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Donna Logan Remembers Burnt River’s Bow Lake Lumber Company

May 4, 2024

Donna’s father, Stanley Dancey was raised in a log cabin near Lochlin, Ontario. Born in 1894, he went to school in Ingoldsby, as his family tried to make a living as farmers. In the second half of the nineteenth century, immigrants were encouraged to move to Haliburton with promises of cheap land, and many did eke out a living farming for a generation or two. However, as this area was being settled the economics and technology of farming was changing. Most farms in this region were neither really arable, nor suitable for mechanized hay production, and have since reverted to forest. As Stanley was a young man, many of his contemporaries were looking for an off-farm career.

Mr. Groves, a railway man from Lindsay, encouraged Stanley to become a railway telegrapher. Stanley walked all the way from Lochlin to Lindsay along the railway to apply for the job—it took two days. He was hired by the Grand Trunk Railway (later merged into Canadian National Railway)—“railroads were the big thing back then.” Working for the railway was a good, steady job in an era when most families were still ‘getting by’ on the farm, with few luxuries.

Working for the railway had its perks, including the opportunity to travel across the country on the railway. For a couple generations, railways were the pre-eminent mode of transportation for long distance vacations—a luxury that farm families of the day would likely never have the chance to experience—they had to look after the animals. “Because Dad worked on railway got passes to travel anywhere we wanted. We went on a trip to Vancouver and went to visit Grandma in Campbellcroft. After dad retired, he travelled on the train.”  Though being a telegrapher was tedious, repetitive work as they interpreted messages from Morse Code clicks, compared to farm work it was a chance to see the world and meet new people.

To work for the railway, Stanley had to be willing to move to the location where he was needed. At the time he started, the company taught telegraphers in the top floor of the Academy Theatre. In 1920, he married Rose Marion Terry, whose parents had operated a Kent Street store selling light lunches, groceries, candies and fruit. After his training in Lindsay was complete, he was sent for further training in Markham. His first job was to relieve the station agent at Waubaushene. He then served at Peterborough and Ganonoque. Rose Marion loved living amid the Thousand Islands, and probably would have been happy to stay there, but in that era, most women spent their lives doing domestic work (before the advent of all the electric appliances that today we take for granted!) and had little choice but to follow their husband’s careers. Stanley successfully bid to become station agent in Campbellcroft, then was transferred to Burnt River in 1932. Again, Rose did not look forward to leaving her friends and home behind to move.

The Dancey family arrived in Burnt River when the community was coping with the depths of the Great Depression. While they were fortunate to have a reliable railway job, many of their new neighbours were in much more challenging circumstances. Farming was a lot of hard work, but it was a way for families to provide for their own needs. Yet farm families often had little income, and many worked in the winter making sawlogs in their own bush—with axe and buck saw, as there would not be chainsaws for another generation. They were looking for a market for their logs, and the railway needed rail ties, so Stanley started buying their produce on a small scale. Being the railway agent, he could easily send car loads of ties and posts to Western Ontario, where the forests were not so plentiful. “Many of the farmers were really struggling, and if they cut 8 posts, Dad would pay them $8. People came to me at his funeral and said they would have starved if it was not for him. One lady told me that when her husband died, they had nothing to eat, so Dad showed up at their door with two bags of groceries.”

In 1938, Rose and Stanley bought 800 acres of forested land around Bow Lake in Haliburton County at $1 per acre. For many years, the family would spend their summers there, tenting at first, before a cottage was built. It would take them several years to finance this major purchase. Though the tract around Bow Lake was not purchased to be exploited for the logging business, it gave its name to the lumber company, which actually operated out of Burnt River. Stanley was no lumberjack, the mill relied on purchased logs, largely from his neighbours around Burnt River.

Each spring, Stanley would have to buy timber from his neighbours, which he would then mill and sell. He often did not have enough money to pay out of his own pocket, and was a client at the Bank of Montreal. One spring he needed to borrow a large amount of money to buy the farmers’ produce and pay his employees—which was a risky loan for the bank. What would happen if lumber prices dropped, or heaven forbid, there was another fire? The bank manager Lyle Cordick refused to make the loan, and Rose encouraged her husband to walk across the road and borrow the money from CIBC.

“I often went with Dad as he would drive around to buy timber. He would buy trees that people had felled, and trucked them to the mill. Times were bad during the Depression and people told me that dad never made anyone feel like they were a charity case.” The mill was located near where the tennis courts are at the Burnt River Community Centre today, on the south side of what is now the laneway. It was a relatively small building with a shed roof. “I learned to drive the forklift, as I was helping my dad at the mill.” Les Billings and Herb Nicholls were sawyers at the mill.

Stanley had an old green truck with yellow lettering “Bow Lake Lumber Company” to haul logs to the mill. The logs were chained down on the truck and once the chains were released, the logs would roll off. “It was so noisy being in the mill, and the sawdust was everywhere. I loved the smell of the wood being cut.” It was a circular saw mill, and because a lot of the material was for the railway, it was often a little rough, and some still had a little bark on it. Material was neatly stacked in the yard, and it was not planed on site—it was simply sold rough.

“The material that I remember being sold from the mill was for the railroad—and he was in competition with Joe Handley. Mr. Higgins was the inspector for the railway, who came over to ensure that they were producing the right sized logs and ties. Mr. Higgins often came over for dinner, and Dad would tell us ‘Don’t believe anything that Mr. Higgins says, but don’t laugh!” Stanley and Rose’s son-in-law was Bill Allen (m. Audrice Dancey), who managed the Allen Wood Products Factory in Fenelon Falls (manufacturers of many toys, including the Tinkertoy). One of the workers at the factory remembered the company buying a lot of lumber from the Bow Lake Lumber Company.

“One year, when the insurance had lapsed the mill burned down, but Dad rebuilt it. He had no money, but he started it all over again.” In 1944, tragedy struck again, when much of the main street of Burnt River was consumed in a terrifying conflagration, including the Dancey family home. “Clayton Hodgson was the MP, and he just came and handed Dad his house keys, saying ‘I’m not there so make yourself at home.” The Danceys would not stay in Burnt River, but moved to 20 Market Street in Fenelon Falls, across from what has since become the Public Library.

Stanley continued to work for the railway and at the sawmill until he was debilitated by Parkinson’s disease. “When he started tripping and falling, we were terrified hit would get burned by falling into the bark fires at the mill.” He passed the lumber mill to his son Blake, who operated it until 1964, then sold it to build the recreation centre. By then, the lumber business was changing. The railway was in decline as fewer passengers rode the iron horse, there was less freight traffic. At the same time, younger farmers were starting to supplement their income with off-farm work, instead of spending the winter cutting logs. Despite the abundance of lumber in the regrowing forests tributary to the Trent, an ever-growing proportion of the region’s lumber was imported. In his retirement, Stanley and Rose enjoyed travelling together on the railway. Stanley Dancey died on November 29, 1968, and Rose survived him by six years.

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