30. End of an era

David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman

30. End of an era

Ray had spent the holiday at his father’s home in Londonderry. He came back on Monday night and worked as usual on Tuesday. That happened to be the day – or one of the days – that the cog gear on the slab-chain gave out, and Ray had a hard afternoon changing these gears. In the evening, wanting to have a new wheel bearing put in his car, he went to a garage in Truro, arriving home at midnight.

The first indication we had that all was not well with Ray, occurred the following morning. About 6:30 he called to me from the stairway. When I went to him he told me he would have to see a doctor. This was self-evident. The mark of a night’s suffering was written all too plainly in his face. I immediately telephoned our own family doctor, Dr. Harvey Earl.

As far as we knew, Ray had never had any heart trouble. But this was what all the signs pointed to now. He had had extreme chest pains during the night, and should have let us know so he could have had medical attention sooner. At this point, though, he had a remission of the pain and was able to drink a cup of tea.

Taken to hospital

By the time Dr. Earl arrived he was feeling much better, but the doctor felt sure these chest pains resulted from a heart attack. On his advice we drove Ray to the hospital in Truro. By this time he was feeling well enough to drive his own car, but the doctor advised against this, and wisely, for very soon after his arrival at the hospital, he had a recurrence of severe chest pain.

This soon passed, but that night the pain came back to a point where it was nearly unbearable, and this attack lasted until morning. By that time Ray was completely worn out, although the pain was gone.

There was no longer any doubt that his illness was caused by a heart attack, and a serious one. But a few days went by during which he had no recurrence of the pain, and we began to hope that the worst was over. After a week were were even more reassured.

Then on Thursday, eight days after his original seizure, he had a different type of attack. There was no pain this time, and it’s hard to
know just what did happen, but in a very short time his heart was damaged to the extent that recovery was impossible. We had called to see him later that day, not knowing what had happened. He knew us, and was able to talk a little while, but he was much sicker than we realized.

Gravely ill

We had planned, when Ray was able to leave the hospital, that he would come and stay with us during his convalescence. He talked about this, and was looking forward to it a little later on, not knowing himself how ill he was. Still, we left the hospital feeling that in some way Ray had taken a turn for the worse. And on Friday morning we received a call, telling us that Ray had had further trouble, and was a very sick man. This was ominous. We went at once to the hospital, and found the report only too true. Ray knew us, but was unable to talk. His condition worsened, and he died during the evening hours.

Ray had been with us ten and a half years, and during that time he had made many friends in Upper Stewiacke. As for us, it was as though we had lost one of the family. It had happened so suddenly, like a bolt out of the blue. For years Ray had lived with us like a family member, and there had been nothing to prepare us for what had happened. We knew Ray was getting older – he was 58, to be exact – but then we were all getting older too. We could see that he was failing a little, but it seemed almost impossible that he could be taken from us in so short a time.

Ray was buried in the little Roman Catholic cemetery in his own home community of Londonderry Mines. The large number of people who came from Upper Stewiacke to the funeral was in itself a tribute to the high esteem in which he was held.

Last day of sawing

It was now near the end of October. The cycle of growth was over, the leaves had fallen, and autumn had faded, the frosts turning the landscape from green to brown. The weather was dull and threatening and the mournful whine of the wind in the fallen leaves brought the realization that winter was not far distant. Saddened as we were by what had just happened, the work went on.

Now, just one final day would end the work in the sawmill. The last of the logs bought at roadside had been brought in, and the log truck only needed to bring in two or three loads to complete the day – logs which had been cut by a contractor.

The date of the last day’s sawing was October 29. I shall always remember it, not because anything spectacular happened, but simply because it was the last day’s sawing in a mill that had been running over 61 years. Earl Taylor was our sawyer, but on that day I spent some of my own time, sawing in our own mill for the final time.

To Brookfield Box

There was no longer any work for the sawmill crew, and following the plans that had already been made, most of them had made arrangements to go to work right away with Brookfield Box Co.

Up to this point, it was hard to realize that the mill was really going to close down. The bustle and stir, and all the familiar sounds of a sawmill in action, were still to be heard. Now this activity was missing, and our force of employees was cut in half.

There was still the drone of the planer, and the scream of the resaw. And the fork lift was still busy around the mill yard. There was still a good supply of lumber in the yard, and it was obvious that winter would be upon us before we were finished.

Good men gone

November arrived, and with the cessation of production in the sawmill, the supply of yard stock diminished rapidly. We were still buying a small amount of lumber, the balance of the cuts of small mills which had supplied us during the earlier part of the year. By the end of November, some orders had to be refused because we were running out of special sizes. Still, our deliveries were going on, much as usual.

It was not only the sawmill that I missed. The men who had operated it were gone now. Several of them were long time employees who had been with us for many years. There was Tom Fulton, who had worked in the mill for 37 years. Tom was four years my senior, but we had gone to school together, had shared the same room for some ten years during the period before my marriage, and had been closely associated ever since.

Nothing I could say now would do justice to the long years of faithful service that he gave to his work in the mill. Donald Burnett was another, who had been 25 years on his job there. He was a good, dependable man, who lost very little time during the whole period of his employment with us. And there was Harold Hamilton, the driver of our log truck, also employed many years, and who had now gone to work for Brookfield Box Co., driving the same truck for them. 

Old friends

It was a wrench to lose these old-time employees. I had worked with them all for many years as fellow employees before I became a shareholder in the business.

Donald Burnett 1968

They were the type of men who make it possible for a business to operate, and it would be impossible to exaggerate their importance. But most of all, I felt as if I had lost comrades, for, after all, these were men whom I hardly regarded as
employees. They were old friends – fellow workers with whom I had been associated for many years, and their departure left a gap which I felt deeply.

There were others still with us who were in the same category. Fred Fulton, driver of the lumber truck, had also been with us a long time, and his capability as a driver has been mentioned earlier. I knew that in the years to come I would frequently go back in memory to numerous trips we had together on the truck, down through the Annapolis Valley to Yarmouth and home again by way of Nova Scotia’s South Shore, or up through the winding roads of Cape Breton to Arichat, Sydney or New Waterford.

Most of these trips were made before the construction of the Trans-Canada highway. The old highway took us through all the little towns and villages along the way, and they were usually two-day trips. There was also Harvey Ernst, who had only been with us five years, but who was a highly-skilled and truly devoted employee. And Hedley Tree, who was a wizard with a fork-lift. I’ve never seen a man who could accomplish as much work with one of these machines.

A final snowstorm

Up to this point the weather had been amazingly good. But in the late afternoon of a day early in December the sky became overcast. During the evening there was every appearance of bad weather. Strong, gusty winds developed during the night, and by morning snow, driven by these winds, was piling into drifts. The storm passed quite rapidly and when it was over we surveyed the situation. It was not
as bad as we had feared. There were some drifts to be shovelled out, but the high winds had blown most of the snow from the few piles of lumber that were still left in the yard.

The final days of the mill’s operation were not far distant. A little before mid- December we accepted two house orders, given us by McCulloch’s Ltd. in Dartmouth. These orders took practically all the dimension lumber – joists, rafters, etc., that we had in the millyard. The very small amount of lumber still remaining would be gladly accepted as yard stock among our customers.

As well, we still had a week’s work planing up the last of our high grade stock. This consisted mostly of clear – knot free – lumber which was always saved, and besides this, there was a day’s planing of gutter-stock. I always worked with Harvey Ernst to set up for planing gutter, and we did this for the final time on Monday, December 16.

The last run

I had always been fascinated by the sight of smooth, shiny pieces of gutter, slowly emerging, one by one, from the planer. Now, I watched for the last time. Wooden gutter is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and I am doubtful if there is any of it still manufactured in the Maritime provinces. This gutter stock could easily have been sold in the rough, and with time getting short, this did occur to me. But I wanted to make a final run of gutter before closing down the mill for good.

When this was finished there remained only the few piles of clears to be dressed. Clears looked good when ripped and dressed as 1 x 2 and 1 x 3, and were eagerly sought after by our buyers.

The closing down of our lumber operation was dragging on longer than I had planned. Earlier in the fall I had told Edward Creelman, at Brookfield Box Co., that we expected to be done by December first. Now it was mid-December, and I felt we had to be done before Christmas. A number of the men from our sawmill had already gone to work for Edward, and he was waiting for the closing of the
planing mill to hire some of those men too. He was particularly anxious to get Fred Fulton, who would be driving the same truck for him that Fred had been driving for us. Also, Edward wanted Harvey Ernst to be part of his planing mill team.

Struggle for words

This story has taken many more pages than I had originally intended. As it closes, I have not been able to put into words my real feelings regarding the mill, and all the events connected with it during the years. It is possible, I believe, to put one’s true feelings on paper, but this gift hasn’t been given to me.

The best I can hope is that this story may give anyone who cares to read it a sense of the way a small lumber business operated during the period of time involved. Operations such as ours have become obsolete, and the few still in existence will soon be gone.

The sight of our millyard, nearly empty of lumber, was new to me, row after row of empty pile-bottoms presenting a desolate appearance. This was accentuated by the time of the year in which it was taking place. Late Autumn had become early winter, and the leafless elms of the Stewiacke Valley stood dark and sombre against steel-grey skies.

December 21, 1968

The final day of operation for our mill was set for Saturday, December 21, 1968. The last of our lumber had been moved into the planing mill on the previous afternoon. Walking down to the mill that Saturday morning, the empty millyard struck me as strange – no lumber or logs were to be seen anywhere.

The mill was started, as usual, at seven o’clock, with lumber enough in the planing mill to last out the forenoon. And now, with our stock almost gone, it really did seem like the final chapter. Most of my time that morning was spent looking after the few things that still needed attention. They were not very many, with the closing only hours away.

Then the forenoon drew to a close, and for the last time, the whistle blew – a long drawn out final blast that echoed for miles over the valley. The steam valve was closed, shutting off the engine, and the sound of moving machinery died away. And a quietness that was to be permanent enveloped the mill.

Years have now passed since that closing date. The mill is silent now. The buildings are in disrepair, and the yard has grown up in coarse grass and bushes. All the machinery is gone, but one thing still stand out – the old blackened smokestack, which remains visible for miles around – an emblem of one of the last steam-driven sawmills of the age. – April 30, 1975

My Father

My Father, who loved
each spruce log he sawed
through all those years
at his mill, looks now
at the barren empty yard.
Three years ago, he closed it
because his heart was bad;
Yet he does not see
the grass growing up
through the gravel (where once
his trucks rumbled in the logs
from Elmsdale and Burnside)
or the closed doors through which
slabs and sawdust came.
And, though he walks
among the weeds with
not even the hiss of boiler steam
to disturb the cricket’s cry
he still hears the big saw
shrieking through his timber
and the ancient whistle
booming out at noon.
And still there is the smoke
billowing high from the stack
and the clean white lumber
leaving a thousandth time
for Halifax.  (1971)