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Memories of Bruce Telford

March 14, 2024

Bruce Telford at the farm with his barn in the background

With Arlan Telford, Marylou Way, Wayne Kimble, Robert Prescott, Buck & Janice (Telford) Thibadeau

By Glenn Walker

Thomas “Bruce” Telford grew up on his family’s farm on the north side of the Verulam-Somerville Boundary (now Bury’s Green Road). Born in 1944, Bruce was the third generation to live on the farm. His parents, Fred and Bessie, got by on a farm that was similar to the other mixed farming operations in the neighbourhood. When Bruce was a boy, there were not a lot of luxuries, but he did enjoy caring for the horses and cattle.

At the time, farming typically provided for the basic needs of a family, but was certainly not a great source of income, and many farmers did something else on the side, to help support their families. Fred was a blacksmith and in his generation, many of the metal objects around home and farm were locally made: everything from horseshoes, to hitching rings, to cant hooks. “I often went up to their farm as a boy with my dad,” Wayne recalls. “We would go up there when we needed to get something fixed.”

Once winter came and the fields had frozen, farmers still had to care for the animals, but much of the work that occupied them in summer was no longer possible. Many farmers spent the winter working in the woods getting out logs that they would sell to one of the larger sawmills in the area—for instance Austin’s in Kinmount or Handley’s in Burnt River/Fenelon Falls. Fred had his own small sawmill, which was east of his house, on the hill, out near the road. “They were cutting rough lumber,” Wayne explains. “Fred dickered a bit in firewood, but that was not his main thing. I remember one year they were cutting up on the 507 for Curry Lumber.”

“It seemed like Bruce and his dad were always working in the bush, especially in winter, but really, whenever they had the chance,” recalls his cousin Arlan. “They worked together cutting logs, mostly cutting trees off their own property, but they also paid to cut logs on the White Valley Road.” Wayne continues: “On weekends, he was always in the woods with his dad. My family owned another 175 acres, north of our farm on the 649. He and his dad took quite a bit of timber out of there and I would go up on weekends and help sort out the posts they were cutting.”

In Bruce’s grandparents’ generation, many of the young men would travel north for the winter to work in logging camps, often for large companies exporting lumber. There were many larger than life stories of the incredible physical feats of the men working in these camps for timber barons like Mossom Boyd, J.W. Howry & Sons and Mickle & Dyment. The lumberjacks and river drivers were notorious as whiskey-loving daredevils (whiskey, of course, was not allowed in the shanties), men who would perform incredible feats of strength, and men who would make a raucous entrance to any village they visited on the way down. The stories of the river drivers’ exploits and brawls at the many taverns they frequented on the drive were legendary.

By the time Bruce was a boy, this age was over, decades had passed since the last drive came down the Gull River, but the legends of the shantymen had not been forgotten—by then, many of them were old men. Many of the lumbermen of Fred’s era, like Joe Handley and John Carew still were larger than life characters. Many farmers still did go to the woods to work for the winter, just it was on their own farms, with their families, rather than a gang of adventurous young men.

“Fred had one of the first chainsaws in our area,” Arlan recalls. “It was a two-man unit. Chainsaws then were very heavy. One man could lift it but you couldn’t handle it on your own. It had a great long bar on it, and there was a handle on the end of the bar, which the second man would hold. When those saws first came out, you couldn’t turn them on their side—they wouldn’t run. It was not that long until they came out with a chainsaw that one man could operate, and that you could turn on its side. When Bruce was a kid, they would have been using horses to skid out the logs, then his Dad bought his first tractor around 1954 or 1955.”

“Bruce went to Howie’s School over on Hilyer’s Road,” Arland recounts. “When the time came to go to high school, I was ahead of him in school, and there was not a school bus that came around the neighbourhood. The Prescotts drove their car into Bobcaygeon to meet the school bus. Later on there were school buses on the country roads—but that was quite a while later. His mom drove the bus to Howie’s School and Burnt River Public School for years—it started out as her station wagon car. Helen Devitt ran a bus too.”

“We became close friends in High School,” Wayne recalls. “Bruce was really into weight lifting—you know how he was built. When he was in high school there was no tummy! He spent a lot of time weight lifting and enjoyed floor hockey. Every now and again we would go skating in winter. On his first time there, Bruce took a spill, hit the boards and broke his collarbone. He was laid up for a while. But Bruce was always tough, he carried on through a lot of injuries over the course of his life.”

“I don’t think he really enjoyed school… classes like French and Science” Arlan explains. “But I am sure that when he was in shop class that was fine. When he got out of school, he went to work as a welder for Sylvester’s in Lindsay, and still helped his dad in the bush.” Sylvester’s had been well known as a farm machinery manufacturer, but by mid twentieth century, the company was associated with hand cars for railways. Wayne continues, “he was a great welder, and went to work for Shaft Machines in Lindsay. They built big buckets for mining equipment.” For a while he also worked for Bob Thompson, who operated a gravel pit south of Bobcaygeon (now Victoria Place) helping him with his equipment. As a young man, Bruce, the son of a blacksmith, sawmiller, and farmer, was a chip off the old block.

As he was working with his dad in the bush and in the mill he took an interest in the other sawmills in the area. Some of his neighbours had gone to work for Hartland Junkin, whose circular sawmill was across from Bethel Church on Verulam’s 2nd Concession (now Patterson Road, north of Red Rock Road). A young Finn named Ed Seppela worked for Hartland as a grader. Having operated the mill for many years, he sold it to a cousin, Gerald Junkin, around 1964 or 1965. Gerald moved the mill to Nogies Creek (now Confederation Log Homes) and also operated a smaller portable mill, built on a tractor trailer bed, that was good for cutting rail ties—but it was a little rough for cutting lumber.

Gerald Junkin was a larger than life personality—few people who knew him would ever forget him. “He was smart in every way,” Wayne recalls. He is remembered as someone who often found a different way to do things, “and he was very dramatic and he was excitable. He had a high pitched voice, that would get higher when he was excited or if something went wrong.” Gerald lived in an era when many of his neighbours had their own unique phrases, and Gerald’s were often evocative. “They would be sawing, and when a nice 8/4 [2 inch] board would fall of the side, he would say, ‘Oh jeez, there’s a real mortgage lifter there!’” Another business associate remembered going to the Bobcaygeon’s butcher shop, where Gerald would ask, “Could you bandsaw me off a steak?”

Gerald was an energetic man, who was looking to move onto something new after a few years in the lumber business. Ed Seppela, who had long worked at the mill as a grader and Bruce Telford agreed to partner so they could buy it in 1972. Gerald used the money to buy a farm at Lakehurst, then bought a feed lot near Lindsay. Bruce, being a lumberjack at heart, would look after felling the trees and operating or supervising the mill. Ed was the grader and salesman.

“Ed was very friendly,” Arlan recalls. “He had the gift of the gab. He also had contacts in the lumber business all over the province. He was the one who was able to pick up all these lumber contracts.” As much as Bruce was someone who loved life, Ed knew how to have fun too. “We went to his cottage once,” Marylou says. “He had a sauna that was right by the lake. The one thing I remember about him, is seeing him come barreling right out of there into the lake.” Wayne recalls how “he had some neat saying like, ‘Well at my questionable age…’”

“Bruce would cut his own trees for the mill,” Wayne explains. “And he went around to buy bushes. He usually cut in the immediate area, mostly right around Bobcaygeon. Some were as far away as Cambray or Peterborough, and one in Kaladar was the furthest away that I knew of.” Robert continues, “Bruce partnered up with Ted Pollock, Fred Anderson, and Garnet Harrison to buy 800 acres, called Ties Mountain [North of Highway 36 between Bobcaygeon and Buckhorn]. The purchased it for a logging and hunting. A hunting camp was built there, it was more like a house. A great place to drop in and have a visit, a good meal and a game of cards.” For his whole life, Bruce enjoyed hunting and fishing.

Bruce had four chainsaws—and they were all top-of-the-line models. In the 1970s, he was running Homelite 920, later in life Stihl 440. He needed four chainsaws, because there would be 2 or 3 men cutting, then they would use the skidder to pull out the trunks at full length, and another was needed at the landing to cut them into logs, before using a crawler to load them on the truck. It was never a bad idea to have a spare in case one broke down. Arland narrates, “I cut a few winters at Ties Mountain for him. When I was there, I was cutting, Claude was skidding, and Bruce was working at the mill.” Robert sometimes went to the woods to run the skidder. “He always had a drink at the end of the day,” Janice recalls. He enjoyed Crown Royal. In many ways he was an old school lumberjack.

As Bruce had spent so many hours in the woods, dating back to when he was a kid, “he was great at controlling how a tree fell,” Buck explains. “One time I remember him telling me to stand back, because he said the tree is going to kick out 20 feet. He picked something up, placed it on the ground and said it was going to stop right there…. And it did!” Bruce would often say that he could look at a tree, and know what the lumber it would make would be like.

Much of the time Bruce was the sawyer at the mill, typically working with a cigarette in his mouth. For a period, he employed Don Fell or Garnie Rutter to run the mill, while he worked in the woods. “Bruce could look at a log and see how to get the most and the best lumber out of it,” Wayne observes. “He could probably get more good lumber out of a log than anybody else.” Robert Prescott worked at the trimmer, which cut the boards to length. They used an edger to cut them to width. Morris Anderson was a long-time employee at the mill, and it took 6 or 7 men to run it. Ed inspected and graded the lumber. The mill ran year round, cutting about 8 or 9,000 feet per day. “We played cards on coffee break, and sometimes forgot to look at the clock,” Robert recalls.

Taking advantage of Ed’s contacts all over the province, Telford and Seppela sold rough sawn, green lumber (they did not have a kiln) to many large dealers around the province. The mill mostly cut hardwoods, but also a little bit of pine. Wayne trucked the lifts to Oliver Lumber (Toronto), Peacock (Oshawa), Monaghan (Peterborough), Attridge (Aurora), Elora Furniture and Hanover Furniture. “I don’t remember him having any problems with his product,” Wayne observes. “It seemed like everything they produced was pretty good. A lot of it was used for manufacturing—either flooring or furniture. It was a time when there was manufacturing in Ontario, it was not all offshore.” Bruce would often say “There never was a more honest lumberman than Clair Peacock.” But he would also tell the story of the time that he sold lumber to Peacock’s then realized that he needed some of it for his own use, and how much more expensive it was to buy it back.

Eddie Seppela was originally from Toronto, and one of his friends was Ernie Coombs, AKA Mr. Dressup. They were looking to film a show that would teach viewers how a sawmill worked, and Ed was happy to help. “Ernie stayed at the mill through the week they were filming,” Wayne recounts. “There were living quarters there—he stayed with some of the crew from CBC. When I went down to grease my truck on the weekend, my kids went with me. He was in the room where he slept, and they were excited that they got the chance to go in and see him.” It was fitting that Mr. Dressup came to the Telford and Seppela mill to teach kids about sawing, because Bruce loved children.

In 1981, Fred passed away, and about two years later Ed was looking to retire from the partnership. “The lumber business is like a lot of other things,” Arlan explains. “It has its ups and downs.” By the 1980s, things were becoming harder, as every year there was less and less wooden manufacturing in Ontario. Hartland Junkin’s old mill had run for decades, and was getting worn out. When Ed retired, Bruce returned to the family farm, and bought a Wood-Mizer band saw mill, which operated at the same site where his father’s mill had been. “It was not on the same scale. Maybe the mill wouldn’t run for a week or two, as they were out in the bush getting out logs.” It became a one- or two-person operation. Bruce seemed to be happy to have a more modern, band saw. He still had an edger and trimmer, and used an old yellow forklift to move the lifts around his yard. Robert Prescott continued to work with him, and in later his neighbour Wayne Morris worked there for many years. Kim Cowen (Prescott) graded and scaled the lumber for him.

Returning home, he had more time for farming, and would spend the summer cutting hay—for himself, and custom work for his neighbours. “He loved Charolais cattle as he main herd,” Robert explains. He once “teamed up with Barry Crowe on a 100 cow and calf adventure. He loved to go to the Woodville sale barn, buying and selling. His brother, Martin, used to tease Bruce, ‘buy high, sell low.’” Bruce added lean-tos on both sides of the barn at his farm.

While he was farming, Bruce had a couple of terrible accidents. While at the Woodville sale barn, he got knocked down by a cow, and again at his own farm. But Bruce was as tough as they come—after the first accident, he couldn’t stand the cast he was fitted with, so he tore it off himself. “His arm was never the same after,” Arlan observes, but it certainly did not stop Bruce from working.

“He was the greatest guy for helping anyone else,” Wayne recalls. “Him and I, even away from the sawmill, we worked together farming. I cut hay for him, he cut hay for me. He was so good natured, he would help anyone. When my son built his log house, he didn’t buy the logs from Bruce. But when there was one big timber that he was missing he called Bruce. Bruce went out in the woods, found the right tree, and probably didn’t charge half of what it was worth. When my son was short of lumber, Bruce drove to Bancroft to get enough lumber to finish it. He would do anything he could to help. Bruce’s Dad was like that too. He was good natured and would help anyone, and so was his mother. His laugh was just like his dad.”

I once called Bruce to ask if he had a timber that I needed to support the roof in part of my house. He didn’t have exactly what I needed, but he got right in his truck, drove to Gooderham and bought it from M.W. Hunter Lumber, delivered it and charged me $60. “He didn’t factor in the cost of gas on that sale,” Arlan remarks. I often felt guilty buying lumber from him because he didn’t charge enough. “He would always make sure that his lumber was over and above what he graded it,” Wayne notes. “He would not want to be putting material through that was not what he said it was.”

Bruce was a very trusting person. When customers went to the mill, he would happily sell lumber, and often wouldn’t say anything about payment—even as the customer was ready to drive away with a truck load of lumber. As a customer, there was often no sense that he was remembering what you were buying, nor marking it down. “Maybe he would go back in the mill and mark it on the wall,” Wayne says. He told me, to come, take whatever you need and just keep track of it. “If anyone every didn’t have the money, he would just say ‘It’s OK, don’t worry about it,’” Marylou notes. “He was too good natured,” Arlan adds.

“It was hard to get him to collect,” Janice recounts. As a customer, you had to be very clear, often asking several times for him to tell you how much you owed. “That was Bruce,” Marylou says. “He did not want to pressure people to pay. And some people took advantage of him.” Later in life, he would remember the thousands of dollars’ worth of material that was never paid for, and I think he was a little hurt that some people never came back to pay. “When you did pay him, he would just roll up the money and put it in his shirt pocket,” Wayne notes. “It might be a lot of money, say $1000. And you would wonder if it would make it home.”

Bruce would remember the trees that he could, and could tell you about where the trees came from for the lumber you were purchasing. In a close-knit community like Bobcaygeon or Bury’s Green, it made his lumber more meaningful. When the Bobcaygeon Fair called him to cut the trees that were growing at the fairgrounds, Bruce remembered where they came from, and John Falls made a harvest table for the fair board office that truly belonged there.

If you ever asked Bruce, “How are you doing?,” he would answer the question honestly—and, later in life, the news was often grim. Many people were not expecting to hear the unvarnished truth—and would be a bit taken aback when he explained in detail how bad things had gotten. His diabetes became terrible, he drove himself to dialysis three days a week, always going to Stop 4 Variety on the way to buy scratch tickets. At times he had gout so badly he could not get his boots on. He would often say, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” Arlan explains, “he was here for a good time, not a long time.” But no matter how bad things got, Bruce kept working. He loved working at the mill and felling trees in the woods. He was truly happy operating his Wood-Mizer mill.

One day, when Bruce was cutting trees on the farm, as he had done since he was a boy, something went wrong. This time, the man who knew exactly where a tree was going to fall and exactly how it would kick back, was struck. Pinned under the tree, he used his saw to cut himself free, then crawled into the tractor to drive himself back up to the house. His leg was broken so badly that the bone was sticking out, but “it didn’t phase him,” Marylou remembers. “He just said ‘I think I broke my leg.’”

Though things became harder for him after this last accident, nothing would stop Bruce from working at the mill. He would literally work until the day he died in 2012. “That day, some people came with a humongous tree to saw,” Marylou remembers. It was a elm log, three and a half feet across. Claude Goodhand and Arlan helped unload it, and when Claude went back to the house, Bruce was almost gone. It was the last, great log that would never be sawed, “I had to call them and tell them it was not going to happen.”

For everything that Bruce went through over the years, Janice and Buck (sister and brother-in-law) agree, “I never saw him when he was sad. He was always very happy go lucky.” Arlan adds, “just sometimes his luck didn’t last.” It seemed that Bruce knew everyone in the surrounding country, and he loved to play euchre. He loved spending time with kids, especially his family. “My middle and youngest boys both worked for him at the mill. He was very good to take the time to show them how to do the job.” His dad had the same patience.

Bruce’s friends would often gather in the farmhouse kitchen for “Church” on Sunday morning. He never locked the door of his house, and his friends would come right in, and make themselves at home. He loved the time that he spent with his friends, hunting at the lodge on Ties Mountain or at another cabin on Hawk Lake. As a younger adult, he enjoyed going to the Lakeview Dance Hall. He was always interested in the fall fair and the horse pull. He really enjoyed swimming, as at Black Duck Lake.

Wherever Bruce went it seemed to be an adventure. He would often say, “Let’s go on a road trip,” whether it was to visit Fred Elmhurst in Keene, Bob Parker in Haliburton, Bruce Webster in Little Britain, or to Wood-Mizer to pick up new blades for the mill. Arlan remembers, “one night I was driving him home in his old Dodge car. We dropped Hugh Britton off, and as we were between Johnnie and Vic Coulter’s, we ran out of gas. He was asleep in the passenger seat. Holy Cripes it was cold. I said, ‘I guess we are walking,’ and we walked to his Bruce’s house. He had a big pair of winter boots on, and I didn’t notice until we got home that he had them on the wrong feet.”

To the end of his days, Bruce was a farmer and a lumberjack, who somehow, whatever happened, found a way to be his cheery, happy self. He worked in an era when not many people were making a living with a sawmill. From a community that was once home to Mossom Boyd, one of Canada’s most famous timber barons, it may be that Bruce Telford will be the village’s last miller to make a living producing wholesale lumber. It might be said that he was Bobcaygeon’s last true lumberjack. In many ways he was a hard working, hard living lumberjack from ages past, complete with a lighthearted, salt of the earth personality. “Probably the first thing that people would think about with Bruce, is him being jolly, and his laugh,” Marylou explains, having been married to him for 27 years. She knows well that there never was a dull moment when you were with Bruce Telford.

This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you: curator@maryboro.ca

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