Coboconk’s Lumber Mill
July 17, 2023
A Reminder of Past Prosperity
From the Summer Times, June 10, 1986
For more than a century, lumbering was Coboconk’s staple industry. At one time, the town was home to about six saw mills. Today, however, the remains of only one of those sawmills is still standing. The site of the Gull River Lumber Mill was first built on by William Shields. Shields built his saw mill on the shores of the Gull River in 1889. In 1912 or 1913, the boilers in this mill blew up and the mill was destroyed.
Shields subsequently sold the property and timber limits to McLaughlin and Peel, who established the Gull River Lumber Company. Before construction on the new mill began in 1913, large limestone slabs were used to build up the land on which the plywood machinery would rest. The saw mill was completed in 1914 and the Gull River Lumber Mill began operating. The mill was first managed by James A. Peel, and the foreman was Jim Graham. Lloyd Graham was hired as foreman after Jim Graham and stayed until 1934.
The mill, designed by Fred Peel, was built of timbers and covered with corrugated steel. Many of the men who helped in the building of the mill were later employed in the mill itself. Before electricity was introduced, the machinery was run by steam created from three boilers. Among the machinery, much of which was purchased from the Butter Chip Factory, was a leather belt. The belt was 24 inches wide and about a half inch thick, which was not out of the ordinary. However, the outstanding feature of the belt was that it was made out of 250 bull hides, giving the belt a unique length. The saws that were used to cut the lumber were also very large, being about 60 inches in diameter.
There is no exact measurement as to how much lumber was cut in the Gull River Lumber Mill, but it is certain that there have been many millions of feet of lumber produced, and transported out by train. Much of the lumber manufactured in the mill was transported in log drives down the Gull River. At that time, the Gull River, as well as the Burnt River, were the most important logging rivers flowing into the Western Kawartha Lakes. Much of this lumber which came into Coboconk through the Gull River was processed at the Gull River Lumber Mill.
As the lumber came into the mill, it was put on a ‘cradle’ with sharp prongs, which gripped each log, and then the log was transported from the waters to the upper floor of the mill where it was cut. The cutting had to be done on the upper level of the mill because the bulk of the machinery and boilers rested on the lower floor. The saw mill also included a veneer plant which manufactured mainly fruit baskets. The veneer plant’s machinery was run by the steam from one small boiler. After the veneer was made, workers nailed the baskets together by hand. Once trained sufficiently, a worker was able to produce between 400 and 450 baskets per day. The basket tops were often made by the women and children around town.
With the addition of the veneer factory, employment in Coboconk was raised higher. However, because the fruit baskets were so light weight, it soon became too expensive to transport the baskets. Therefore, only the sheets of veneer were exported out of town to be assembled upon arrival at their destination.
To see the Gull River Lumber Mill in action became a tourist attraction in its time. Tours through both the mill and the veneer plant used to be conducted by the foreman in charge. The last log drive down the Gull River was completed in 1929, and the logs were sawed at the Gull River Lumber Mill. A few years later in the early 1930s, the company went out of business and was forced to close down.
After the closing of the Gull River Lumber Company, a new company formed and took over the mill, known as the Gull River Veneer Company. This was managed by Walter Peel until 1950 with foreman Harvey Farrow. Between 1950 and 1954, John Wallace bought the mill and formed the Wilberforce Veneer and Lumber Company. It was then changed in 1954 to Quality Plywood and Veneer Company. In 1955, Mr. Solomon, the owner, changed the company to VicPly.
Around 1959 or 1960, while Solomon still owned the mill, it burned down, but was rebuilt. In 1964, VicPly was bought by the Hickey brothers. At this time 3 to 5 rigs were being used in the plant. In 1981, the mill burned down again and this time was not rebuilt.
The premises were kept vacant until just recently, when in May of 1985, the “CO-RO-NO Trade Center” was formed. Today it is called the Coboconk Trade Centre, home to the Coby market. Most of the old Gull River Lumber Company’s buildings have been destroyed. However, the boiler room, built in 1914, is still somewhat intact. The red brick frame still remains enclosing the 42×50 foot room.
Material and research into sites selected are provided by Bexley’s Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee, through a grant from the Ministry of Citizenship and Culture. The project was presented by Coboconk student Jenni Moffett. Complete project listings are available in the Bexley Township Office.
Photos Courtesy of Shedden Historical Society