3. A steam sawmill

David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman – 1909-1976

3. A steam sawmill

Nearly all our family for two or three generations back had been millmen. It has already been mentioned that my father and mother, with all of the family born before that time, moved here from Burnside, which was seven or eight miles distance, in January 1907. There they had a water-mill. When they came to Upper Stewiacke they built a steam-powered sawmill.

A description of this mill may not mean much to anyone who is not a lumberman, but since the rest of this narrative will be centred mainly around mills, I’ll try to describe it as briefly as possible. To begin with, their power was supplied by a small boiler and steam engine. Then they had a rotary sawmill – a log carriage, sawbed and trimmer – they also had a small planer, and a shingle machine. In addition, they soon put in a smasher, or grain-grinder, which wont be gone into now, as it was phased out before my day in the mill.

This was a family operated business at this point. There was my father, my uncle whom I might as well continue to call Bub, as that’s the only name he ever got. Roy and Alden, and very soon Glenn were also working in the mill. Bub was the sawyer for the first few years. The main jobs in such a mill were – sawyer, canterman, splitterman, tallyman and trimmerman, fireman and deal, or lumber, piler.

The canterman was the one who rolled the log on the carriage, and turned it to the proper place as each slab was taken off. The sawyer operated the carriage, and was completely responsible for the recovery of lumber from the log. This was a responsible job, since a poor sawyer made it impossible for the rest of the crowd to accomplish anything either, as well as wasting valuable material.

Becoming a sawyer

No particular directions can be given whereby one can learn to become a sawyer. You have to work in a mill where you can see the job done by someone who knows how, and when you first try your hand at it, the result isn’t likely to be very impressive. The splitterman takes the slabs, lumber, etc. and sends them along to the tallyman, or trimmerman, the same man in this case. He trimmed and tallied the lumber, and usually cut up the slabs, too.

The lumber piler carried the lumber onto the various piles. The fireman, of course, had the job of looking after the boiler and engine, and keeping a good fire going so there would be plenty of steam. Since there weren’t that many men to operate this mill, they simply doubled up on some of the jobs. The sawyer, instead of having a canterman, “canted” the log himself. The fireman helped out whoever needed it the most, and the lumber-piler did whatever extra work he could manage.

When our family moved from Burnside to Upper Stewiacke Village, they bought the place formerly occupied by Fred Bently – grandfather of Archie Bentley. This was a small farm, and for quite a number of years they did in fact farm a little. The mill, however, was always the main concern. This farm was situated between the place later owned by Homer Johnson, and the United Church.

As soon as the weather became suitable in the spring of that 1907, construction of the mill was begun, and before fall it was in operation. For a number of years it’s main operation was custom sawing, or sawing other peoples logs into lumber for them, at a stated price per thousand feet.

The mill whistle

A sawmill isn’t the safest place in the world for a group of children. while very young, I was frequently sent home, but before long, in company with other members of the family older than I, we all became accepted around the mill. It was all wonderful to me – the boiler with the white hot fire, the engine which we were occasionally allowed to start, the big saw which screamed whenever it hit a log, and last, but not least, the whistle, whose blast could be heard for miles up and down the valley.

There were no radios then to give you the correct time, and people all around used to set their clocks by the whistle. Probably it wasn’t right either, but anyway, it did keep uniform time in the community. If we were at the mill at the proper time we were often allowed to blow the whistle.

This reminds me of a little episode connected with whistles, and which occurred in Truro. I had another uncle, Foster Blaikie, who was working at the electric light plant there. They had a huge eight-inch whistle there that made noise enough to deafen you if you were near when it was blown.

There was a young chap working there who was a bit of a ‘smart-aleck’. So one day my uncle, who was pretty good at playing tricks, placed a monkey wrench up on the roof beside the whistle. Then about half a minute before it was time for the whistle to be blown, he sent this chap up after the monkey wrench. Just as he got there the whistle blew a wild shrill blast right in his ear. He fled, leaving the monkey wrench behind, and in his haste nearly fell off the roof.

Bunching shingles

To go back again to the mill, they used to saw shingles quite frequently. I can remember ‘bunching’ the shingles. Four bunches made a thousand, which was supposed to cover 100 square feet of roof, and usually did cover around 120 square feet. Bunching shingles usually included a small honorarium of one cent per bunch. One was unlikely to amass a fortune at this rate, but any money at all looked good then, and it gave you a sense of importance to feel that you were one of the crowd.

My brother, Tom, was nearest to me in age. We were together most of the time. He was blind, or nearly so, but in the daytime he could see enough to get around. We often used to get some scraps of lumber at the mill, odds and ends which were of no value. This particular day, they were sawing some very nice 1/2-inch boards, cut up the right length for a barn roof.

We felt they wouldn’t mind if we took a few – or would they? I went to ask permission, while Tom made off with the first load. The answer was a decided ‘no’. But Tom was already some distance away with his load, and we never did bring it back. I suppose some poor soul was a little short on his barn-roofing. But maybe he over-estimated in the first place!

Reading Braille

Tom went to the school for the blind in Halifax for a number of years, and there he learned to read Braille. As most people know, the Braille system designates the alphabet by a series of letters made with raised dots on a piece of heavy paper, which a blind person can read by touch. I can so well remember coming to bed at night in cold weather, and finding Tom reading away in the darkness, the book snugly down beneath the bed clothes.

Later on, he used to work in the mill. There were many things he could not do on account of his eyesight, but he used to be splitterman at times, and also lumber-piler. He was very careful, and only once did I see him get hurt, and then not seriously. He had on a pair of heavy mittens, which interfered with his sense of touch, and accidentally put his hand against the big saw. His mitten flew up into the air, and one of his fingers was cut, but not badly enough to lay him up for long.

In the early ’20’s a lath machine was installed in the mill. There was a good demand for laths, and at first the laths were made from slabs, which before this had been cut into stove-wood, or burned on a refuse-fire. The lath business was quite different from the lumber business, and it made good part-time work for the younger crowd.

Edwin, my brother Roy’s eldest son, was around nine years of age, and I was 14. We often spent Saturdays sawing laths, also a couple of hours after school. And in summer vacation, quite a bit of our time was spent in this way. Of course this does not mean that all the time was spent sawing laths. They still continued to do all the custom work that came, and it was from these slabs that the laths were produced. It was a bit later that they began making laths out of logs, or lath-wood, as it was generally called. This business lasted quite a few years, and there were further developments which we will come to later.

Father and mother

All these events in the mill occurred during my school days. A word here is necessary to bring things up to date regarding family matters. As mentioned earlier, my Father died in March of 1909, some months before I was born. He had had Tuberculosis as a younger man, and a recurrence of this was the cause of his death.

The work and strain of setting up the mill was hard on him, and soon after this he became really ill. With present day treatment, he might have survived, but the treatment of that day included rest, and little else. For a short time he was active to some extent, but was soon unable to work at all. His health failed rapidly, and the end came late in the winter of 1909.

My Mother was a wonderful person. The position in which she and all the family were left was difficult. The purchase of the mill, and expenses involved in setting it up had created debt. Roy, my eldest brother, was 20 years of age, and on both of them fell the greatest responsibility of running the house, and operating the business.

Seven of the family were of school age or under. My sister, Flossie, though only 14, and still going to school, stayed home for a year to help out at home. Bub, my uncle, was a good sawyer, but lacked business ability. He continued to saw for nine or ten years after this, and being around 60 by that time, he left the sawing, which had become too arduous, and went to work firing the boiler. His job, was taken over by Roy, who was already a good sawyer.

Alden killed in 1916

After my Father’s death, the next break in the family came when Alden was killed during the first world war in 1916. The next was Leonard, who died of rheumatic fever on January 27, 1918. A little later, on March 5 of the same year, my grandmother passed away.

Roy was married in October, 1913. His wife was Edna Flemming, and their first place of residence was the house later occupied by Homer Johnson, (which seems to have figured quite prominently in this story). A year later they built a house, right across the road from the home place. Glenn married Alice Hamilton in December, 1919, and they lived on the home-place.

As other members of the family left school, their occupations took them away from home. Flossie became a teacher. Harry went to work at Blaikies Garage in Truro, which was operated by my uncle, Foster Blaikie, who was mentioned before in connection with another episode. Later Harry enlisted and went overseas, as mentioned, in 1916. After the was over, he came back and went on with his former job. Olive taught school awhile, and Edith went to Truro to work.

35 cents a day

This brings us to the point where my school career was over. I went to work immediately in the mill. I started in as splitterman, while Tom went to work piling lumber. The work was hard as today’s standards go, but was not then thought to be difficult. We worked a 10 hour day, six days a week, which didn’t allow too much time for recreation and other activities. Soon I became used to it, and thought little of the long hours, since those were the hours worked by nearly everyone at that time.

The pay wasn’t too fabulous. From a dollar to a dollar and a half was the best pay that an experienced worker could get. Sawyers pay would amount to $2.00 to $2.50 per day. Since finances were not very flourishing, and since I was hardly 15, my pay was the magnificent sum of $0.35 per day, plus board.

To the best of my recollection, nobody ever became rich working on this pay scale. Granted the $0.35 would buy more then than now (the 1970s), but it would be similar to working for less than $2.00 per day, plus board, at the present time. After about a year, my pay was increased to $0.45, later to $0.60, then to $0.75 and when I was nineteen, it had risen to $1.00

Lath business

About the time I began working in the mill, they began to saw laths out of round logs. A good market had developed for laths, and the scabs, which had previously supplied enough raw material, became insufficient. Probably half the time was spent on the lath business at that stage, lumber and shingles being produced the rest of the time.

One drawback our mill had for sawing laths was, that when first built, no one had foreseen the development of the lath business. Consequently the only place for a lath machine was back near the other end of the mill from where the wood was cut up into lath-lengths, and it all had to be carried over half the length of the mill.

To remedy this situation would have meant almost completely rebuilding the mill. Even then, looking back, I think this would have paid. But the cost looked too high, so we carried the wood. Nowadays a conveyer of some sort would be made, first because to move it by hand would be uneconomical, and second because you’d never get anyone to do it anyway.

Out of slab wood a small mill crowd could saw 7,000 to 8,000 laths per day. When the whole log was ripped up, you could get double this amount, and a couple of extra men could raise the cut to 20,000 to 25,000 per day.

Warm memories

There are other recollections of the mill which are difficult to express on paper. These are intangible memories which contain a not unpleasant note of nostalgia. How do you explain the smell of new-sawn lumber to anyone who has never been around it? The comfortable hiss of steam when you enter a warm, cozy boiler room on a cold winter night? The team-bells around the yard in winter?

(I’ve often seen a dozen sled-teams around the yard at one time during a good spell of sledding.) The deep puffing of the steam engine when the mill is being worked to its limit? The clouds of steam from the engine exhaust, the smoke from the tall smoke-stack, and also from the huge slab-fire? Now, we’d be worried about pollution. Then, no one had ever heard of it.

Then there was the sound of logs being unloaded on the skid-ways, the sound of lumber being dropped on the lumber piles; the rhythm of the engine, the roar of the safety-valve, the blast of the mill whistle four times daily, and the sound of the mill slowing down, and the silence after it had stopped at the end of a days’ work.

In the evening some of us always went to the mill. The boiler needed attention for the night, there were saws to be filed, belts to be laced, and various other chores. This was something I usually enjoyed. Often Roy and I were there together. We’d finish the chores, then stay in the boiler-room where it was warm, and the atmosphere relaxing, and talk for a while.