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

Vern WellburnMy family moved to Duncan in 1928, before that my dad was in the lumber business in Courtenay, and he started the Wellburn Timber Company.  Later on, he also started the BC Forest Discovery Centre.  I was born in 1925 and in 1934 we moved to Deerholme, which is part of Glenora.  I attended the Glenora School, and started working in the mill when I was fifteen.  The sawmill was right there, and during the Second World War everybody worked, it didn’t matter how old you were…even my young sister worked - it was the patriotic thing to do!  The war took away a lot of young men so there was a labour shortage.  In Victoria and Vancouver, they were building ships and the shipyards were paying higher wages than the logging industry – so there was a big competition for labour! 

In those days, the trucks ran on plank roads and we used to go along and drive the spikes down and repair the roads.  That’s the first job I had, was working on plank roads, of all things!  Three planks here, three planks there, cross test them!  During the Depression you couldn’t sell hemlock…nobody wanted to buy it!  Just like nobody really wants the pine beetle wood right now.  You can sell them green wood, but you have all this dead wood in the Interior and nobody wants it!  It was the same with the hemlock; they wanted Douglas fir but not the hemlock…so they used the hemlock to make roads.  All our forests here, even the so-called Douglas fir forests are mostly Douglas fir but they also have hemlock and cedar…they are not just one species!  I worked a lot of the time in the mill, though.  The mill was located at Deerholme which was on the Canadian National Railway – which went from Victoria to Youbou, they were supposed to go from Victoria to Port Alberni but they never finished it.  So, the branch line to Cowichan Bay is where Deerholme is, there is a “Y” there and that’s where my father’s sawmill was.  If you have been in the Maclean Mill, a heritage site in Port Alberni, that’s like my father’s mill– it’s exactly the same! 

What my sisters and I did during the war at night was load lumber in box cars.  When I actually worked in the mill, I worked as a setter on the carriage – instead of everything being automatic like it is today.  But I did everything in the mill, except perhaps for being a sawyer.  I also used to work on the weekends, when I was going to high school, helping the millwrights maintain the mill. Millwrights are specialized mechanics who fix the machinery in the mill.  We didn’t have our own machine shop, we used Duncan Ironworks, but a lot of things just needed lining up, tightening up, or even just cleaning!  Sawmills are very dirty because of the sawdust… there is dust everywhere! 

The saw filer is one of the highest paid people in the mill– you train for it in an apprenticeship program.  There certainly is an apprenticeship program for millwrights just as there is for heavy duty mechanics and automobile mechanics… although they’re not quite the same!  It was that way until about ten years ago – now the government regulations are so strict that you have to be certified to do any specialized work, such as a mechanic, saw filer, etc.

My father was the manager at the mill, and had about thirty to forty employees with a foreman.  We talked about forestry, logging, and sawmilling every night at suppertime so that is when I got the training from him… at home not on the job!

During the Depression the mill was shut down a few times on and off, and then from 1934 it ran steadily until 1945 when he sold it to the H.R. Macmillan Export Company.  Then they immediately shut the mill down and took the logs to Vancouver, because that is why they bought it.  My father didn’t have enough money to buy big blocks of timber so he would just buy a piece of timber and log it, then buy another piece and log it, and so on.  Then H.R. Macmillan came along and bought all the timber so then he was squeezed out. Macmillan wanted him anyway, as an employee, so Macmillan bought the outfit and my father stayed on and managed it until around 1963.

I started in 1942 at UBC and in 1944 I was in the army for a year– I didn’t get anywhere because I was eighteen when I went in and nineteen when I got out!  I worked all over the Island timber cruising for the H.R. Macmillan Export Companytimber cruising is looking at stands of timber and assessing their value.  It is still important but in those days it was even more important because we were basically pioneering - we didn’t have really good aerial photographs so the only way to find out if there were any trees worth logging was to go and look!  I was a forest engineer which was a combination of surveyor and forester.  Anyways, then I worked for Stoltz if you know where “Stoltz pool” is?  Then when I graduated I worked at Chemainus for awhile and then went back to timber cruising all over the Island!  Then I went and worked for BCFP at Jarvis Inlet, which is up the mainland coast off the Island, and basically did everything in logging in kind of a training position. 

I was there a year and then I moved to Youbou and did studies on salvage logging and how much wood you could get out for the Crofton Pulp Mill, which was before the Crofton Pulp Mill.  They were contemplating building the Crofton Pulp Mill and they, the people in New York, London, Toronto or wherever the money comes from, have to know if there’s enough wood to keep the mill going.  One of the sources of getting wood out of the forest is to increase your utilization, and so this was the topic of our studies.  In those days, everybody on the Island burned sawdust to heat their houses.  So, there were waste burners at all the sawmills and there was a lot more wood left in the woods, so all you took was the “good stuff”.  Well, if you build a pulp mill then people quit burning sawdust, quit the wigwam burners - everything changes!  There is much better utilization.  Once the pulp mill came the whole industry changed.  The early pulp mills got their own logs directly from the forest, but when they built the mills here on Vancouver Island, they were all waste wood mills.  The Crofton Pulp Mill hardly gets any logs or trees, it’s all waste wood.  All you need is chips –you get the lumber out of the tree first because it’s a higher value, and then what is left over goes to the pulp mill.

In the 1950’s I worked at Jarvis Inlet, then I worked at Youbou, and then for six and a half years I worked at the old Bear Creek Camp at Port Renfrew.  We lived right beside the Bear Creek Trestle which was a huge bridge!  Then when it closed down in 1958 I went to Vancouver for the BCFP and was all over their operations.

When I went to the Bear Creek Camp in 1952 we still had railroad, then we converted over to trucks.  First we had to re-load by transferring truck loads of logs to rail cars and then converted to trucks.  So, in the camp we still had the old-fashioned bunkhouses and many old Europeans that came out during the 1920’s.  They were interesting because the whole population in logging, not the mills, really changed after the Second World War.  The ones that came out in the 1920’s didn’t have any wives so the ones that could find a Canadian girl to marry moved to the cities.  But the ones that, either their wife didn’t come or they didn’t have a wife or girlfriend, the camps became their home.  You have heard all kinds of stories about them staying at camp for months and months at a time and then going to Vancouver, getting drunk, and then coming back and going back to work.  That was because they didn’t have any other way of life…and when you think about it, it was really quite sad.  There were just not enough white women to go around!  As a result a great many of them married native girls. So, we had about thirty married people living in the camp and about one hundred twenty or so other single guys.  Actually, a lot of the guys had wives who lived in Duncan or Victoria whom they saw on the weekends.  The ones who didn’t have wives just stayed at camp – that was their home!  Once they got better roads everywhere, most of the camps on the Island disappeared.  Most of the people who lived in camps weren’t available anymore anyway.  The immigrants who came from Europe right after the Second World War brought wives with them.  The immigrants who came in the 1920’s after the First World War didn’t bring wives and that was a big difference!  The ones with the families needed schools and better accommodation than this rough-and-ready type of bunkhouse.  The East Indians and Chinese mostly all worked in the sawmills, although the Chinese tended to work on the railroad.

There were also a lot of Swedes and lots of Finns because they have a lot of forestry so the immigrants came from Sweden and Finland naturally.  There were very few French here – some, but in the real early days, long before any of us were born, there were quite a few French with the Hudson Bay Company and the fur traders.  I recall there were very few French, lots of Germans, Swedes, and Finns.  Then of course there were all the central Europeans:  Ukrainians, Hungarians, etc.  The English and the Scottish tended to work in the offices because they understood and spoke English quite well, while some poor guy educated in another language had a definite disadvantage!

When we were living in the Bear Creek campground Bob MacMillan was a forester there.  My son and Bob MacMillan’s daughter were about the same age, and we lived right beside the Bear Creek Trestle within a short walking distance to the cookhouse, and it was a one hundred and thirty man camp so it was quite a big cookhouse.  They were both quite young at the time and the older guys coming out of the cookhouse would give them oranges and cookies…to the point where we would put signs on them that said “Do not feed me”! Bear Creek was well-named.  One time the cook was making tapioca pudding and he burned it.  Well, if you have ever burned tapioca…it smells terrible!  Anyway, so they had about six gallons and they took it out and put it on the porch.  Well, a bear came along and ate the whole thing!  We had lots of bears there so there were lots of bear stories.  I remember one time when my son was four or five came running up and said “Daddy, Ross shot a bear!”  So I went out and there was another four year old with a little willow bow with a string and cedar arrows…right up to a bear!  The bear was sitting there totally ignoring him…but they survived!  I just got the little boy away and left the bear alone.

I remember another time when I was working in the woods we got this guy fresh from Europe, I don’t know where he was from…a new immigrant.  Well, he came to work in the morning with a tie and people looked at him but didn’t say anything.  The next morning he came to work again with a tie.  So, the next morning everybody in the crummy had a tie, and the next morning nobody wore a tie! 

The immigrants took quite a beating when they first came because of their language.  In 1956 we got a tremendous number of Hungarians and a lot of them were foresters and were a real contribution to the forest industry.  But, when they first came they didn’t speak English and people played jokes on them…the poor guys!  Looking back you kind of feel sorry for them, but at the time we thought it was just terribly funny.  Some of the immigrants from places like Finland, or even the East Indian women, never did learn English.  Like, I remember Mrs. Mayo, who was Joan Mayo’s mother-in-law, and I never heard her speak.  Now, I don’t know if she ever spoke English or not but she just never spoke.  I also remember women from Finland, with their husbands, and they would talk “yak, yak, yak” but only to other Finnish women.  This was before most women worked outside the home, so they just never learned to speak English.

Vern, Sister Lois & Father Gerry Wellburn

Well, I worked for BCFP in a variety of jobs and ended up in Vancouver.  I worked in Tofino for BCFP at the last where I was assistant to the logging manager.  I left there and went to Tahsis near Gold River where they were building the pulp mill and ended up working seven years as the logging manager there. Then I taught at the university for four years, and then ended up working for fifteen years for an organization called FERIC which is Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada.  It was a co-operative primarily between the federal government and the industry.  It was really a co-operative – the federal government and industry funded it, and the provinces did to a lesser extent.  Their main office was in Montreal and I was in the Vancouver office.  When I started we didn’t have anybody, but when I left we had thirty or forty people, primarily foresters and engineers.  They were doing all kinds of studies on everything that is done in the woods.  We had a group doing silviculture research, not genetics or improving the trees, but tree planting and improving tree planting.  The logging group was doing all kinds of studies on improving logging, to do with efficiency and cost but also to do with safety and new products and materials.  Then we did a lot of work on logging trucks with their fancy axles and different cranes, and doing the testing on them along with the Department of Highways to make sure that they were safe on the highways.  When I was at FERIC I travelled all over the world – I’ve been to most forest areas in the world! 

The big change in the mills was in the 1950’s and 1960’s when the pulp mills came…that was the biggest change because it changed the whole industry!  It also changed the location of the mills.  Like, my father’s mills and Hillcrest that were sort of landlocked …they were in the wrong place!  Even Youbou, you hear a lot of stuff about “oh, poor old Youbou is shutting down”, well, Youbou was in the wrong place!  You really have to be down on the salt water where you can trade logs with everybody else.  The other thing of course in the mills was the utilization because the chips and the waste wood started to go to the pulp mills.  So that was probably the biggest change of all in the mills.  The other technological changes:  changing from steam to electric motors was just sort of a gradual thing and then of course the big automation that took place in the 1980’s with the computers, when the machines all started to become computer-controlled. 

Specialty manufacturers are always complaining and there is always a big problem about them getting access to timber because they usually want a very specific type.  If you’ve got a little mill and you are cutting just cedar, you don’t want all the other wood.  And it’s the same thing with these people who make log houses they want a very special type of wood.  There are little specialty guys who have always been around and they probably always will be, and they fill a niche. 

Catalyst is a pulp & paper mill.  Chemainus has had a sawmill since the 1880’s and has always been running continuously, except for when it shut down for two years in 1932 and 1933.  My dad’s mill is no longer existent, although until very recently that was where the Shawnigan division of MacMillan Bloedel was and then it was Weyerhaeuser.  But, they moved all that to Chemainus so there is basically nothing there now – but there was a log sort yard there until about two years ago.

There was a mill on Shawnigan Lake.  The Dunsmuirs built the E&N Railway and got this huge land grant…but they weren’t interested in sawmilling or logging, they were interested in running a railroad and coal mining.  So, the first thing they did was to contact a very wealthy lumber baron from Wisconsin or Minnesota named Humbird, and he came out with a quarter of a million dollars, which was a huge amount of money in those days.  He had his pick of the timber and the deal was that if he built a sawmill, Dunsmuir would sell him the timber.  So, he was going to build a mill in Victoria so he called it Victoria Lumber, but it ended up in Chemainus.  So he built the mill in Chemainus and then his grandson ran it until it was being sold.  Then there was timber at Shawnigan Lake, but the people in Shawnigan Lake and Victoria didn’t have a quarter of a million dollars.  So, Dunsmuir gave them an option that if they built a sawmill along E&N , they could have this huge area of timber and just pay for it as they cut it.  This suited the railroad because they got freight and it got paid for – but it didn’t get paid all in one lump sum…it got paid gradually.  So, the Shawnigan Lake Option was the first big sale of timber that Dunsmuir made.  This stayed in effect until the 1940’s when H.R. Macmillan bought the Shawnigan Lake Lumber Company, including the option to get all his timber.  Then, Macmillan had enough money to buy all the timber, forget about the Option, he just bought the whole thing outright and paid for it all at once!  That sort of affected the forest industry on Vancouver Island.

The other thing that affected forestry with the E&N Option was when E&N was sold in 1903 to the CPR, and the Canadian National Railway which started in Victoria was going to go to Port Alberni.  Well, during the 1930’s the E&N wouldn’t sell timber to anyone who was on the CN, because then E&N wouldn’t get the freight.  So, people like my father were at a disadvantage…and even Camerons who owned a big sawmill in Victoria and were very influential around here.  The Camerons were primarily on the CN and their mill in Victoria was on the CN, so they were at a real disadvantage in buying timber from E&N.  After E&N was sold to CPR, then companies like Comox Logging and Fraser Mills in New Westminster which were on the CPR, got preferential treatment over mills like Youbou which was on the CN.  So there was a lot of “industrial politics” going on which affected how the communities grew and which mills did well.  For example, the Paldi and Hillcrest mills were on the E&N , but Youbou mill was on the CN…so it made a difference which mills did well.  The timber was controlled by the CPR so they could decide who they were going to sell it to.  So, it isn’t just the government who gets involved there are other factors. 

E&N got a land grant to build the railway, and the CPR got land grants to build the CPR.  The idea there was that instead of the government giving them money they gave them land and then the railway could sell the timber to create income for the railroad or sell coal or the mineral rights…the Americans did the same thing!  That is how Weyerhaeuser got started; they got a huge amount of railway lands.  The land that the E&N got was Crown granted which meant that the logs could be exported, and they still can which is why most of the log exports that is going on right now is coming from the old E&N lands.  Around 1900 they stopped a lot of the export and then in 1912 they changed the laws again.  That is a whole study in itself, though.

In the 1930’s through to the 1950’s most of the smaller operators actually bought the timber, owned it, logged it, and then sold the logs on an open market.  There were about ten sawmills right in the city of Vancouver, there were four sawmills in Victoria…there were sawmills everywhere!  These small operators who could get timber were independent.  Then, after the war, the government brought in “cutting rights” and it a lot of the small operators got them.  Then the big companies, such as H.R. Macmillan and the BCFP, bought the small companies and then the small companies turned into contractors.  So almost all the small companies now are contractors, whereas before they were independent.  This all happened basically in the 1950’s.  Anybody who had government cutting rights was looked at by the big companies, because they wanted to control more and more of the timber. 

In the 1970’s and 1980’s I think our forests were probably some of the best in the world!  We have tended to go downhill primarily because of government restrictions and environmentalists…they have just made things worse not better.  In the 70’s and 80’s we had a fully integrated system where you had the big companies and the small companies. You see, only a big company can own a pulp mill because it costs millions and millions of dollars…there is no way a small company could do it.  And in order to build a pulp mill, you have to control some of the forest because you can’t raise the money…no one would loan you money to build a pulp mill if you don’t have the timber!  So, there is always a pull-push between the small operators and the big operators and so on…but it was fully integrated.  Then in the 1990’s it became less and less integrated and the government became more and more involved with more and more regulations.  Of course regulations always cost money and so they make things less efficient.  Now, these immediate last few months, or even the last year the forest industry has taken a terrible beating because of the American housing crisis and that is none of our problem at all.  This happened primarily in the United States but it happened in other parts of the world too; where they just made money too available for ordinary people so they sold houses to people who couldn’t afford them.  So, now they have an inventory of too many houses when two years ago when the real estate business was booming people built houses like crazy!  Some of them are coming back but it’s going to take a couple of years to use up those houses, but in the meantime our major product is lumber for housing, a big part of it…like 75%.  Selling lumber to China or using it for wood pellets is not going to really solve the problem! 

Here in Duncan, there was a nursery growing little trees and there was a seed extraction plant where they take the cones off the trees and then take the seed out and then the seed goes to the nursery.  Around 1990, the government privatized all the nurseries instead of the government trying to run them all themselves.  There are still lots of nurseries around – I think we are up to six billion trees now!  The one billionth tree is here at the BC Forest Discovery Centre right here in Duncan and it was planted in 1981.  Since then we planted the two billionth in Surrey at Green Timbers, the three Vern in the 1911 Stanleybillionth is in Prince George, the four billionth is in Campbell River, the five billionth is in Kamloops….we’ve planted a lot of trees!  Those trees they plant are a year and a half to two years old, so there are a lot of nurseries that have to grow all those baby trees! 

I was at the planning of the one billionth here, but also the two billionth in SurreyBill Vanderzalm, who was premier then, he planted it.  He was a nursery man himself, that is how he made his living…doing horticulture.  Well, there were some Junior Forest Wardens there and he was explaining to them how to plant a tree, and there was a protestor there – a so-called “environmentalist”.  So he kept on saying “you’ve planted two billion trees but how many of them have lived?” and “monoculture” and was making all kinds of noise.  The people were all saying “sit down, sit down”…he was just disturbing this event and Vanderzalm was being very friendly.  Anyways, this actually happened, a little old lady with glasses who was the wife of one of the officials there went up and walloped this guy with her umbrella.  He turned around and then when he saw who it was, what could he do?  He couldn’t do anything but laugh - Vanderzalm laughed, he laughed…and he didn’t protest anymore!  That was sure funny!

Vern Wellburn began his career as a Forest Engineer and Logging Superintendent with MacMillan Bloedel and B.C. Forest Products on Vancouver Island.  He then joined the Tahsis Company where he became Vice President of Forestry and Logging.  He was a Director and Chairman of the Council of Forest Industries Logging and Forestry Steering Committee, Director of the Pacific Logging Congress, Director of Forest Industries Flying Tankers, and a Director of the Canadian Forestry Association.  After three years as lecturer on Forest Harvesting with the Faculty of Forestry at U.B.C., he joined the newly created Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada (FERIC) as Manager of its Western Division.  At FERIC he hired, trained, and mentored many foresters, engineers, and technicians.  At retirement, Vern returned to Vancouver Island where he and his wife, Pat, built a new home and are both active volunteers at the B.C. Forest Museum and in vintage car rallies and tours. excerpt from "Council On Forest Engineering"



Gerry Wellburn
1900 - 1992

Vern WellburnGerry Wellburn, my father, was born in Yorkshire, England in 1900. Like many English schoolboys he was interested in trains. He was also active in the local stamp collectors club. His family emigrated to Victoria in 1911 where his father opened a grocery store. Young Gerry was fascinated to learn that the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island had issued their own stamps before joining Canada in 1871. He immediately began collecting B. C. stamps and historical documents. He continued to add to this collection until the 1980’s when he had it photographed and then sold in an auction in Toronto.

After graduating from Victoria High School in 1916 he went to work for the CPR who sent him to Vernon as a wiper in the Locomotive shop. In 1918 he became ill with influenza and returned to Victoria to recuperate. During this time he helped with the Boy Scouts and joined the swimming club. He also met my mother and gave up thoughts of returning to Vernon to become a locomotive engineer.

Gerry got a job in the circulation department of the Victoria Times newspaper and in 1922, when on a sales trip to Courtenay, he was offered a job with the Gwilt Lumber Company. In 1928 he started his own sawmill and logging business in the Cowichan Valley. 1928 was not a good year to start a business! The mill was shut down and Gerry was out of work for many months in the early 30’s but by 1934 things had improved and Wellburn Timber Company grew. In 1945 he sold the company to H.R. Macmillan and then stayed on as manager until he retired in 1963.

submitted by Vern Wellburn, January, 2005