Everyone has seen them, particularly if they’ve visited Kaatza Station Museum’s Wilmer Gold gallery. I’m referring to photos of old logging shows: loggers and steam engines and first-growth firs that reached so high as to block out the sun and the sky.
Seldom, however, do you see photos of sawmill activity without which, of course, there would have been no logging. Nor do you often read about the millwrights and sawyers who kept the mills humming, the saws sharpened and cutting true.
Hence my delight in finding a published interview from 1973 with retired sawyer Vic Palmer. Then 78 and living in North Cowichan, he’d been interviewed by George Inglis for the Victoria Colonist. After recalling his growing-up years in Victoria, he told of beginning his apprenticeship with the Cameron Lumber Co. His workday began at 7:30 a.m. but by then he’d already been up early enough to catch a salmon from his rowboat for breakfast.
But it hadn’t all been roses in those early days: “…I must admit, wages weren’t any great shakes then. The head filer at Cameron’s got a dollar an hour, labourers 30 cents and millwrights only got 45 cents…”
Before long he was off to the large Cameron brothers’ sawmill at Genoa Bay. “It wasn’t the biggest in the country at that time, but we were busy. The big ships used to steam in to Genoa Bay to load their lumber cargoes. Much of the…loading was done by hand. When a ship came in… gangs of stevedores would come down form Chemainus to work the lumber. We would load the planks and boards on dollies then pull them alongside the ship, first with horses, then later with Fordson tractors. The boom winches would raise and swing the loads over the hatches and down into the holds where the stevedores would hand-stow the lumber, plank by plank, board by board.”
After a building boom in California had kept the mill busy for six months, there followed a month-long shutdown. Palmer: “The boys would go home and wait [out] the shut-down. No unemployment insurance in those days. We just accepted the situation. I do think we lived better then than we do now. We enjoyed life. We’d have these little holidays in between. No pay, though.” Apprenticed as a third filer, he made a point of observing operations and making himself “pretty handy around the mill. The head filer came to me one day in 1920 and said, ‘I’m going to start you off at $6 a day.’ So I bought a new Gray-Dort automobile in Victoria, and that bloody thing wouldn’t climb the Malahat without me getting out, unscrewing the gasoline and sucking gasoline up to the vacuum bank so that we could top those high hills. I’d suck and spit, suck and spit. That’s how I drove over the Malahat in those days.”
Not that the Gray-Dort was a total loss.
When not having to climb the Malahat Palmer felt it was “real snappy” and it attracted the girls. “Boy, but I felt a big-shot!”
But, in 1925 after 20 years of operation, the Genoa Bay mill was closed, primarily because of the lack of its own water supply which had necessitated water being brought in by barge from Burgoyne Bay at considerable expense and downtime.
There followed work at Great Central Lake and as head filer for the Bloedel mill in Port Alberni in 1926. What were the duties of a head filer? Palmer: “The head filer in a sawmill is a very important man. His job is to keep the saw[s] running smoothly and cutting straight with a minimum of lumber wastage. The saw blade has to be plumb, the saw track, square. Saws are something like human beings – they tend to take the line of least resistance. They develop blisters and bends which make for poor, rough cuts and wastage in the sawn lumber. It’s the filer’s job to put tension in the saw blade so that it runs straight, and the sawn lumber rolls off the table in true dimension.
“You put tension into a saw blade by hammering. Actually, what happens is that you stretch the steel.”
His tools for this were a hammer and a flat plate on which to hammer: “After a saw has been on a rig for a while it gets a little bent, or tiny twists can develop in it, or the blade can get dished. Then the filer’s job is to straighten out the kinks. It’s a tricky job. Takes a lot of savvy.”
He recalled the filer who, upon being questioned for his having billed $20 after striking a circular saw blade just twice with his hammer, readjusted his bill to read, “Hammering saw, $5. Knowing where to hammer, $15.”
“That’s the complete answer,” laughed Vic Palmer who’d ended his career as a travelling salesman for a Sheffield saw and cutlery company. During that time he was the “only man that knew anything about pulp mill knives, which my firm was making in Vancouver”.