7. Death in the family

David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman
1909-1976

7. Death in the familySome changes had taken place in the family. Between Christmas and New Year’s of 1927 my sister Olive died. She had been working in Truro, where she developed scarlet fever. She was working at George Mack’s, and as she was unable to come home, Mother went in the car for her. One evening she was delirious with fever, and Mother had just gone downstairs to fill a hot water bottle.

Olive got up, put an overcoat on over her pyjamas, and went out onto the street. In almost no time an alarm was given, and people went looking for her. But in her delirium she had left the street, gone through an open space, and waded a brook. On the farther bank of that brook she was found dead the next day. The doctor said that, with her high fever, she would go until a chill struck her heart, which happened when she waded the brook. She had not been drowned, and was clear of the water when she was found.

Tom, my brother who was blind, died on April 13, 1929. The exact nature of his illness was never determined. It began with chills and fever in November of 1928. He then developed terrible abscesses in his head. As soon as one got better, another one developed. There must have been some disease causing this condition. He was worn out with suffering from the abscesses, and died leaving the doctors completely baffled in their efforts to identify the cause. During the course of his illness he spent several weeks in hospital, and was attended by a number of doctors, including a specialist from Halifax, but their efforts to save him were unsuccessful.

The United Church

The church we have always attended is the United Church in Upper Stewiacke. Over the period of time covered by my memory, quite a number of ministers have served here, most of them very good and dedicated men. The first one I can remember was Rev. Mr. Stewart. He was an able preacher with a rather fiery temper and on one or two occasions nearly came to blows with members of his session.

He left Upper Stewiacke in 1915, to be succeeded by the Rev. Mr. MacLeod, a very wonderful person, loved by everyone. On one occasion he went to a certain house to officiate at a wedding. The ceremony being over, he went out and harnessed his horse, and then remembering that he had left his Bible in the house, went back to call for it.

Having retrieved it, he remarked that he hadn’t known whether it was wise for him to come back for it or not, and he then told them a little story about another minister who had been in a similar predicament, and who opened the door just in time to hear the remark, “Well, I’m glad the old devil’s gone; now we can have a dance”. Mr. MacLeod was only with us a couple of years when his health failed, and he had to give up the charge. He died soon after leaving Upper Stewiacke.

Rev. J. K. MacInnes

The next Minister was Rev. J.K. MacInnes. I liked him very much. As youngsters we used to go swimming with him. He was a good swimmer, and also a good skater. He was absent-minded, and on one occasion he had to address a meeting at a neighbouring church. On his arrival there, he found, to his consternation, that he was wearing an old sweater, which he usually wore when he went to look after his horse. The rest of his attire was passable, if not immaculate. He had to borrow a coat, which saved the day for him.

Another embarrassing situation arose during a church service. The service had progressed to the point where the offering was being collected. This was done by two people, one for each side of the church. Alex Fulton had the east side, while the west side was done by Tom Foster.

At this time, Mr. MacInnes didn’t offer the short prayer usually given nowadays when the plates are brought forward. The collectors simply returned to their seats, and the Minister then went on to give the customary long general prayer. As it happened, Tom Foster was the first one to finish, while Alex Fulton was only about half way up the aisle on his side of the church.

Mr. MacInnes, whose mind was probably on the prayer he was about to offer, noticed Tom come forward with his plate, and go to his seat, but did not notice that Alex had not finished. He reverently bowed his head and began a prayer that lasted a good ten minutes.

The taking up of the collection came to a complete stop. Alex stood in the aisle with his head bowed until the prayer was over. Then he went right on taking up the rest of the collection as though nothing had happened. The situation gradually dawned on the Minister, and the bewildered look on his face was memorable. His sermon that day was something less than impressive.

Mill near the church

Our mill was owned at this time by Roy and Glenn, my uncle having pretty well retired. It was situated on the opposite side of the highway from the Upper Stewiacke church, about three hundred yards distant from it. Going on up the highway, there was more farming country combined with areas of timberland.

The Springside Church was about five miles east of our own church, and from there it was another three miles to the head of the valley, where the Lansdowne Woods began. Beyond that, it was twelve miles through the woods to the village of Lansdowne, the nearest community in Pictou County.

As previously indicated, it had been decided not to go to the woods that winter. The lath business was good. Roy and Glenn began buying lathwood by the cord, and sawing the bigger logs into lumber, and the smaller ones into laths. A good many farmers were more than willing to sell lath wood, so there was no difficulty about a supply of raw material. During the late fall the supply did become a bit
scarce, but winter came in with a bang that year, and things seemed to be working out well.

Becoming a sawyer

I had always wanted to learn to be a sawyer. Roy was sawing at this time, and if he happened to be called away for a few minutes, I always rolled a log onto the carriage and tried my luck. My first efforts were not spectacular, but soon it came to a point where, by taking plenty of time I could manage after a fashion.

In January of that year – 1927 – Glenn cut his hand quite badly on the trimmer saw, and was unable to work for nearly two months. Instead of putting me to work on the trimmer – the most logical course, because I had already done some of this work – Roy decided to do it himself, and to set me to work sawing.

This was exactly what I wanted, and in the six or seven weeks following I might not have become a sawyer, but I felt like one.
I became accustomed to the machinery, a feeling I have never had a chance to lose. When Glenn came back to work, Roy began sawing again, but from then on I often had a half day or so, which was plenty of time to keep in practice.

New Year’s Eve

The past two years before this we had been in the woods at New Year’s, but previous to that the family had followed a practice of staying up New Year’s Eve, and blowing the old year out and the new year in with the mill whistle. This year we decided to saw laths while waiting for midnight to arrive. Then, on the stroke of 12 o’clock the whistle was blown steadily for a couple of minutes, a long,
sharp blast that echoed for miles up and down the Stewiacke Valley.

Later, the new year was marked by tooting the blowing the numbers of the year – one toot for the one, nine for the nine, two for two, and seven for the seven.

Then we prepared the boiler for the night, making it one o’clock in the morning when we finally got to bed. The next day we had to load a rail car with lumber in Upper Musquodoboit, and it was necessary to get up at 4:30, as this was going to be a long day.

Sled to Musquodoboit

By this time a few cars travelled the roads in winter, but at this point there was a lot of snow, and the road to Upper Musquodoboit was
impassable to cars. The last sled-load of lumber had still to be taken over to complete the car-load, and by the time we got there with it, it was nearly 10 o’clock. Then we began loading the car.

By noon, the rain, which had been threatening all the morning, began in earnest. We got our dinner at the hotel, and by the time we finished, the rain, accompanied by a high wind, was coming down in torrents. Nobody could load lumber in such weather. Roy made arrangements for someone over there to load the lumber the next day. But we still had to go home.

It was a good three-hour trip in all that storm, and we arrived home around five o’clock, literally soaked to the hide.

Ghosts at the cemetery

Among the anecdotes which came my way that winter was one concerning a sawyer named Hyde Lynds. This incident took place a long time ago, probably before the turn of the century. Whether Mr. Lynds’ personality bore any resemblance to the person portrayed in ‘Dr. Jekyll and Hr. Hyde’ I do not know, but it is certain he drank to excess quite frequently. Whether this was with friends, or by himself at a tavern, I can’t say, but he had to walk several miles in order to get to his customary source of supply, and in the course of his trip he had to pass a cemetery.

In a mill crew there are always pranksters, and a few of them were seized with an idea they felt sure would strike terror to the heart of a sober man, to say nothing of an inebriated one. So one night they supplied themselves with white sheets, which they took with them to the cemetery.

There, they arrayed themselves in the white sheets, while one of their number kept watch until they saw Hyde coming. Then they began moving slowly around, in what they hoped was a good imitation of a ghost. A low fence stood between the highway and the cemetery. As he draw nearer Hyde saw the apparitions, but they failed to frighten him.

Instead, he crossed the ditch, leaned on the fence and surveyed the scene in silence for a minute or two. Then he produced a pipe, and some tobacco, and quite leisurely he proceeded to fill and light it. Finally, he said: “Well boys, is this a general resurrection, or just a little time among yourselves?”

Lath market falters

As spring arrived, there was a good supply of lathwood in the millyard and during the summer it continued to increase. Unfortunately, the lath market began to decline. Roy and Glenn had bought this lathwood for summer delivery, and were obligated to accept what many of the farmers already had cut.

The current price of laths had been around $5.00 per thousand, and at this figure they could do reasonably well. When it went down to $4.50, then to $4.00, there was little profit involved, and when the price fell to $3.50, a loss was inevitable.

The price of $3.50 occurred during the fall months, at a time when desperate efforts were being made to get the supply of lathwood
finished. When it was done, instead of having a profit for the year, a substantial loss was experienced.

Blaikie Brothers & Co. Ltd.

Soon after the mill was built, a company was formed. This company was composed of Roy, Glenn, and my Uncle, Bub. It was known as Blaikie Bros. & Co., and was not incorporated at the time. It was operated in this manner until 1951, when it was incorporated, and known as Blaikie Bros. & Co. Ltd.

The company’s finances had never been in a flourishing condition. As mentioned, there was debt at the beginning, and it never seemed to be cleared up. When it appeared on the verge of doing so, new expenses always seemed to arise. The first boiler was too small, and had to be replaced by another used one, slightly larger. But the engine was also too light, and in the fall of 1916 a new power plant
was installed.

A new boiler was bought, and an older engine, much bigger than the previous one, which had been factory overhauled, completed the power installation. These did the work fairly well, but the boiler was always hard to steam, so the dutch oven was built in 1925.

All of these improvements were expensive, and followed by the loss attending the collapse of the lath market, the company was really hard up. Since laths were no good anymore the company began buying sawlogs, and for a couple of years, things went much better.

The Depression

The family was getting on its feet quite nicely when, late in 1929, the Depression, which was to continue for nearly ten years, descended on the country. Anyone who has lived through the Depression of the “Thirties” knows only too well what it was like.

To those who haven’t, it is almost impossible to convey an adequate picture, and I don’t believe I’ll try very hard. People are likely to think either (a) that the picture has been greatly exaggerated, or (b), if it was really that bad, how did people ever live through it?

I don’t think it has been exaggerated. The few people who had steady work were fortunate, even though the pay was usually pitiful. Generally speaking, if you had a job at all, you didn’t leave it, regardless of low wages. While there was real hardship in some areas, mostly town and cities, people in general had enough to eat and a place to live in. But not all. There were large numbers of transients, people who kept moving from one town to another looking for work. Jobs were few and far between, and for these people, times were hard indeed.

Work at the mill

We had no such problems. Always there seemed to be work enough to keep us going. But the wages were so low, it was little better than working for board and clothes. One or two examples will illustrate condition at this time. In my own case, before the depression I was working for $1.25 per day, plus board. This was not spectacular, even in those days. But during the worst years of the depression, this was reduced to $1.00. And by that time I was the sawyer, who would normally have received nearly double the wages of less skilled men.

During the summer of 1933, Gordon Miller were working at the mill. He was a real good worker, far above average. His pay was $0.80 per day, plus board. He had a wife and family to keep, and since it was hardly possible for them to survive on his pay, his wife and baby lived with her parents, and his money, what little there was of it, went into a common kitty to provide for the family.

A lot of shingles had to be sawn that summer, and Gordon, Edwin and I often went to the mill in the evenings, and worked at this for two hours. For this, we each received $0.25. And this seemed pretty good, as for most of the evening work – and there was a lot of it – we got nothing whatever.

Needless to say, these conditions did little to help the finances of the company. Expenses were low, and the price commanded by our products would have been ridiculous if it hadn’t been tragic, too. For instance, I can remember dressed boards being delivered in Truro for $12.00 per thousand board feet, with other lumber being priced accordingly. No progress could be made at such prices, and during this period the company simply drifted along financially.