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

In many parts of Canada, the end of the “Great Depression” coincided with the onset of World War II, but certainly not in a large part of Saskatchewan.  Due to repeated crop failure, most rural families in the Prairie Provinces had very little cash, and the ‘barter system’ commonly replaced money.

After completing high school in June 1942, I worked on my Uncle Laurie’s farm until late December when I returned to my home in Cudworth, SK (a small town of around four hundred and fifty people).  In January of 1943, I began looking for a job, but could Ralph Schmidtfind none locally.  I travelled to Saskatoon, and visited the government employment office.  With their help, I found a job, but the pay was barely enough for my room and board.

Upon returning to the employment office in Saskatoon, I was told there were sometimes jobs available in Ontario and BC  “Was I interested in leaving Saskatchewan for an out-of-province job?”  Indeed I was!  I returned home with the knowledge that the employment office would inform me if a job opportunity arose elsewhere.

A short time later, in early March 1943, the employment office phoned with good news:  sawmill jobs were available at Youbou on Vancouver Island.  The ITM (Industrial Timber Mills) company was sending their personnel manager, Tom Easton, to Saskatoon to interview prospective employees.  Two of my high school buddies were working in local stores for ten dollars a month.  I convinced them to join me in Saskatoon for a job interview.

Tom Easton was very friendly, and encouraged us to start a new life in BC.  The sawmill at Youbou paid sixty-five cents an hour for day shift, and seventy cents an hour for night shift.  Then he offered even more encouragement by saying, “You fellows look pretty sturdy to me.  You could become loggers in the woods and earn eighty-one cents an hour.” We became very excited!  No person in our home town was earning that much money – not even the doctor!  Many of the farmers would rely on the barter system.  In return for delivering a baby, the doctor would be given a load of firewood, or a chicken and some butter.  We suddenly had visions of becoming millionaires!

We enjoyed every minute of the railway trip to BC.  I can still vividly remember my first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains in the distance.  The green vegetation of the Fraser Valley gave promise of a new life, in sharp contrast to the brown patches of prairie grass slowly emerging from the snow cover back home. ITM had advanced the payment of our railway fare, which covered a ride in the day coach.  After all, we were logger candidates, and we would have to tough it out.  No berths for us!  Of course, we had to repay the company from our first pay cheque. 

We arrived in Vancouver on time, and spent a few hours exploring downtown Vancouver, before departing on a CPR ferry to Nanaimo.  We had to stay in Nanaimo overnight, as the next bus to Youbou was the next morning.  Nanaimo had many small hotels.  It cost just a dollar for a hotel room for the three of us.  The next day, we discovered that a young Saskatoon candidate for the Youbou Sawmill was absolutely broke.  Since he could not rent a room, he solved the problem by sneaking into a hotel lobby where he slept until he was kicked out.  During the night, his sleep was rudely interrupted in several hotel lobbies, but he had managed to get some rest without paying.

We travelled to Youbou by bus, and then boarded a company boat for the trip across Cowichan Lake to Camp 6 (later called Caycuse).  We discovered that all single employees lived in bunkhouses on floats on Cowichan Lake, while married employees lived in normal housing ashore. Immediately, we were assigned to bunkhouses, and then sent to the commissary (company store) where we were outfitted with logging boots, rain-test pants, jacket, hat (no safety hats in those days), and good quality leather gloves to protect our hands from ‘jaggers’ (broken wires protruding from cables).  Since we were broke, the cost of these items eventually came out of our pay cheques.

Camp 6 BunkhousesMy first meal in the cookhouse was a real eye-opener.  The dining area could accommodate over two hundred men.  When I entered, I was told to wait by the door until I was assigned a seat.  Flunkies rushed here and there with big platters and bowls of steaming hot food.  I was amazed at the variety and quality of the meal!

After dinner, I returned to my bunkhouse, and sat on my little cot.  Two of my roommates, Hank and Rudy, sat on either side of me.  They were both big fallers, and my bed nearly collapsed!  Hank began the conversation by saying, “Sonny, after I talk to you a few minutes, you are going to join the Union.”  Evidently, the IWA had only recently been allowed to organize forest industry employees.  At that time, I had never known anything about unions.  Hank gave me some Union literature, and I signed up.  I think the cost was around a dollar and fifty cents per month.

I learned that the largest part of log production at Caycuse, was from a huge railway ‘show’.  Only a small portion originated from a small truck ‘show’ at Wardroper Creek across the lake from Camp 6.  Most of my time as a logger was spent in this valley.  Frank Hallberg was well into his fifties, and he was the foreman at Wardroper Creek.  He was a quiet, gentle man– more of a father-figure to teenage loggers, than a tough supervisor.  About fifteen years later, his son Ken became the manager of the Caycuse operation.

There were only a couple of miles of road at Wardroper Creek, and expensive mechanized equipment was not used to keep it in good shape.  Instead, two Chinese men, equipped only with a pail and a shovel, did an excellent job.  Each morning, they were dropped off at a different spot.  Pot holes were carefully filled with gravel hauled manually in a pail.  Ditches were kept clean using a shovel.  The net result was a well-groomed road surface. 

Initially, I worked as a chokerman in a crew consisting of an engineer, two chokerman, and the boss– a rigging slinger named Swan Jacobsen.  Our job was to yard logs into a big pile, which would be within reach of the skyline from the home spar tree.  A cold deck had just been completed, and we began moving the yarding machines to the next site.  We began this move by taking the machine up the steep mountainside.  The machine was moved using its own power.  The crew strung cables running through blocks (huge pulleys) that were temporarily anchored to tree stumps.  As the machines pulled in the cable, it would move forward. 

My first day at work was nearly my last day!  When the work day began, Swan Jacobsen took me aside and told me, “Ralph, this is dangerous work, and you have to be very careful.  It will take you several days to understand how to take precautions.  I want you to follow Ronny very closely.  He’s been with us for a year, and understands safety.”

We started the day by moving the machine uphill about fifty feet.  We would have to anchor the machine using cable attached to a big stump, while we extended the line for another move.  The running cable was stretched out ahead under high tension.  Cecil Gilchrist was the engineer in control.  Swan yelled for Ronny and me to join him.  He assumed that Ronny would not dare to cross the running lines in front of the machine.  However, Ronnie’s mind must have been concentrated elsewhere, and he walked across the running lines.  I tagged along a few paces behind him.

When I was in the middle of this danger, Cecil’s foot slipped off the friction control, and the machine suddenly slipped downhill.  Fortunately, the cable got snagged a couple of inches below the top of a stump and Cecil stopped the action.  Swan became extremely upset!  He took off his rain-test hat, threw it on a stump, and began jumping on it.  I think I learned eighteen new swear words that day … or was it nineteen?  Then he took me by the hand, and showed me where the cable had burned deeply into a stump.  If the cable had not been snagged, I could have been cut in two!

The cold deck crew where I was working at the time somehow discovered that my birthday was on May 22nd. I am sure that my “good” Cudworth friend Wally Waldbillig told them. In any case, the crew decided to help me celebrate my eighteenth birthday.

We stopped for lunch that day alongside Wardroper Creek. We had finished eating, and the smokers were just about ready to light up their cigarettes when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Ronnie sneaking up on me from behind the donkey engine. I got ready to jump from the log I was sitting on. Suddenly, Ronnie jumped toward me and grabbed the bottom of my jacket. In a flash, I  discarded it and fled. However, the rest of the crew also ran toward me. They were all experienced loggers, in good shape, and caught me almost immediately.

They were all grinning and chuckling. I yelled, “Hey, guys, what’s going on?” Swan Jacobsen, my boss, calmly spoke up: “Ralph, we’re going to help you celebrate your birthday.” First, they removed my jacket and then my shirt. I struggled, but was held by three strong loggers. Then down came my pants and underwear. Cecil Gilchrist, the donkey puncher, produced a pail of 88 grease, a thick, orange, gooey substance used to lubricate the winches. He liberally applied a generous coating of this grease to my genitals as the entire crew sang “Happy Birthday to You” – and not in tune, either. The occasion was my introduction to a logger's sense of humour. I cleaned myself as best I could in the icy creek (it took me a half hour in a hot shower after work to get rid of it all). Then I approached the boss and made my birthday speech. “You guys had a good time wishing me a happy birthday. So, with your permission, I’ll take the afternoon off and enjoy my birthday, too.” Swan had always been friendly to me and treated me well. He flashed a broad smile at me and said “Go ahead, Ralph. You’ve earned it.”

So I took the afternoon off and wandered up Wardroper Creek into the standing timber adjacent to the clearcut. This really was the first “free time” that I was able to enjoy in the forest. I could relax and enjoy nature instead of rushing around pulling cables, setting chokers, hauling tools and equipment, and then running in a panic to find a safe place when the logs started to move.

I was in a towering stand of huge Douglas Fir trees. The trees were the tallest that I had seen. They looked to be well over two hundred feet high, and almost perfectly straight with no limbs for over one hundred feet. Some of the diameters were over four feet. A dense growth of swordfern dominated the ground cover. I didn’t know many species of herbs and shrubs, but I did recognize many leaves. It was very quiet. Hardly any sound except for the muffled roar of distant logging equipment and the sound of the whistle punk signals. The only movement was due to a few whisky jacks swooping between these giant stems. I stayed in the forest for a couple of hours, enjoying every minute of peace and quiet. A half an hour before quitting time, I slowly retraced my steps and rejoined the crew on their way to the crummy.

We had an Italian cook, and since this was during the war, some people had strong feelings against the Germans and Italians.  One evening after supper, we were gathered outside.  The cook was walking ashore on a walkway to visit the school teacher.  It was Friday, and Swan had consumed some rye whisky.  As the cook passed by, Swan said some very abusive things to him.  I guess the cook complained to the boss.  It was a lot more difficult getting a good cook than a rigging slinger, so guess what?  It was the end of Swan’s employment at Caycuse.  I was sorry to see him go.  He had treated me well.

About two weeks later, I was transferred from the cold deck crew to the tail spar rigging crew.  The skyline logging system relied on a heavy two inch steel cable, suspended between a home spar by the road in the valley bottom, and one of many tail spars located at the tree line edge of a large clear-cut setting. They were situated at intervals along the perimeter of the setting, usually less than a hundred feet tall, and were never topped.  A small crew of four men were kept busy rigging the next tail spar ahead of active logging.  The primary job was to anchor the tail spar by using a few guy lines, and a network of light cable connecting the tail spar to around ten smaller trees on the uphill side.

Our boss was Herb who had joined the Canadian navy.  ITM was desperate to have experienced logger for key positions.  The company was successful in borrowing him from the Navy for this key rigging position, for an indeterminate time.

The most strenuous job for the tail spar crew, was moving the rigging to the next tail spar site.  Transporting the receding line block posed a real challenge.  The sheave (a grooved wheel) component of this block weighed ninety pounds.  I recall one occasion when a deep gully had to be crossed.  A good-sized Douglas fir had fallen across the gully.  Normally, we would have carried the rigging by walking on this fallen tree.  This posed a high risk.  Herb asked for a volunteer, and after a minute of silence, Spencer, the oldest and smallest crew member, offered to do the job.  We all watched as he slowly crossed the gully, walking on the log with ninety pounds of weight on his back.

I was happy with my job in BC, and I decided to encourage my fifty year old father to leave Saskatchewan, and take a job at the ITM sawmill in Youbou.  To my surprise, he agreed immediately, and arrived a few days later accompanied by a half-dozen of his neighbours seeking a brighter future.

During the hottest part of the summer, logging would cease.  There were two reasons:  the fire season was one, and secondly, most loggers wanted to renew their acquaintance with booze and wild women.  Our small group of recent arrivals from Saskatchewan could not afford a holiday, and we asked the company if they would keep us employed during this ‘shutdown’.  The boss decided to help us out.  A spar tree had to be raised on the railway show soon.  He nominated his best foreman, Bert Soderman, to be in charge of a half-a-dozen ‘stubble jumpers’ to do the job.  The work site was at the end of steel.  The spar tree was about three miles away.  We first got involved loading the spar tree (three feet diameter on the butt, and a hundred and seventy-five feet long) on two rail cars.

We did not experience any problems, and the spar tree was safely delivered to the end of steel where we would raise it and rig it.  Unfortunately, the Chinese railway crew had not laid steel far enough.  So, our Saskatchewan gang added three more lengths of rail.  In the process, I got experience at pounding railway spikes.

We used a high lead donkey mounted on the railway to provide power.  The spar was unloaded, and then dragged to a precise location where it would be raised.  The butt of the spar tree would rest on a pad made of small logs, five to six inches in diameter, and held together by a quarter inch cable.  We attached several guylines a few feet from the top end of the spar, and commenced raising the spar tree using power from the high lead donkey.  We then anchored each guyline to stumps where we had chopped precise notches.  We used railway spikes to anchor the guyline to the stump.

Once the spar was safely anchored, Bert climbed it and completed rigging the tree, so that it was ready to be used.  Throughout this entire operation, the work had gone without a hitch; but only because Bert Soderman knew how to get a complex operation done using a ‘greenhorn’ crew.  The Wardroper Creek operation was shut down for a little over a week, during which time I was transferred to the railway side. 

I worked on a huge operation being logged by a Williamette skyline skidder mounted on a railway car.  The skidder was powered by steam, produced by burning dry Douglas fir.  A big black man from Alabama and I were responsible for converting this log into standard size firewood.  We first sawed two foot rounds using a powered reciprocating saw.  Then we used mauls (very heavy axes)  to split the rounds.  Apparently, my black partner was the only African-American in the BC logging industry!

My mother wanted to join my dad and I, and bring along three of my sisters.  I decided to quit my job, and bring the family to a coastal BC community.  Ralph SchmidtDuring discussions with my bunkhouse mates, I was advised not to move to Youbou.  It was a very small company town, and had few services.  My bunkhouse mates suggested that we leave Vancouver Island, and establish the family in New Westminster.  It was a modern city, and there were plenty of sawmill jobs.  So, I handed in my notice at the logging camp, as did my dad at Youbou.   We travelled to New Westminster, and found a nice room and board place, as well as sawmill jobs with Alaska Pine.

Ever since I became a logger, I had been quietly planning my next move.  I had decided to join the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force), not just for patriotic reasons.  I wanted to become a pilot, and I wanted adventure – to travel and see the world!  So, on December 9, 1943, I enlisted in the RCAF as an AC2 (R 289190).  The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was the basis for an immense air crew training program, which started across Canada in 1940.  It had been so successful in producing air crew graduates, that by the time I joined, there was no longer a shortage of trained air crew.

CLRS EntranceIn particular, there was a super-abundance of pilots, and so the training of pilots was curtailed.  I could not become a pilot.  There always seemed to be a high demand for air gunners, and I was glad to get the opportunity to take air gunner training.  I received my wings in the spring of 1945.  I was released almost immediately.

I soon learned that as an ex-serviceman, I was eligible for university training at the government’s expense.  Naturally, I chose forestry as my field of study.  After graduation with honours in 1949, I was hired by the Research Division of the BC Forest Service.

Promotion was slow but steady, and when I retired in May of 1982, I was the Director of the Research Branch.  I never regretted leaving Saskatchewan in 1943 to become a logger at Cowichan Lake!

by Ralph Schmidt