Wally Knott on saw and his partner Red Meyers at Meades Creek Oct. 1945 by W.H.Gold PhotoMOFM Logo
Cecil Ashley
Cecil AshleyI have spent my entire working life in the forest industry: from tree planting to logging, sawmills and planer mills.  I also spent some time with my own company, selling lumber to Japan.

I started working in the forest industry in 1959, when I was fifteen years old.  I retired forty-seven years later in 2006.  My first job was at the Hillcrest Lumber Company at Mesachie Lake.  I also worked at several sawmills on the mainland, as well as logging in Prince George for two years.

My father got me my first job at Hillcrest planer mill.  All that I remember of the first week was getting up every morning at 5:00 a.m., getting on the bus to go to work and coming home at 4:00 p.m.  I do remember how stiff and sore I was that first week as a planer chain puller!  I worked beside an older man who had been doing the same job for twenty years or more; he pretty well trained me and showed me what had to be done on the job.

Everyone had their own job to do and they did it their own way – no one interfered with them.  We had some very old Chinese men who lived in the bunk houses, and they spoke very little English.  Some of the white workers used to kid them and make fun of them, but the Chinese gave it back in kind – the Chinese were very possessive of their jobs!

I worked with people who had started working in sawmills, and planer mills in the 1920’s.  They lived and breathed sawdust every day of their working lives– work was their whole life!  They had no time, money or inclination for hobbies, holidays, or clubs.  We had some young East Indians who were very hard workers, and many had a hard time speaking English, but studied for their lumber grading tickets.  Many of the younger Chinese also studied for their grading tickets also… some of the best graders I ever saw were East Indian and Chinese!  One East Indian friend of mind won the Provincial Grading Championship in 1972.  One lumber grader had a fairly presentable singing voice and used to sing at weddings – he would sing all day long at the top of his voice.  However, he was hard to hear over the high-pitched whine of the planers.

Working in the planer mills was very repetitive work – one day was just about exactly the same as the next with very little change!  We would board the bus at 6:00 a.m for the hour ride to work, then go to our machines.  We would start them up, and feed boards into them for eight hours straight, with an hour lunch break in between.  At 4:00 p.m. we would board the bus for the hour ride back home – we mostly travelled by bus or car to get to and from work.  Eventually I got to be a planer feeder and was responsible for the production of that particular lumber planer.  As for the maintenance of the planers, other people handled that.  They were called planer men or planer set-up men.

It was mostly ‘all work’, as the planers were too noisy to hear anything, and horseplay was not allowed – it could be very dangerous around machinery.  I am sure there must have been some humour, but I can’t recall anything right off the top of my head.

I have seen many accidents, mostly fingers getting chopped off – including my own son’s finger.  The worst accident I can remember was a young man of twenty-five who slipped off a log deck, and landed on a beam on his back… then fell another twenty feet to the ground.  He ended up a paraplegic for life, but was able to get around in a wheelchair.  It was caused by carelessness and not Cecil at Cowichanabiding by the safety rules – it of course was devastating at the time.

The seasons never affected us at all, because we worked indoors in the mills.  We always had lots of logs in the pond to see us through when the loggers were shut down, either for fire season or winter snow. I remember just after I started working at Hillcrest, we had a huge snowfall and the management had us go up on the roofs to shovel snow.  As I was the youngest at the time, the others tied a rope to me and lowered me down the roof and I shovelled snow as I went.  Then they would drag me back up and the routine would start all over again!  

When I look back at my time spent in the forest industry, I would have to say that it was “just a job”.  The turning point in the industry, for me, was when the older family-owned mills started shutting down, and the small towns and communities went with them!  The industry has gone from a friendly, sharing community that is family-oriented, especially during the fifties and sixties… to an industry where it is all ‘cut-throat’ and ‘dollars-only’ oriented… there is no caring for individuals or families in today’s forest industry.