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A Handley Lumber Retrospective with Erick Watson and Ken Handley

September 22, 2022

Ray Handley and Chester Godwin at the Sales Desk, Handley Lumber, c 1980

For anyone who has lived in Fenelon Falls for a while, Handley Lumber needs no introduction. A four generation business, for decades, Handley Lumber has not only provided the materials for countless local construction projects, they have played an integral role as community builders. Like many successful, long-standing businesses, it is run by unforgettable personalities.

The business originated in Burnt River, where the Handley and Godwin families were friends and neighbours, who worked well together. Joseph Handley Jr. opened a shingle mill in 1918, fed with cedar logs that were brought by horse and sleigh from the surrounding forests. He also owned the remains of a sawmill on the Third Concession of Somerville. Often he harvested the forests, then ranched cattle on the same lots—taking his herds into Irondale and Crystal Lake. After a 1924 fire that originated in his house, they rebuilt the Burnt River mill. Ten years later, Handley bought Fred Chambers’ sash and door factory in Fenelon Falls. This factory included a mortise and tenon machine, jointer, saw and a big sander. They were all belt driven, and still work nearly a century later. “But we don’t use them like we used to,” Ken explains, “the business has evolved to keep up with the times.” At the time, by purchasing a planing mill, Joe could sell dressed lumber—previously he had mostly shipped rough-sawn boards.

The Godwin family operated a general store at Burnt River. Both Gladys and Chester Godwin worked for Joe Handley, and continued as faithful employees after the business moved to Fenelon Falls. Starting at age 16, Chester drove trucks and helped get out the logs—back then trucks were new technology. On his day off from the lumber business, Chester would deliver groceries for the Burnt River store. In 1937, Joe Handley bought a tractor trailer, so he could ship lumber more efficiently to Toronto. His son, John drove the big rig, while his other son Ray operated the other truck making local deliveries, including many loads of slabs to the Coboconk lime kilns. The Handleys sold innumerable cedar posts at 1 cent a piece—it was undoubtedly a very laborious way to make a living.

Chester became a lifelong friend of Joe’s son Ray. Not only did they work together, but the families spent much of their spare time together. Ray and Chester were both masons. After Joe Handley died in 1945, the business passed to his son Ray Handley, with Chester as his right hand man. Chester’s wife Marian (Pud) carried on the Burnt River store. As a child, her nephew Erick Watson remembers when he would “get a nickel and go down to Pud’s to buy candy. They were just open boxes and I would stand there for half an hour deciding what to buy. She had more patience than you could shake a stick at.”

Ray and Chester “were very personable, ordinary, hardworking people,” Erick recalls. Raised in a community where everyone had to work together to get by, they “would do anything for anybody or would try.” They helped each customer as best they could. But “Ray could think of things to say that you would not believe.”

Raised in an era when people did not watch television or even listen to the radio for entertainment, neighbours often gathered to tell stories about the people in their community. And before long a great many of the stories circulating around Fenelon Falls involved Ray Handley. Most people had a hard time separating the mythical, larger than life Ray, from the man who spent every day at the lumber yard with his work clothes on. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Logging and milling in the Kawarthas has never been an easy way to get by—it’s heavy, hard, dangerous work. There is a stereotype that lumbermen were very straightforward, and as a retailer, Ray “turned a lot of people off the first time, because he told people exactly what he thought.” Erick recalls. But “if a customer came back a second time, then they would stay as a customer,” because they appreciated how hard Ray tried to help the people who came.

Ray had a reputation for expressing his opinion, while Chester was not nearly so outspoken. “When they took out the telephone exchange,” Ken recalls, “the operator stuck her head in door, and said she wanted to know what he looked like. If she didn’t pick up the phone on 3 or 4 rings she would hear about it. He told you what he thought, you had to respect him.”

When he was 16 years old, Ken Handley went to work for his father at the Fenelon Falls yard. He worked the entire summer “and got paid in kind with a canoe. The next year I got $90 for the summer’s work.” One day, Ken drove over to Bobcaygeon with Chester to deliver a load of lumber, and returned with his driver’s licence (it was then common for teenagers to drive before they got their licence). In the late 1960s, Chester’s nephew Erick Watson also went to work for the business, while still attending school. 55 years later, Erick is still a familiar face at the service desk, “I don’t think I ever begrudged a day going there.”

The lumber business has really changed over the decades that Erick and Ken have worked at Handley lumber. Erick recalls back in the 1960s, they would buy a lift of drywall, and it included sheets 8, 10 and 12 feet long. They would then have to slide them one piece at a time onto racks to store them. Back then, when they got a load of cedar from British Columbia, they would come on the train to Fenelon Falls, and the yard hands would spend 3 or 4 days transferring it to a truck from the rail car, then stacking it in the yard. Now Handley’s have a lift truck, and the lumber arrives on tractor trailers.

The last load of cedar that Ray ordered was no good. Ray was not lost for words and said he wouldn’t pay for it. “If it sits there until the wheels rust off, I don’t care!” Ray knew his lumber really well. One time he ordered a load of studs, and when they showed up they were rotten. He called the sales rep and asked them to come and get it, but the rep insisted that there was nothing wrong with it. So Ray proposed to hire a grader, and if he said if it wasn’t up to standard, you’re going to pay me for it. “And you can guess who was right,” Erick recalls.

Ken remembers when they used to go cut logs at Crystal Lake in the winter. They would run 2×4, 2×6, and roof boards through the sticker, and would plane down the 2x4s back then—many different species of lumber were used including poplar, spruce and hemlock. But the Handley’s didn’t have the certification to grade lumber, so when stamped lumber came in that was the end of it. As the years passed, it became more economical to bring in finished products for retail. The business once manufactured many window sash and doors. Then it became more economical just to buy window sash and put the glass in, and today you buy the whole window, “we don’t do much manufacturing anymore,” Ken explains.  Today, Handley lumber is a retail building supply centre. “It got so you could buy it cheaper and easer than you can do it… The pay has gone up too much” to continue much manufacturing on site.

Many customers will never forget Ray Handley’s accounting system. At the beginning of the day, Ray and Chester would empty their pockets and count how much money they had. They would do the same at the end of the day, and the difference would be what they ‘made’ that day. When someone made a purchase, Ray would pull out his brown leather wallet, typically containing a thick wad of bills (back in the days of $1 and $2 bills). Ray never had a briefcase, he simply stored incoming invoices in a cardboard box that he would take home at the end of the day. Ray lived at the four corners in Burnt River. His sister, Berta Hickey, was the bookkeeper, who lived nearby.

Back then no one thought twice about the sawdust pile in Handley’s yard, it would just rot down. Over the years the sales volumes have really increased. In the 1960s, the company might have sold 1 or 2 pieces of drywall a week, now they bring in a tractor trailer load every two months. Back then, “people were more worried about putting an egg or potato on the table than filling their pockets.” And to be successful, business owners had to put a lot back into their businesses.

In the 1960s, a lot of contractors would come in at lunch time to play rummy—ten cents. They really enjoyed sitting down to have a lunch hour together around the shop table. They even came in during the winter, and would be standing there toasting their sandwiches on the stove—“Hey, get up, it’s your turn to play!”

Handley Lumber has had many long-time employees. Murray McNevan worked on the sticker (a large planer or 4 headed moulder). “When he was setting up the planer, it had to be perfect. If it wasn’t, the stuff wouldn’t have been good to anyone.” Keith Stewart worked many years in the yard. Ray’s sister Berta Hickey did the books in Burnt River—and carried on there when the business moved to Fenelon Falls. Ralph McGann ran deliveries for many years. Vern Greer also put in over 30 years and counting. Benny Stegenga (the butcher) was “a strong fellow, he would take 2 bundles of shingles off at a time on his shoulder. He always had a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.”

Ken and Erick have seen the building trades change immensely over their careers. When they started, practically every house was finished with lath and plaster, and the delivery drivers would carry bundles of lath into each room. Carpenters would strap the ceiling, then nail each piece of lath to it. “Drywall is so much faster.” Before plywood came out, boards were used as flooring underlayment “some people were suspicious of plywood at first.” Ken remembers working at Laidlaw’s in Toronto as a lumber grader, where they had a big tank that they used to test to develop lumber preservatives, 60 or 70 years ago. Pressure treated lumber “took a while to catch on. Now the pressure treated doesn’t last like it used to.” Half a century ago, just about everything was nailed together. Handley Lumber used to sell over 100 boxes of 3 ½ ardox nails a year, “now it’s maybe 2,” Erick explains. “If someone doesn’t have a power nailer now, you can’t go to work.”

One day, as Erick walked through the back doors of the shop “I thought I could smell smoke.” When he looked up, “the flames were shooting out over the 2×6 mezzannine, just like a snakes’ tongue.” The building was made of aspenite, and there was little that could be done to put it out. The employees worked desperately, “we were trying to get stuff out of there when we shouldn’t have been in there.” Joe Handley (Ray’s son) and Erick were trying to get the drawers out of the filing cabinet when the fire department showed up. But there was little they fire fighters could do, “it was gone in 15 or 20 minutes,” as cars stopped on the bridge to watch the inferno.

Handleys rebuilt after the fire, and Ray carried on as company president until he died a few years later in 1999. The business then passed to his four sons. Today, Ken’s son, Chris, operates the business. For all the changes that have come over the years, there is something enduring about Handley Lumber. “It is about the personal relationships,” Erick says. “We try to make it as friendly as we can.” For decades, the Handleys and Godwins have made many friends in Burnt River, Fenelon Falls and neighbouring communities, as Handley Lumber has become one of the rare, enduring businesses that has touched the lives of just about everyone in the community.

Starting in the 2022-23 academic year, Chris Handley is sponsoring a scholarship at Sir Sandford Fleming College in memory of his grandfather, Ray Handley (1915-1999). “Ray was interested in forest conservation,” Chris explains, so it seems fitting to name an award in his honour. The award recognizes outstanding students who share Ray’s love of community, and is open to second year students of Business, Information Technology, Forestry and Natural Resources.

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