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Joe and Betty Smales remember Coboconk’s VicPly Plywood Factory

April 5, 2024

VicPly Factory, Coboconk, circa 1960s

With Images Courtesy of Paul Zaborowski, Shedden Historical Society

When Joe and Betty Smales emigrated from Beverley, Yorkshire to Canada in 1957, the era of Coboconk being a logging town had come to an end. The Pattie House had become legendary, in part for the escapades of the river drivers as they floated into town. Their brawling reputation would not soon be forgotten. For generations, logs had floated down the Gull River to one of many sawmills along the way, including Coboconk’s Gull River Lumber Company. But in the late 1920s, the drives stopped as trucks became a more efficient and flexible way of moving logs to mills. It had been many years since the old-growth forest had been cutover. The Gull River Company mill had been reincarnated as a veneer factory, making fruit baskets, before burning on June 20, 1957. One year later to the day, it was reopened as Quality Plywood, by the Salamon family. Harriet Millyard, who operated a drug store on the south side of town, helped to co-ordinate the reopening.

When he emigrated, Joe was a 25-year-old woodworking machinist, or what would be called a woodworker in North America. “I wanted to come to Canada because there was a class distinction in England,” Joe explains. “And work was getting hard to find over there,” Betty continues. “I had trained for nursing before emigrating, then one day, Joe said, ‘I am going to Canada, do you want to go?’ So I thought why not? When we came over in 1957, we didn’t get anything handed out to us. We had to have so much money to come over here. We had to pay our own way in hotels and motels, and we had to walk the streets until we got a job. We didn’t get a red cent from the government.”

“The first job I took was working for Laidlaw Lumber in Toronto for $1.10 an hour,” Joe observes. “I was living in Toronto and working for Dominion Sash in Mississauga, working a sticker, when I saw the ad that Quality Plywood was looking to hire two men.”  Betty adds: “We came up here in 1961-2, and he started working for Quality Plywood for the Salamon Family. Dr. Jamieson hired me to work in his office and I would work there for over 20 years.”

“At Quality Plywood, some of the logs were floated to the mill, though most came by truck. If they had been in the water too long, they would be red inside instead of white. We moved all the logs around with a cant hook. We rolled them into a trough of water, where we would clear all the bark off. The steam from the boiler steamed the logs, with a lid on top, to loosen the bark, then we would use an adze remove it. Later on we got a debarker, which made this process automatic. Then the log went on a lathe where it was spun—to make a veneer, it had to be turned so that the log was the same diameter, to get a continuous sheet. The log would go on a winder to cut the veneer off. As it came off, the veneer would be wound onto a cylinder by hand. When the veneer got to be too long, you would break it off and start a new piece. The clipper cut the veneer to the correct width. After a second clipping, then the sheets were glued together, and at Quality Plywood we were making ten sheets of plywood at a time. To make plywood you have to have a press, and it had ten openings on it.”

The factory was making 4×7 plywood that was 3/16 of an inch thick. “It was all maple, and when we had finished it, it was shipped up the road to Beautiwood,” Joe narrates. “They finished it with three different colours, then much of it was sold for paneling. I remember being at Beautiwood once when the men were on the floor from the fumes.” In the 1950s and 1960s, wood paneling was fashionable, and was primarily used to finish the interior of mobile homes. There was some local controversy over the burning of offcuts and sawdust. “People did not like that, so it was burned in the boiler to heat the factory.”

After Joe worked at the factory for a few years it closed, and he found a new job working at a mill in Burk’s Falls. Betty continued to work for Dr. Jamieson and she would drive Joe up to work for the week, then go back up and pick him up on the weekend. Then John Hickey purchased the factory, rechristened it as VicPly around 1961 and asked Joe if he would come back to manage the factory.

When Joe had worked for Quality Plywood, the dome-shaped building beside the river had already been built. For both owners, this served as the site of production, with a sawdust pile and boiler on the north side at the back. John Hickey expanded it by adding a building to the north, out by the road—the front of this building was an office, with storage at the back. The owner would later add a second building, also for storage.

VicPly grew to be a much larger business than it had been as Quality Plywood. When it first reopened, it was making 300 sheets a day. At its peak, before a 1981 fire, “it was running 24 hours a day, 5 days a week, with 68 employees. Every 10 minutes there would be 3 sheets of plywood, or about 2400 per day” Joe observes. It produced a greater variety of plywood—birch, maple, white oak, red oak, walnut, cherry, and soft maple, in thicknesses from 3/16 to ¾—either good one-side or good two-sides. They made veneer core (basswood, spruce or mahogany), particle board or MDF plywood. “We made a waterproof plywood that was teak on the deck with ¼ inch of fine yellow mahogany, and we did make rosewood plywood here. When making Rosewood plywood, you had to put paper on the veneer to get the ink out of the wood. If somebody wanted it, and we could get the veneer, then you could buy it. Some of the plywood was trimmed to 48 ½ inches x 96 ½ inches, so you could cut 1 or 2 foot pieces out of it.”

VicPly sold its produce wholesale to lumber yards and furniture companies, “most of it went to industry that was making furniture and boats,” Joe recounts. Palliser Furniture of Winnipeg was a large buyer, shipped by train, then later tractor trailer.  On the return trip, the truckers would bring back particle core or MDF—both came from mills in Northern Ontario. Basswood, for the veneer core, came from a mill in Tweed. A lot of plywood was shipped as far away as Vancouver on the railway, which conveniently linked the factory. Lindsay’s Northern Casket was another large buyer, using it for coffin backs. The Coboconk factory was not John Hickey’s largest, “in Elora, they had a 25 opening press. There they also made plywood with oak and one side and melamine on the other.” Hickey had three truck drivers and leased tractor trailers for local deliveries, but most of the long-haul shipping was done by independent companies.

When VicPly first opened, they were using the same rotary process to make veneer from when Quality Plywood operated the business. “You had to get good logs to make veneer. If they weren’t the best logs, they were only good for lumber,” Joe explains. As time went on, an ever larger proportion of the veneer was purchased, rather than manufactured on site. The plywood was made in batches of the same species.

“Walking into the factory, I found it striking how large and how cold it was,” Betty remembers. Joe adds, “It was block walls, and I had it spray painted light blue, to make it nicer inside for the workers. Wages were a lot lower back then, one girl who made plywood was paid 35 cents an hour.” Betty observes, “it was ridiculous, when you think about it. Many of the workers made $1.50 per hour. The people who worked there were very down to earth, good local folks, that you could have a laugh with.”

“Sanding dust is fine, and it is explosive,” Joe explains. “There was suction above the machine, pulling the dust into a pipes, and all the dust went through the pipes, and was emptied outside. Once outside, there was a conveyor that took it to the boiler. There were sweepers who cleaned the place up.” The plant was served by an air compressor, “with two more on stand-by, in case we needed them.”

“We spread the glue one sheet at a time, then put a stack of ten sheets into the press. Once they were out of the press, we sawed the sheets to size, then we checked one side to see if it needed to be puttied, then flipped it over manually, to putty the other side. Then each sheet was run through two sanders, one for each side.” VicPly brought in resin (from a Kitchener factory) and glue by the tanker load, both of which were stored in the plant.

“I had to look after the plants in Montreal and Fergus at the same time, so Glenn Powell was a foreman at the Coboconk factory. There was also the melamine plant in Elora. Two men put plywood into the glue spreader. At first it took four men to operate the saw, but with better equipment that could be done with one. Six to eight men were inspecting and puttying. Six men ran the sander. There were five or six men working the fork lift, loading trucks and bringing material in. Sometimes I ran the fork lift myself. The company bought the plant in Quebec because I wanted three pieces of machinery from it—the glue spreader, Globe pre-press and the sander.

With this new equipment, the factory was far more productive: “You take the core, and put it through the glue spreader, then put one veneer on each side. The sheets are then stacked into a pile, for instance 38 pieces that were 1/2 inch thick. Then they go in the press and are pressed as a stack. Then you take the 10 pieces off the top, and they went into the press, one into each opening, where they are heated to cure the glue. Once they are pressed, they are stacked, and go to the saw to be cut to size. Then they are inspected, if there is a crack, then you use putty to fill it in. Once the putty is dry, the sheet goes through a sanding machine. An automatic turner flips the sheet over, then they sand the other side, then they stacked for shipment. The stacks were 30 inches tall, so it contained 40 pieces of ¾, 60 pieces of 1/2, or 120 pieces of ¼. They were wrapped in cardboard, top and bottom, with a VicPly label on it.

Early in the morning on October 14, 1981, the plant caught on fire. “By then it had been reduced to two shifts, so it was not operating at the time,” Joe explains. Though the factory was quite important to the community, VicPly shifted production to Fergus or Montreal, and did not need to rebuild. Joe worked in Montreal for 3 years. “I did a lot of travelling for the business.”

Asked what his favourite memory was of managing VicPly, Joe replies, “Making sure that things worked properly. If the press was leaking at the bottom, I got a wrench and bent down to fix it. I liked to see things done right.” Having been married for Joe for seventy years, Betty knows him better than anyone else. “Joe could be a tough work master, but his workers respected him and they made good plywood there. They knew when he was genuinely upset. But they also knew that if they played around a bit, Joe didn’t mind as long as they did their job.”

Few would have realized on that fateful morning in 1981, that another chapter in Coboconk’s history was coming to a sudden end. “It really was a going concern at the time,” Betty notes. Just as in a previous generation, so many locals had worked felling and sawing lumber, for two decades, wooden manufacturing kept food on the table for many local families. Today, it is just one more story of an Ontario small town, where manufacturing came and went.

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