David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman
9. Fishing and sawing
All through the years when I was growing up, and extending into the early 1940’s, a Christian Endeavour Society was carried on in the community. The meetings were held on Sunday evenings, through the entire year, and they were attended by both young and old.
A committee appointed leaders for the meetings, usually a different one for each occasion, until the available supply was exhausted, and the list was started all over again. The leaders were frequently, but not always, from the older members of the group, and the local minister usually attended.
The programs were not exciting. They consisted of scripture reading and prayer, after which some subject of a religious nature was brought up for discussion. The meeting would be thrown open at this point, and one after another, various articles connected with the lesson that were read aloud.
Sometimes the connection was difficult to establish, but the crowd in attendance was pretty broad-minded. If the article in question was completely irrelevant to the lesson, no one said anything. The minister could usually be counted on for a short talk.
After the meeting opened, someone would read an article, and this would be followed by a hymn. Most of those present sang (more or less) and the rest tried to. The meeting went on in this fashion for possibly an hour, or sometimes a little less. After it was dismissed, but quite a number often remained just to have a sing.
A few really good singers attended these meetings. One I can well remember was Hedley Fulton, our local merchant at that time. He had a beautiful clear tenor voice, and if he really felt like singing, he was well worth listening to. After the meeting was over, various members of the younger set usually paired off and saw their girlfriends home.
Another community group which, for seven or eight years, furnished entertainment for the winter months, was a badminton club. This was organized by the minister, Mr. Girdwood, and his son in the winter of 1935-36 and it lasted until around 1943-44. Mr. Girdwood was a man in his middle fifties at the time. He played badminton fairly well considering his age, and his son, Jack, was a very good player.
The rest of us all had to learn the game from the beginning, and while no star badminton players ever developed, it made marvellous winter entertainment. The game was played in the village hall. The upstairs section was not big enough for a full size court, but it was large enough to do. This court lacked adequate space for the back serving line at both ends, but we managed famously without them.
Mr. Girdwood was the eldest player, and others ranged from as old as 40 down to a few in their late ‘teens. When my mind goes back to the years of Depression, this badminton club was one of the truly bright spots of the period. It wasn’t so much the game itself, although that developed to a point where there was a good deal of competition between various groups of players. Most of all, it was the fact that it brought together a rather jolly bunch of young people.
My brother Bub
During this period there was one death in the family, or closely connected with it. This was the death of my uncle, the one always referred to as Bub. He had retired from sawing at about age 60, but had continued to work on at the mill as fireman for another 10 or 12 years. At that point his retirement was complete.
He remained in reasonable health for some years, but was always troubled with asthma. In May, 1938, he suffered an attack of flu, aggravated by asthma. I suppose his heart must have failed, as he was found dead in his bed on the morning of May 6.
Bub had never married. His life was spent quietly at home and in the mill, where he was always working, always deliberate. He was a lover of nature, and loved the woods, the streams, the sky.
He also liked to fish. One day in the spring of 1925 we planned a fishing trip together. Taking lunch with us, we walked out to the Otter Brook – three miles away. This brook forks just above where we struck it. The left hand fork we always called the Burgess Brook. It has several sets of waterfalls, the first one being a mile from the junction of the two brooks.
High rocky hills
This is a beautiful section of brook, known to surprisingly few people, considering that it is by no means inaccessible. It runs through woodland, and before you get far you find yourself in a gulch. By the time you get to the first set of falls, the gulch has banks probably that are probably a hundred feet high, and quite steep.
You can climb them, but you have to hang on. There is a series of waterfalls only a short distance apart, with the result that, having climbed the last one you discover that the gulch has disappeared. For some reason there never seemed to be any trout after you passed the second set of falls.
We caught a few trout on the way up the brook, and the fishing at the first two sets of falls was really good. Then, having fished this part of the brook out, we cut through the woods to the old Burnside road, and from there we walked up to the “Crockett place”, a distance of over two miles.
Fishing in the rain
The right hand fork of the Otter Brook runs very near to this point, and it was our intention to fish down this section of brook, to our starting point. Bub was quite a weather forecaster – better than some more modern ones, although that isn’t handing him much of a bouquet – and prior to this he had been looking at the sky and wondering whether it was going to rain.
However, it was lunch time, he was hungry, and I was something more than that. So we put on a fire and ate our lunch. Just as we finished the rain began to fall. I didn’t want to stop fishing, so Bub reluctantly agreed to get wet with me, and we fished.
I’ll never forget that days fishing. Trout usually bite better on a rainy day and this sure held good for us. There was no wind, but by this time the rain was pouring down. There were lots of good fishing holes in that brook, and as soon as you dropped in a line, three or four trout made a drive for it.
During a heavy rain there is no need to fish holes out, unless they are really biting. So we left most of holes quickly and moved on to the next. There was one hole that I was really looking forward to – about half-way down at a sharp curve in the brook. Some drift-wood had caught in a tree-root, and a bunch of poles and sticks had jammed against it, right in the middle of the bend.
The water here was four or five feet deep, much deeper than in most of the holes. The trout seemed to be lurking beneath the obstructions, watching from this vantage point for food washed down by the current. It had always been my experience that if no trout bit at this this hole, you might as well pack up and go home. I dropped in my line, which was instantly grabbed by the biggest fish we caught that day. Brook trout are not very large, and it’s unlikely this one was much over half a pound. Before leaving, we pulled well over a dozen trout out of this hole.
As we continued on down the brook there were more straight stretches of gravel, making fewer places to fish. By this time we were tired of the rain, so we set out for home. It was nearly supper time when we arrived there, soaked to the skin, but still happy about our fishing trip.
Bub would be about sixty-six at this time. I’ve often wondered since how many people his age would have wanted to undertake such a trip. We must, at the very least, have walked over twelve miles, besides all the fishing. Tired he may have been, but no one would ever have known it.
The depression years were ended. The outbreak of the second world was in September of 1939 completely changed the economic outlook for Canada, and for the whole world, for that matter. It was mentioned earlier, that this event created a strong export market for lumber. The winter months were unsatisfactory for dressing lumber, so we went all out to produce as much rough lumber as possible for export.
A steady, uninterrupted market is a great boom to any product, and luck was really with us that winter. The exporter through whom we sold our lumber was George Lordly of Halifax. The ocean liners took a quantity of lumber as ballast, and Mr. Lordly had contracted for ‘liner bottoms’. Each liner took only a relatively small quantity, but there were so many of them the lumber was moving almost constantly.
We were thus able to ship our lumber out as fast as it could be produced. The other method of transportation was by tramp steamer. They could take a terrific amount of cargo, but went only at infrequent intervals. But shipment by this means would have meant double-handling of a great deal of lumber.
For lumber is something that requires a lot of room, meaning that it would have had to be hauled away from the mill and stock-piled, then later, in a feverish rush, delivered to Halifax when a tramp steamer was available. Translated into dollars and cents, this would have meant a substantial increase in the cost of production.
Getting a canterman
That winter, for the first time, I had a canterman to place the logs on the carriage, and turn them for me. This resulted in increased production. As mentioned before, ours was only a turndown mill. It was driven at this time by a “Leonard” engine, 11 x 10, with less than adequate power. We also had a “rack and pinion feed, which drove the log-carriage. This was slower than the “Cable feed”, which was coming in at the time. In spite of these drawbacks, you could saw fairly fast.
George Blaikie – Roy’s youngest son – as the canterman. He was a good canterman, strong enough to really whirl a big log, and quick as a flash. In a short time we became used to each other’s moves, and began to wonder how much the mill would cut in a day under the best conditions.
It wasn’t easy to get enough really good logs for a day’s cut. Even if someone was lumbering in good quality timber, there would be the top logs, and some other “trashy stuff”, as the poor logs were often described. Frank and Sid Cox were lumbering that winter in good-sized white spruce, and they agreed to yard up some good butt logs.
Late in the winter, they had a nice brow of logs, but not enough for a full day’s cut. A brow of old-growth black spruce would have been preferable, but alas! None were available. The winter was already far spent, and it was now or never, so we decided to give it a try.
Going for a record
How much could we saw under such conditions? 12,000 feet board measure? Everyone agreed it shouldn’t be less than that. 13,000? Most of the crowd thought this was quite possible. 14,000? A few felt this was possible, but unlikely. 15,000? This figure was voted hopeless, and if anyone thought it possible, they lacked the courage to express their convictions.
The morning of March 23, 1940, dawned clear and bright, with just a suggestion of the mildness of early spring in the air. The winter had been cold, but for the past couple of weeks there had been some improvement. This morning the temperature was only slightly below the freezing point, and we knew that by noon it would be in the 40’s, an ideal day for sawing.
To begin with, we had around 3,000 feet of logs that hadn’t been picked for size. Still, they were good-sized logs, ones you could rattle through the mill in a hurry. At five minutes to seven the mill was started, so that it would be warmed up a little, and running smoothly.
Seven o’clock start
At seven the saw hit the first cut, and we were away. Everything went without a hitch, and at a speed above normal until 9:30, when it was time to file the saw. This took five minutes, and the mill was running again. By this time we had come to the good logs, and lumber was really going through the mill at a very creditable pace. We were really very lucky in the fact that nothing in the way of a mechanical failure happened to cause lost time.
A sawmill is a peculiar affair, just when you are most anxious for the machines to run at top capacity a belt will break, a chain come apart, or maybe the saw will strike a piece of metal that is imbedded in the log. Any of these things could soon lose time enough to saw 1,000 feet of lumber. Luck was with us, and 12 o’clock noon came around with none of these misfortunes having overtaken us.
At noon hour the tally was made up. During the forenoon we had cut 7,523 feet, above everyone’s expectations. It looked as if the afternoon should at least equal this, as we were looking ahead to more of the good logs. A slight hitch occurred around 3 o’clock. The log truck got stuck, and we ran out of the good logs. There was a brow of small, mean little logs near the mill, and for half an hour that was what we had to saw.
By the time we had filed the saw at 3:30, the truck came in with another load of the good logs. We had all good logs from then until the whistle blew at six o’clock.
Back on track
The tally was soon made up, and everyone was jubilant, for it showed the days cut to be 15,493 feet board measure, more than the most optimistic predictions.
Though the mill continued running for nearly thirty more years, I doubt if this cut was ever equalled. In later years, the cuts were only made up at the end of each month, hence the possibility existed, but it’s unlikely. During the last ten years of operation we had a doggerman on the carriage, and this sped things up, but by that time the mill was only running 9 hours a day, and I don’t believe we could possibly have equalled the aforementioned cut the had just been realized.
George was young then – only 19 or 20. He was really keen on the project in hand, with plenty of youthful enthusiasm. Even I was at an age where I could kid myself into believing I was still young. We had gone at a really fast clip all day. Yet I can’t remember feeling tired.
Everyone there had done their part to make this day a success. Had anyone slouched on the job, our cut would have been reduce accordingly.