The modern Blaikie sawmill

The modern Blaikie sawmill 
Upper Stewiacke, Nova Scotia
By David Blaikie

The era of Blaikie sawmills in Upper Stewiacke ended, it seemed, with the last blast of the old steam whistle on December 21, 1968. A deep silence enveloped the mill site in the months and years that followed. Weeds crept across old wheel ruts, where trucks had come and gone, and goldenrod rose and swayed over spaces that had been filled for generations by piles of sunlit lumber.

The tall black smokestack remained but it was more a tombstone than anything else. The smoke was gone, the machinery, and the men and their sons who had toiled there. Even the night watchman’s cabin, the home for many years of Graham Olmstead and his dog, Lassie, vanished without a trace.

Edwin and Keith Blaikie, 1999

For all who had loved the mill, its passing was like a death in the family.

The roots of the Blaikie lumber business went back to the late 1870s or early 1880s. The date is uncertain. A small operation of some sort existed in Burnside but no records remain. About 1892, the original mill was moved to the site of the old Proven water mill in Burnside, where it operated until 1907. On January 29, 1970, the family of David Morrison and Elmira Blaikie moved from Burnside to Upper Stewiacke and the mill came with them.

A new steam mill began operations shortly afterward on the riverbank in Upper Stewiacke, opposite what was then the Presbyterian church, built in 1894. It was on this site that the mill operated until it was sold by Morris Blaikie, son of David Morrison and Elmira, in 1968 to Edward Creelman, owner of the Brookfield Box. Co.

A new chapter

Yet as the sale was finalized, and an era was ending, a new chapter in the family business was already being written by Edwin Blaikie, his wife, Olive and their son Keith (b. 18 May 1942). The wail of the steam whistle might never be heard again in the valley, but another mill would rise on the same site and thrive

Graham Olmstead

The origins of the new mill can be traced back to 1964, the year Edwin sold his share of Blaikie Bros. and Co. Ltd. to Morris and began what turned out to be a short-lived retirement.

To occupy his spare time, Edwin bought a small portable sawmill from Ritchie Barnhill of Belmont and set up in Newton Mills, producing eight-foot lumber for the housing market. He sawed his first log in May of that year with the help of a single employee, Lee Fisher of Otter Brook.

During this period, Keith Blaikie, Edwin’s son, had finished high school, spent two years at Acadia University, and gone on to a promising career with the National Cash Register Company. Based in Halifax, and traveling the Maritimes as a technician, he spent 10 years with NCR before deciding it was not really the life he wanted. In 1973, he resigned and returned home to start a whole new career in the lumber business with his father.

While this was happening, Edwin’s hobby mill followed a pattern that was familiar to most of the things he tackled: it expanded well beyond his original plans.

Between 1964 and 1967, his portable mill operated on three different sites in Newton Mills, steadily increasing in size and production. All of the lumber he sawed during this period he sold to his nearest buyer – which happened to be Morris Blaikie, for as long as the old steam mill continued to operate.

(After that, everything Edwin produced was bought by Edward Creelman, who had purchased the final assets of Blaikie Bros.)

Keith Blaikie

Stewart Hill

After winding up operations in Newton Mills, Edwin moved in 1967 to Stewart Hill or ‘Deer Mountain’ as it was called, even though the ‘mountain’ amounted to no more than a ridge of hills separating the Stewiacke and Musquodoboit valleys. The sons of several long-time Blaikie mill employees who worked with Edwin during this period.

They included Sandy Johnson, son of Homer Johnson (who had lived near the old Blaikie mill in Burnside before moving his family to Upper Stewiacke in the 1950s), Bruce Cox, son of Sidney Cox, who had been the Blaikie canterman for decades, and Brian Densmore, son of Bob Densmore, who had spent many years as a splitterman at the Upper Stewiacke mill.

The two-man operation expanded to three men, and at times four, but operated for only part of the year, shutting down for the winter months. While his mill was sometimes idle, the same could rarely be said of Edwin. Over the winter of 1967-68, for example, he hired himself out as a millwright, working for Hugh Erskine in Caledonia, Guysborough County.

That winter, the snowfall was especially heavy and the roof collapsed on the mill at Stewart Hill. Undeterred, Edwin set up operations again the next stream, across a small stream, and resumed sawing. He also began to buy adjacent timberland. Over a period of years he assembled about 700 acres of mature timber from various parcels of land. One lot he acquired from Jiggs Dickie in Middle Stewiacke, another from Fred Fulton of Upper Stewiacke (a long-time Blaikie Bros. lumber truck driver), and still others from Bert Carroll and Harry Fulton, also Upper Stewiacke residents.

Returning home

His timber remained uncut until Keith returned home and went into business with his father, in the spring of 1973. (Keith married Themla Audrey Gammell on October 7, 1967, and a daughter, Krista Ruth, was born on December 11, 1971. A second daughter, Kiley Risa, was born December 10, 1978.)

Keith cut timber while Edwin sawed, and they made a good team. The operation did well. Edwin had purchased a skidder and slasher, and Keith kept the new equipment busy, cutting logs to feed the increasingly-busy mill.

Blaikie’s Corner

One of the frequent visitors to the mill during this period was Morris Blaikie, now retired and slowed by heart problems.

Cutting timber remained a full-time job for Keith until nearly 1978, when he and his father made an important decision. They decided to expand and moved their mill from Stewart Hill to the old, and still vacant, Blaikie mill site in Upper Stewiacke. Edwin visited Edward Creelman in Brookfield and negotiated a deal to buy the property back. It was welcome news to the village and music to the ears of all who had missed the sight and sounds of the mill during the years since its closure.

With the property back in the family, Edwin and Keith moved quickly ahead with plans to open a new electrically-driven mill to produce eight-foot lumber. Morris was among the happiest to learn that a sawmill would again be operating on the site. But he never did live to set the day. On March 3, 1976, while vacationing with his wife, Eva, in Bermuda, he suffered another heart attack and died.

Since 1977

The concrete for the new mill was poured in mid-1976 and operations began in the fall of 1977, nine years after the steam mill had closed. There were problems to sort out but the mill prospered from the start, producing some 6,000 to 7,000 board feet of lumber daily with a crew of just four men. Three times as many men had been required to produce the 9,000 to 10,000 feet of lumber sawn each day by the old steam mill.

The return of the mill was a shot in the arm for the village, where commerce amounted to little more than a Petro-Canada station, a Co-op store, the log-walled Valley Diner restaurant and a rural post office that somehow escaped Canada Post’s rash of closures in the 1980s. Edwin remained the principal owner of the new mill and Keith played a steadily increasing role as the years passed, especially after his father suffered a heart attack in 1984 and was forced to take life easier.

From 1977 until 1990, the mill produced unplaned lumber for the domestic housing market. Then a change was forced by market conditions. Recession had gripped the lumber business in the early 1990s, along with the rest of the economy, and the market for rough lumber had dwindled. Planed lumber was still selling, however, and Keith eventually decided he had no choice but to begin producing it – as the steam mill had done back in the 1960s.

At first he set up a temporary planer in what remained of the old planing mill building, which was still standing on the site from decades earlier. Luckily, he was able to sell all he could produce. This saved the day economically and led in turn to his next major decision. In 1993, he opened a new and modern planing mill, directly opposite his electric sawmill.

Another expansion

As a result, a mill designed to produce only rough lumber was now producing dressed lumber almost exclusively. In fact, the demand for dressed lumber was so strong that Keith made another major investment in 1996. He purchased a dry kiln in Bangor, Maine, and set it up beside the planing mill to dehumidify lumber he was sawing from green logs. This made his lumber more saleable, and it also improved the price.

Accompanying these changes was a steady increase in the size of the crew working at the mill (up to about a dozen men) and the amount of lumber produced each day, Output rose from 6,000 to 7,000 board feet a day to a level of about 15,000 board feet – approximately three million board feet a year.

As in the old days, the logs required to keep the mill going were still purchased largely from local farmers and suppliers. Keith, like Edwin, and Morris before him, also bought timberland in the area (about 1,000 acres). To date, little has been cut for any of his own use. The demands of running the mill single-handedly have not allowed him the time.

Mill crew, 1960s

The modern mill crew includes family members and neighbours, much the same as it was in earlier times. Jon Eastman, son of Frances Blaikie and Al Eastman, and a grandson of Morris Blaikie, is now the sawyer at the mill. Hugh Mackay, the sawyer for a number of years, is the chief millwright, along with Bruce Cox, who has returned to the mill after years of working as a mechanic and as a dealer in antiques.

Others in the crew in recent years have included: Clayton Carroll, debarker operator; Mark Mason, edgerman; George Stretch, trimmerman; Tony Smith and Lawrence (Nicky) Mason, lumber pilers; Rocky Mason, fork lift operator; Roy Graham (married to Frances Blaikie), planer operator, and Randy Hamilton and Patrick Mason, lumber graders.

Jon Eastman, sawyer

The modern mill is an impressive and productive year-round operation. What the future holds no one can guess. Even for a mill of this size, it would require 50,000 acres of timberland to operate perpetually, growing replacement trees at the same rate that logs are cut. Contrast this with the millions of acres required to feed a growing number of large milling operations in Nova Scotia, and it become easy to see why the future is uncertain.

No one knows how long such mills will manage to keep going, or whether anyone with family roots will emerge to carry on when Keith’s days as a Blaikie lumberman come to an end. Neither he nor Edwin can guess. But one thing is sure – Keith intends to operate as long as he can do so. And everyone in the family, and the village of Upper Stewiacke, hopes he will continue to do so for many years to come. (January 1999)

Footnote: A little over a year after this article was written, Edwin Blaikie fell ill and died of kidney failure in hospital at Halifax. Two years later, Keith began scaling back operations at the mill for the first time, but the mill continues to operate. Edwin was buried beside his wife, Olive, in Riverside Cemetery.

Edwin Roy Blaikie – Obituary

BLAIKIE, Edwin Roy – 85, Upper Stewiacke, passed away January 31, 2000, in the VG Site, QEII. Born in Upper Stewiacke, he was a son of the late Roy and Edna (Flemming) Blaikie. He was a partner in Blaikie Brothers and started the Edwin Blaikie Lumber Business. He was a member of the United Church of Canada. He is survived by his son, Keith (Thelma Gammell), Upper Stewiacke; granddaughters, Krista (John) Hughes, Lower Sackville; Kiley Blaikie, Dartmouth; sister, Thelma Langille, Brentwood. He was predeceased by his wife, the former Olive Ross; two sons in infancy; sisters, Alda Brenton, Jean Cox, Ruth Densmore; brother, George. Visitation will be held today from 7-9 p.m., funeral service on Thursday at 2 p.m., both in the Colchester Community Funeral Home, 512 Willow Street, Rev. Morley Bentley officiating. Spring interment in the Riverside Cemetery, Upper Stewiacke. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Riverside Cemetery or a charity of choice. (Halifax Chronicle-Herald on February 2, 2000.)

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