A 1989 front end loader with its bucket raised

IWD & Memories of the mill: One Woman’s Work

By Ruth Perfitt, originally published on qathet Living

You might say I worked in my Grandfather’s footsteps. My maternal Grandfather, Ray Olsen, was one of the first employees at the mill. The family lived around Powell Lake (Olsen’s Valley) and he started with the mill in the grinder rooms. He and another fellow would travel by boat from Olsen’s Landing down to the mill, often staying the week in town at a place on Poplar Street and rowing back up on weekends bringing supplies for the family.

Leaving high school in 1972, I heard the mill was hiring; my choice was to apply for work there rather than go to Vancouver to attend Langara College. Friends (Georgia Schindler, Maureen Whiting & Claudia Cote) joined the workforce around the same time.

The mill changed with the lumber and paper markets and my jobs changed with the mill as it closed down old and opened new operations. Lumber would go on the barges over to places like Japan and Australia. Huge paper rolls would be loaded directly from the mill onto freighters and barges bound for Vancouver and overseas.

I worked in the wood room first and later on the wharf. In the wood room I would grab a peavey to flip logs onto the rollers to take them to the edger to be cut to size. I was on the 32” and 64” block loaders, getting the slabs on the conveyor to the sawyers to cut them to the finished size. Tail sawyers like me would direct the slabs cut by the edger men. We worked amongst huge logs and huge saw blades.

The mill never shut because of the weather. There was no or little heating in the big buildings (doorways and openings had big canvas coverings to try to keep out any cold weather). Flap, flap, the snow, the rain, the cold wind would come in.

Just like my Grandfather, getting to work would be half the battle sometimes and in the early days my Volkswagen bug would get me to work in the winter. From the parking lot there was a walk downhill and if you were working in the wood room that was across the yard. There was a little news and tobacco type shop run by a nice old fellow at the top of the hill where workers could get their smokes.

Another really cold place to work was when I was operating the front end loaders; they had no heating and I was constantly clearing the windshield in the freezing cold loading and unloading the barges and ships.

A lot of the sawdust or chips for pulp came in by barge, especially after the mill stopped producing lumber. Metal ramps were set up to get the loaders into the barge. The sawdust would be taken out and spilled into grates onto hoppers to take it up to the kraft mill at the top of the hill.

Sometimes because of scheduling or tides, drivers were pushed to get the sawdust off fast. The dozer boats were the hard ones. One time a driver came down so fast out of the chip barge that the loader was hanging over the back-bumpers. Everyone hopped to it and rescued the driver and vehicle. Good thing the window was open a bit and he could get out.

Wages depended on the work we did; we played as hard as we worked. The schedule was a 5-day week with varied shifts; sometimes I would be called in to do an extra shift. The graveyard shift was not my favourite and nothing I could get used to. Offloading chip barges and dumping chips into the hoppers my eyes would try to close. In those days I played ball; ball fields abounded and like my Mom I loved softball, playing pitcher, first base or centre field. JP Dallos was our main field.

Paydays were always special and talk about a family affair: my cousin, Karen Olsen, worked in the pay office and I would sometimes see her when I went to collect my pay. We would all line up at the wicket to pick up our cheques every week and head over to the Rodmay for an end of week brew or two.

Over 35-years I held different jobs, first putting my hand to the block loaders and then the frontend loaders. The kraft mill would be smelly (part of it was at the top of the hill) and the pulp came down in big pipes. After I got my air brake ticket I would drive the trucks up the Wildwood hill to dump sludge (all the waste paper pulped in water). Coming down the hill was no fun with air brakes and once the brakes failed and with my heart in my mouth, I was lucky to be able to pull over and wait for someone from the garage to come up and help.

Part of the job was regular maintenance on two trucks (one standard and one automatic) keeping everything tight, air pressure, oil checks, etc. and to keep them filled up from fuel tanks on site. I also put my hand to yard maintenance including gardening around all the buildings and roadsides.

Work relations were sometimes good, sometimes bad. We could put up with some bantering, but I have lasting bad feelings about some of the slanderous graffiti that was on some of the walls in the mill. Some men thought that the mill was not a place for women to work; all I could do was avoid them.

The mill would hold social functions, usually at Dwight Hall, to celebrate holidays like Christmas or New Years. And for my 25-year recognition there was a dinner out at the Vancouver Hotel – pretty fancy for this truck driver!

Because I was willing and able, I put my hand to just about anything and it turned out that the mill was a pretty decent place to make a living.

Top image credit: What she’s driving: Front end loader, 1989. Ruth Perfitt said, “they had no heating and I was constantly clearing the windshield in the freezing cold.” – Photo courtesy of the qathet Museum & Archives