Thursday 6 June 2024

Crunch Time: Beginning a Stint as a Millworker

             In 1978, crunch time arrived for us.

             I had resigned four years of teaching in tiny communities living in teacherages that were provided by the school districts.   Without having a real home in Canada, we sought to buy a place of our own, in a community that we liked.  We purchased a house in McBride, with our savings, but without having a full time job.

        We had managed to scrape through a whole year doing temporary jobs,   I worked as a substitute teacher at the local schools, I managed to get a couple of months of work with the BC Forest Service after being a Time Keeper on a Forest Fire, and had done all kind of handyman jobs (painting a house, making signs for businesses, and digging up a clogged sewer line).  However, toward the end of 1978, things began getting economically dire for us.

    With no permanent employment available at the elementary school and the temporary work with the Forest Service over, reality set in and I knew I had better try to find some kind of regular employment.  One day in the fall, I had an appointment at Village Esso garage to get my snow tires put onto the Scout.   After dropping it off, I drummed up the courage to do some job hunting.  

    I walked down to the end of Main Street to the CN (the Canadian National Railroad) Station to check out the chances of working on the railroad.  CN employed a lot of local residents, but unfortunately, I couldn’t find the CN Roadmaster, who was the one who did the employing, so that ended up being an unproductive trip.

    With one “no go,” under my belt, I decided to try my luck at the Far West Cedar mill, so I hiked to the edge of town, crossed over the railroad tracks to their large mill yard; piled full of cedar logs at one end and stacks of the decorative split cedar rail fences that they had produced and bundled, at the other.  

  In the trailer that served as the Far West Office, I presented myself to Bob, the foreman of the outfit and made my inquiry.   He was very eager to have me and unexpectedly hired me on the spot, wanting to put me to start work immediately.

    After I explained that I really wasn’t wearing work clothes and that I had left the Scout at the garage, Bob took me out to his pickup truck and drove me home, so I could get into some work clothes. Once I was properly attired, he drove me back at the mill, where I was put to work manhandling 6 foot long cedar fence posts, using a machine to bevel their ends, before stacking them in a bin.

    The next day, my first full day as a millworker, was also Halloween.  I had to get up at 6:30 so I could be at Far West at 7:00.  The mill building was a huge T-shaped metal quonset hut that was pretty much open on all three ends.  There were some large sliding doors on the end where I worked, but they were generally left wide open, so obviously the building wasn’t heated and the workers had to dress accordingly.  I did begin to wonder what it was going to be like to work there during the cold winter to come.

    I was put to work on a machine that drilled five inch elongated holes in the fences posts, which held the split cedar rails.  My task was to grab a split cedar post, lay it on the drill table, then pull a lever that lowered a unit of three drills down, boring through the post.  Then I lifted the post from the drill table, putting it into a large steel cradle that held them until it was stacked full, at which time I had to climb up on it then bind the bundle with a steel ribbon.

    Lugging the cedar fence posts around was very physical work, especially the 3-holed split cedar  posts which were 6’6” (2m) long.  I would sometimes drill 560 posts a day and bundle them into 7 bound lifts.  For my forty hours of work I got a paycheck of $535.  

    It was hard exhausting physical work, but it provided us with the steady income we needed to live and develop our newly purchased home.

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