Wally Knott on saw and his partner Red Meyers at Meades Creek Oct. 1945 by W.H.Gold PhotoMOFM Logo
Barry Volkers

I came to Lake Cowichan from Holland in 1951, when I was twenty-eight years old.  My father owned a lumber business in Holland, and I was sent here Barry Volkersby the board of directors of his company.  They said, “Well, before he goes into the business, he’d better go to Canada.  He can either go to Canada, or he can go to England; but if he goes to England, he will never learn to work. If he goes to Canada, he will.”

The president of the board of directors had a son who had been sent over here a number of years before that.  Our family also knew Walter Koerner, who was connected to WFI (Western Forest Industries) – they are the ones who were in charge of the mill.  They had been running an apprenticeship program for people who would be working in the administrative level in the forest industry.  So he had sent his son over here but, you know, they never checked it out– they thought that the program was still running five years later!  So I got out here and they said, “We don’t do that anymore, but we will send you out to Lake Cowichan.  It’s a nice town and has good accommodation.”  This turned out to be a bunkhouse!

The cookhouse served good food– some fellows complained, but dollars to donuts, I am sure they never had it so good at home.  I remember one fellow had a dozen eggs for breakfast!  When he got married, he no longer had a dozen eggs for breakfast, I’ll tell you that!  They were used to eating lots.  With meat, they were so generous– they had to give good food or they wouldn’t keep their employees.  Some really took advantage of it, and made pigs of themselves!  They ate like you wouldn’t believe, and how they changed when they had their own family!  Every Friday, we got steaks.  I had one, and that was enough for me! Some of them had four or five.  We were served ice cream in oval dishes, and they would go back to the kitchen and get more. 

I wasn’t married at the time.  I met my wife, Lou, when she made a six month trip to Europe– I met her over there.  She was working in Winnipeg for the Blue Cross, but was traveling through Europe for six months.  We actually met in Holland, and then we corresponded for two years after I came to Lake Cowichan.  We got married in 1952.  My wife likes to say that I married her to get out of the Lou Volkersbunkhouse!  We always lived here in Lake Cowichan– we called it the “foot”.  We never lived in the company town.

My wife was born and raised in Indonesia.  It was colonial time, and her father was on a rubber plantation.  They came to Canada in 1934 when she was twelve years old.  She got the rest of her education here in Canada: middle school, high school and university.  Her family settled in Dauphin, Manitoba.  The reason her dad settled there, was because he had a cousin living there.  Her parents had been raised in the city, so it was an adjustment for them. That first year, her dad bought a farm.  He had never farmed before, but he had done a lot of plantation work – he had even built a mill on one of the plantations.  Later on, her dad was president of the school board in Dauphin. 

We only had one child– a son, Tom. He loves the outdoors, so that might be the main thing he got from me.  We would often take him out, and at a very early age he knew every species of tree and plants. He would ask us what things were.  I think it was in grade ten that he worked in the mill doing clean-up on Saturdays.  He got his degree at UBC, and was involved in forestry too.  His last job was district manager for the BC Forest Service, looking after the Headwaters area from Clearwater all the way to McBride. He was on the road a lot; especially dealing with the pine beetle problem.  

 I started out on the bull gang at the Honeymoon Bay mill– it was operated by WFI.  We called it the ‘bull gang’ back then, but eight or ten years later, we couldn’t say that anymore… we had to call it ‘general service.’  They didn’t have bulls that worked there!  So, although it was historically correct, it was not correct euphemistically. Being on the bull gang was kind of like slave labour… well, not quite that bad! 

You see, when the president of the board of directors had originally sent Honeymoon Bay Millhis son out here after the war, they had a training program for people that were going to be at the management level.  Well, that was completely scrapped!  They said to me, “What the heck are you doing here?  We don’t do that anymore.”  I said, “Well, nobody told me that.  They sent me here.”  So they said, “Well, seeing that you are here, we will send you out to Honeymoon Bay.”  So here I was… I was supposed to take over the lumber business at home, and I ended up with a wheelbarrow, a shovel, and a broom doing the clean up!  They asked me what I had done for the last few years, and I told them that I had spent three years in Indonesia at army headquarters in the communications department.  They sent me out here to get experience in the forest industry… well, that’s not the way to do it with a broom and a shovel!  Thankfully, I only worked on the bull gang for six months.

I adapted to it, though.  Before coming here, I had been in Indonesia where there was a revolution going on.  I had experienced bullets shooting over my head!  People thought I had a death wish or something.  They would ask my mother, “Why is he going to Indonesia?  Does he have a death wish?”  I was in Jakarta and Bandung in Java a year and a half each – I was on a contract.  They said, “You can go out to Java, but you’ve got to go to army headquarters.”  I said, “That’s fine.” They said, “When everything gets settled down, you can go out to a plantation.”  But I never got that far– I did my three years and then came back home!  Then I came out to Canada. I never again lived in Holland.

The forest industry had tallying classes and grading classes through the BC Manufacturers Association, so I took those.  We had to write an exam, a written and a practical.  We had to do it outside of our work day, and we didn’t get paid for it.  Later on I taught it for others through the high school.  Then I became the tallyman, and then the load checker for the mills.  I graded lumber both at the green chain, the gang mill, and the planer mill.  So, I basically did it all!

When I was a tallyman, there was a lot of paperwork involved.  I would sit on a chair, and mark every piece down– all the stuff that came off the chain.  I was checking for grade and quality.  If the graders made a mistake, then it was up to the PLIB (Pacific Lumber Inspection Bureau) inspector.  I never joined the PLIB, I was always temporary, and stayed with the company. Basically I sorted the lumber according to quality.  There would be a select WFI Speedergrade:  a first, second, third, and fourth grade, which is what they usually called an ‘economy grade’.  They all had different markings, because the grader would put the marks on, but the inspector could say, “Oh no, that is not good enough” or “That is going too high.” And as a load checker, I would walk around and keep track of how many loads a man did, in other words, how much they pulled off the green chain and stacked in a day.  Then, they were paid accordingly.

In the early years, we had huge trees coming in to the mill – first growth Douglas fir, Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar.  They cut Yellow Cedar and White Pine about one and a half days in the year.  All of the trees had distinctly different smells.

Many of the fellows in the mill were East Indian.  They had an East Indian boss, and they had a separate bunkhouse and cookhouse.  The Chinese were the same way.  It was a very different society, as we belonged to a union– they did too, but their boss was Chinese.  There were about four hundred and fifty men working at the mill, altogether.  I remember sometimes when workers at the Honeymoon Bay mill got mad– they would pick up their lunch kit, and say, “I’m gone… to hell with you guys!”  Jobs were easy to get, so they just went somewhere else.  There were three big mills in this area back then:  Honeymoon Bay, Hillcrest at Band Mill - CarriageMesachie Lake, and Youbou
After seven years, I worked in the office.  I started out as an Assistant to the Sales and Production Manager.  Then when my boss left, I took over and was in charge of that department.  They called my position the Sales and Production Coordinator.  At the Youbou Sawmill, the same position was called Sales and Production Manager.  My main job was in coordination of both sales and production.  So, the orders would come to the head office, and we would parcel them out.  We had two planer mills with a dry kiln that was used occasionally.  We also had a band mill, which was the big mill, and a gang mill with two gang saws.  In the late fifties, chipper plants were added. 

After that position, I mainly did office work, which involved a lot of paperwork.  I had contact with the head office, and all the orders would come through the head office.  There would also be sales people that visited from overseas, because we were an export company.  They would come from England, and sometimes Africa… South Africa mainly.  I had to travel to the head office every once in a while, but not to different countries– they would come here.  When we went to Vancouver, we would go and have a look at one of the other mills.  I worked in the office from 1959 until 1981, when the mill shut down.

Band Mill - EdgerI always got along with the people I worked with.  Once I got into management, I still had contact with the mill workers, but it was a bit different.  I was a university graduate, so they would say, “He comes out of a different environment than we do.”  So, there wasn’t much socializing.  There weren’t very many other Dutch people, either.  I had planned to go back and work in my dad’s company, but it never came about.

We had long strikes.  The year we were married, they had a six-week strike!  That was how we started our married life.  I had never even known about strikes.  In fact, the IWA was formed right here in Lake Cowichan. 
I remember there was a young fellow who wasn’t that bright.  In the wintertime, when things froze up sometimes, they would send him down to the powerhouse.  They would say, “You go and get a bucket of steam so we can thaw the lines out.”  Of course, there was no such thing! 

WFI (Western Forest Industries) donated land to the Scouts, and it became their Christmas tree farm.  I was in charge of that for a number of years, and Band Mill - Green ChainTom helped with that.  The first year, a Scout troop from Victoria bought the first trees from them.  The first year they had that Christmas tree farm, they sold two thousand Christmas trees!  In February, they replanted two thousand trees.  The manager of the Youbou Sawmill was involved in the Scout farm, because he was on the District Scout committee.

In the forties, there were many organizations in the Lake Cowichan area:  there were the Kinsmen, Elks, and all different kinds of service clubs.  I think there were sixty-four organizations here when we first moved to Lake Cowichan.  As you can see, we were over-organized!  My wife belonged to the music club, and then we had a drama club, in which we were very active.  The drama club took us to the drama festivals.  The principal at the high school, Jack Saywell, believed that the high school could be the central focal point of the culture in this area.  So we would use it for plays, drama, and choirs … it became the focal point.  At that time, all the teachers were living here, and they were part of the community.  Now, most of these teachers live in Duncan, and that old feeling is gone.  I was also active with the Boy Scouts, and was the treasurer of the United Church here. We also had an active Chamber of Honeymoon Bay YardCommerce – I was president in 1964, and we both took part in community activities. 

The Eco-Museum is no longer in existence– it came from the Heritage Commissions.  It was the extended idea of a museum without walls.  This whole area is a museum… that was the concept!  The office was in Duncan, but the area covered all the way to Nitnat and Port Renfrew, including the Cowichan and Chemainus Valleys.  It was a pity when it closed down.  It began in 1988 and lasted until 1993.  There wasn’t enough funding to keep it going.  I was on the board for four years.  We still have the Heritage Days in May– the others have all dropped it, but Lake Cowichan has carried it on for twenty-five years! 

I have always been a historian at heart.  We started the Historical Society in 1975, before the mill closed down.  When the mill shut down in 1980, they hired me to work for an extra year to dispose of things. The records went into the archives in Victoria… I guess that is how I got into the museum work.  I started doing the archives in our local museum, named The Kaatza Museum, in 1983.  I still do archival work there– I am strictly a volunteer; it is not a paid job.  Barb Simkins is our only paid employee at the Kaatza Museum.  My wife and I are both members of the Historical Society– it is the Historical Society that hired Barb as a curator.  I enjoy doing archiving, and collecting of historical information, as well as taking part in work parties and building.

I think one of the things that we felt a loss of, was when we lost our railway in the nineties.  We rode in the caboose on the last train from Youbou back to Lake Cowichan.  The track was pretty bad in those days!  When Powder Housethe railway tracks were taken up, I wrote a letter suggesting that they use the land from the tracks, from Youbou to Lake Cowichan, and make them part of the trail.  The letter was never acknowledged, and later on I phoned, but they were very evasive.  I guess it was because they were going to sell that land.  It was the developers again, you see.  So we never got to first base with it, but we were hoping to have that as a trail.  The area in Youbou where there are houses built… it is called ‘Creekside’.  That area was part of the railway.

We used to know most of the people in Lake Cowichan, but not now.  It has changed so much!  It used to be a busy lumber town, and now it’s a retirement place.  We are finding that these different developments draw mostly retired people.  I’ve lived in this community for fifty-six years, and we’ve lived in our house for forty-nine years.

I remember a sad instance where there was a fellow, named Harvey Carnell, who was working on the dryland sort at the time.  The machine tipped over and he got crushed.  He was from Lake Cowichan, and was a well-known outdoors person here.  They took his ashes up to the top of the Mesachie Mountain– and placed them in a cairn there.  He loved that area so much!  So we had some fatalities, but the majority of them seemed to be with the loggers and fallers.  It was a dangerous job, and it still is!

There have been lots of changes here since I started working in the mill.  For example, all three mills and logging camps are gone!  They don’t exist anymore.  At one time, the loggers would go to Gordon River by speeder.  Then, they took all the railways up because everything went by truck… that was a big change!  Consider that in 1912 to 1913, people traveled by train from Victoria to Lake Cowichan… can you imagine that?  But, it was very expensive to operate.  In 1952, when my wife and I got married, there was a bus that made two daily trips from Duncan to Lake Cowichan.  Then, everybody bought their own car, and it was no longer feasible.  So we no longer had a bus service!  We have one now because we are part of the Cowichan Valley bus service.  I also remember that we used to have garages in Honeymoon Bay for the people getting on the speeder.  There was a time when there wasn’t a road to Honeymoon Bay, only a trail.  Charlie March, who was a pioneer farmer at Honeymoon Bay, used to bring his cows in to Lake Cowichan on a row boat.  Things have changed since then!