we resumed work as usual.