David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman
6. Work and play
First, the boiler had to be filled with water. What a disagreeable job! There was no electric pump. But there were buckets! It took something over 250 buckets of water fill the boiler to a point where it was safe to be steamed up. This water had to be carried about 50 yards out of a sort of tank, which was really a hole dug in the ground, cribbed in around the sides, and filled the water piped from a nearby spring.
The water was a couple of feet below the surface of the ground, and you to climb into it and stand on a plank in order to fill the buckets. It was an uphill climb all the way back to the mill, and once there, it was necessary to climb up sloping planks to the top
of the boiler.
This obnoxious task had to be done two or three times during the year. A certain amount of scale collected in the boiler, the residue from the water that had been boiled away. It had to be cleaned out periodically, another unpalatable job, worse actually than carrying the water.
Sometimes a leak developed in a mud-port. This was a very sad occasion. These mud-ports were holes near the bottom of the boiler. They were large enough to reach an arm through and clean out scale from the bottom of the boiler. When the cover was in place there was a ring of rubber or asbestos packing between it and the boiler plate — to prevent leaks. But sometimes a leak did occur, and there was then no alternative but to drain the boiler and re-pack the mud-port.
Dismally, I can recall two or three such occasions. But I think the most pitiful of all happened when Tom was working alone at this job, while the rest of us were working in the woods. He had to pour the water into a funnel, which had been made by cutting the bottom out of a five-gallon oil drum. This was inverted, the neck going through a small hole into the boiler.
Tom’s eyesight was so poor he could barely see enough to pour the water into the funnel. What he couldn`t see was that in some way the neck of the funnel came out of the hole in the boiler, and for half a day he was pouring water into this funnel only to have it run down the outside of the boiler.
Eventually, the boiler was filled and steamed up on this occasion without complications, and soon the mill was ready to go. The kidway at the mill was piled full of the big logs cut during the winter. It is hard to convey to those unfamiliar with sawmills the thrill of sawing these beautiful logs. I’ve often heard it remarked that if one worked for a few years around a sawmill it seemed to get into the blood. Truer words were never spoken. Many people who began working in a sawmill at an early age kept at it all their working years.
Has the attitude of workers towards their work changed over the years? It was recognized then that most of one’s time would be spent at work, and if this gave no pleasure, a person was in for a pretty flat time. Furthermore, a good worker commanded respect. Today if one does more than the bare minimum demanded, they are usually regarded oddly by their fellow workers.
I think the difference in attitude between that day and the present time is due more to the system than the people. If one didn’t like working there, he had little alternative. If you didn’t work, you got no money. There was no unemployment insurance, no family allowance, no welfare benefits, no old age pension, and it was around that time that the workmen`s compensation board began to operate.
No one now wishes to run down the principals involved in the installation of these benefits, but certainly most people agree that they have brought their problems.
The wages for this work were not high, even by that day’s standards. Looking back over forty-five years of millwork, they never were high. I was to work for such wages for over thirty years, after which acquiring a share in the business changed things for the better. This happened through a combination of luck and management.
The Dutch oven
Day after day the sawing went on. It was interspersed with custom sawing for the farmers, with the sawing of laths and shingles, and also with some work on the planer. And some changes took place.
For a long time it had been Roy`s ambition to install a Dutch oven in the boiler room. This calls for a word of explanation. The boiler had previously been set up as a ‘return tube’ firing system.
This boiler had 52 three-inch tubes, which ran the whole length of the boiler — twelve feet. The combined inside area of these tubes
represented the biggest part of the boiler heating surface. In the ‘return tube’ system the whole boiler was enclosed in brick – in our case slate-stones were used. The fire was underneath the boiler and the draft carried the blaze to the tubes, where the heat went through to the other end of the boiler, and on up the smoke-stack.
But in the case of the Dutch oven setting, the oven itself was built against the end of the boiler, so that the flames could go directly
through the tubes. The heating surface supplied by the bottom part of the boiler was lost, but this was far more compensated by the flames going so directly through the tubes, before any of this heat had been lost.
Besides these advantages, this setting would permit the burning of sawdust as fuel, something not practical in the previous setting. And this was a real advantage, as the sawdust had already accumulated over the years to the point where some means of disposal (other than piling it in the yard) must be found. The sawdust pile was near the river, and even at that time the government took a dim view of a river being polluted with sawdust.
Late in August of that year – 1925 – the sawing was completed, at least for the time being, and we were ready to go to work at the oven. It tale too long to go into all the details of this work, but it was disagreeable from beginning to end. First the old boiler setting had to be torn out and carted away.
The boiler had to be taken out and turned end for end, and left there until cement piers were made to reset it. At the same time an engine bed had to be poured from cement, and also a stack base for the smoke-stack.
There was no gasoline engine to drive the cement mixer. There was no cement mixer either. All the cement for this work had to be mixed by hand, with shovels. Then the boiler had to be brought back in, and set on its new piers. After that we were ready to build the oven, which was made with slate-stones, well mortared together.
Even disagreeable jobs have to come to an end sometime, and by early October the mill was ready to go again. It took only a short time to demonstrate its superiority over the previous arrangement. By this time there were more logs to be sawn, and this work lasted until mid-December, when it was time to go to the woods again for the winter.
The logs to be cut that winter were smaller than those of the previous year. They were mostly fir, and as fir goes they were of good quality. This year we had two new teamsters. In place of Lewis Graham, who had gone west that summer, we had Ad Laffin, who drove our own team. And in the place of Allan Deyarmond, who did not come back that winter, we had Adam Fulton.
Adam was a very colourful person. He was always in the best of cheer, nearly always with some joke to tell, and he had a really remarkable talent for reciting.
Such poems as Vitai Lampada” (by Sir Henry Newbolt) and The Shooting of Dan McGrew (by Robert Service) really came alive when he recited them. He also knew quite a bit of Shakespeare, particularly Julius Caesar. Robert Burn’s Cotter’s Saturday Night was another.
In fact, he never seemed to run out of material. Besides this, he was a royally good worker. He put his whole heart into his work, and his sole aim was to do as much as he could for those he worked for.
The snow was deep that winter. January was a month of snow storms, making it a rough time to cut logs, and heavy sledding for the teams. The last part of the winter they hooked both teams onto one set of sleds, and really piled it full of logs.
One night that winter there was a basket social in the Otter Brook school house, about four miles from home. The roads were impassable to cars, so a big box body was put on a pair of sleds, which were drawn by four horses – the four which we used to haul our logs.
What is a basket social? They are rare now, but were common then. A program of entertainment was prepared, which consisted of songs, dialogues, recitations, and so on, all by local talent. The standard may not always have been of the highest order, but no one knew the difference. This was a day when people largely made their own entertainment, and a lot of enjoyment went with the reparation.
The auction begins
This entertainment would last from one to two hours, and was followed by the sale of the baskets. The term “basket” is loosely used. It represented a lunch packed by the local women, in a container of their choice. This may have been a basket, but was more frequently a box of some description, often elaborately ornamented.
At one of these socials there would be fifty to seventy-five baskets. No age limit was involved. Anyone could come, and baskets were brought by people of all ages, nine to 90 if they chose. The baskets were sold by a local auctioneer. Once the sale of baskets had begun, the real interest centred around a group of young people who might be expected to buy their girlfriend’s basket.
If you were such a young person, you faced heavy odds when the basket of your choice came up to auction. Sometimes a syndicate was formed against you, consisting of a group of other young people who had pooled their resources in order to run up the price of this basket.
Test of honour
You felt almost honour bound to get the basket at all costs, and it wasn’t too unusual to see a week’s pay spent in this manner. But there are tricks in all trades. A lot depended on whether the syndicate knew the basket by sight, or not. Mostly they did. But if not, you were closely watched by one of their number. If you made a bid, they watched closely to see that you didn’t get the basket.
If you were lucky enough, you might bid up several baskets, dropping them at a certain point, and thus bankrupting the syndicate. But this system carried its dangers. If the syndicate caught on that this wasn’t the basket, you were likely to get stuck with it yourself. So for this reason you didn’t bid too high.
Then, when the one you were looking for did come up for sale, if the syndicate was uncertain of it’s identity, you might get it at a fairly reasonable price.
However, if the group did know the basket, it created a very different situation. You might get your best friend to bid for you, but a wary eye was usually kept on him too. The auctioneer also understood the situation perfectly, and a nod to him was as good as a bid. Sometimes your good friend could achieve your purpose in this way.
Setting a limit
Another possibility was the matter of fixing it beforehand with the auctioneer. In this case the auctioneer would automatically raise any
bids that came, up to a previously agreed figure. Yet all of these tricks failed if the group decided to buy it themselves. Usually they would settle on a strategy beforehand, and let you have it at a price. The average price of a basket was from one to two dollars. Except in extreme cases, you would usually get your basket at anywhere between five and ten dollars.
One case that comes to my mind involved a person who had been trying to date a girl, without much success. He had made boasts that he intended to buy her basket at a certain social soon to be held, something he should never have done. From that point on he was a sitting duck for the rest of the young crowd.
The girl thought she might keep him from finding out which basket was hers, but just before the social he managed to get a look at it. So in the brief time remaining, she and her girl-friends hastily prepared another basket, on which they put her name. This basket was very different in appearance from the other one, on which they put the name of an elderly gentleman.
The young man knew nothing of all this, and soon the basket social began, with the entertainment first, followed by the sale of baskets. At last came the basket he was looking for, and the bidding started. The syndicate was ready for him. And he wouldn’t give up. In the end, he paid $33.25 for this basket at a time when people were glad to work for $1.00 per day. When he found he had only bought a basket with an old person’s name on it, he was unhappy, mortified and resentful.
But there was nothing he could do about it. Except that at this point he gave up hope, feeling that if the girl detested him badly enough to participate in this conspiracy against him, he might as well write her off as a lost cause.
This particular basket social carried no special highlights. What I remember most clearly is the trip back and forth on the sleds. It took
over an hour each way. There was a waist-high railing built on the sleds. Amid all the laughter and chatter that always happens on such a trip, I can still hear Adam Fulton, sometimes perched precariously on top of the railing, reciting “Friends Romans, Countryman, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”, and so on, page after page from Julius Caesar.
The passing of winter
The winter was passing. January had gone, and February was near its close. Some people like winter, but a great many do not. But at this point in the winter, both groups are unanimous in welcoming the first signs of spring. It was still cold enough, and to say there was plenty of snow would be an understatement. But the lengthening of the days, the warmth of the sun’s rays at mid-day, and the appearance of brown patches in the fields, all gave promise that spring was not far distant.
So the day came when we packed all our logging tools onto the sled, and brought them home, ending our logging operations for another winter. As it turned out, it was nearly the end of my logging operations, period. Occasionally after that we might go to the Weir Lot to log for a few days, if work got slack in the mill, but it didn’t get slack that often, and after a very few years, we never went to the woods to log again.
This year, however, we once again went through the ritual of filling the boiler and getting the mill ready to go. And that summer was a
repetition of the previous one, as far as the millwork goes. The Dutch oven worked well, and was a real source of satisfaction, since it burned all the sawdust, which up to that time had been a nuisance.
At that time the sawdust pile was higher than the mill – a mountain of sawdust. For some years farmers used to haul a few loads to their farms for various purposes, but with the passing years the sawdust became old, and was no longer of any use. Such a sawdust pile doesn’t disappear overnight, and even now, forty-six years later, remnants are still discernible.
The Stewiacke Valley
Once again the bright summer passed into the crisp autumn, with its glories of scarlet and gold. The valley was beautiful beyond
description. A little information is in order here regarding the valley itself.
The Stewiacke River empties into the Shubenacadie river about 30 miles from where we live. Our home is at the upper end of the village of Upper Stewiacke. But the Stewiacke Valley actually begins about four miles above Brookfield, after passing through the Brookfield woods.
A winding road, running parallel to the river, goes up to the head of the Eastville, which is also the head of the Stewiacke valley, about
twenty-five miles above Brookfield. This is mainly farming country, interspersed with stretches of woodland. The valley widens and narrows as you go along, but in the main it is about a mile in width.
Elms and maples
The intervales are dotted with lofty elms, and with groves of maples here and there. The main highway up the valley follows an easterly
direction. Across the valley, on the southern side, is a high hill – we call it a mountain – covered with growths of both softwood and hardwood. On the other side of this mountain is the Musquodoboit Valley. The north side of the Stewiacke valley is not so hilly, and
there are side-roads leading to the Burnside, Otter Brook and Smithfield.
The latter is uninhabited at the present time. The last family left there in 1941. Going back farther, to the period from 1900 to 1920,
Smithfield was well settled, and was a school section. My sister, Flossie, taught her first term there, probably around 1913.
The northern slopes of the Stewiacke valley are also woodland, mostly softwood, but with enough hardwood to lend colour during September and October. The colouring this particular autumn was magnificent. It was apparent in the Brookfield woods, where numerous maples and birches were sprinkled among the spruce. In the farmlands farther up the river it was still more evident — maples dot the roadsides by many of the farms along the way. And farther up, the mountain in it’s splendour overshadowed all the rest.
To Upper Stewiacke
After coming through the Brookfield woods, the first farmlands you come to are in Middle Stewiacke. The farms there are spread out along the highway, and the central part of Middle Stewiacke is a small village about eight miles above Brookfield, containing a small, but very nice general store (operated by the Kenrick Brothers), a schoolhouse, and a well kept country church.
The farming country continues on up the valley to Upper Stewiacke, which is about nine miles above Middle Stewiacke. It is also a small village, with a general store, the Valley Diner — where you’ll get the best fish and chips available anywhere — a garage, a small consolidated school (with four teachers) and our church, a branch of the United Church of Canada, as are all the churches in the Stewiacke valley.