By Robert Mackenzie
Published: July 4 2017
Malcolm Cockwell is giving me a tour of Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve’s sawmill. We’re dodging puddles as we walk through a muddy yard packed with stacks of chopped down trees organized by species although Cockwell Haliburton Forest’s managing director says this is nothing compared to how packed it will be in a month or so – a wet and rainy spring has delayed the start of their summer logging operation.
Sitting on roughly 20 acres Cockwell says that Haliburton Forest’s sawmill is the largest operation of its kind left in the county. They produce about 20000 board feet of lumber per day – a pile the size of a school bus according to Cockwell – mostly made up of hardwood that is used in furniture and palettes.
He takes me through the mill doing his best to explain how the machines specific saw blades and production cycle work although I struggle to retain much beyond the self-explanatory debarking process. I’m here to get a contemporary look at logging in Haliburton. Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve has one of the few sawmills still operating in the county but at the turn of the 20th century it would’ve been one of dozens of similar operations.
In many ways Haliburton is a county built on the logging industry. Logging provided settlers with work and money and created a need for all the different small businesses that a working-class require. Along with that many of the county’s roads were originally made so trucks could access the different mills. As Dysart celebrates its 150th anniversary it’s tough to imagine if the county would’ve been able to survive and grow to its current status if it weren’t for its logging history.
According to Kim Emmerson the owner of Emmerson Lumber whose family ran a lumber mill in the 1940s early settlers first came to Haliburton in hopes of farming however they quickly found the land here wasn’t ideal for a farming operation.
“Most of the land was hilly wooded or lakes rock and it was not suitable [for farming]” Emmerson says. “Over the years the area transitioned from the agricultural objective to logging because the logging companies could see that there was profit to be made.”
Emmerson says logging in the county really began to take off in the late 19th century. Haliburton had big white pines which were in high demand at the time. After logging the east coast Quebec and Ottawa valley for the lumber Haliburton was the loggers’ next destination.
Once the railway came to Haliburton lumber mills began to blossom. “The railway arrived and with it [loggers] could bring heavy items like saws and steel parts to build mills” Emmerson says. “Lumber mills started to pop up all over the place so rather than having to drive the logs far distances like to Bobcaygeon you could mill them locally.”
These local operations helped develop some small businesses within the county. “The logging spurs all the commerce” Emmerson says. He explains that once a logging company came to town they required food accommodation a blacksmith horses a bank drugstore and other necessities from the community.
While the mills may have sparked a community’s economy conditions for those working in the mills was tough. Workers lived in shanties in the bush and were away from their families for long periods of time. Emmerson says a lot of locals farmed in the summers and worked in the mills during the winter while some loggers came from as far as Quebec to work during the winter months.
Today the working environment in a sawmill is vastly different. Most employees at Haliburton Forest’s mill have completed a university degree in forestry. “What you don’t have is an army of farm boys who are available every winter to come work at the mill and come work in the bush and do logging. Now we have professional loggers” says Cockwell 29 who has a degree in forest conservation from the University of Toronto and is currently working on a PhD there in forestry. “You’ve got highly trained foresters that spend at least four years of their time being educated at a university institution…then you have a professional body the professional foresters association that’s making sure that they’re up to scratch.”
As the industry’s working conditions have improved and grown over the years so too has the focus on the environmental concerns of logging.“These are guys that are highly trained both in terms of the safety and environmental impact of the work that they’re doing. You don’t have people calling themselves foresters that are just going out with a survey stick and sort of evaluating a stand” Cockwell adds.
In many ways logging in Haliburton today is a completely different operation than what it once was. In particular any environmental efforts made today are an element that was pretty much nonexistent in the early days of logging something which ultimately led to a decline in the industry.
Back in the late 19th century loggers cleared the area of white pine. Cockwell estimates that the softwood would have accounted for about 80 per cent of what they harvested in those days compared to less than one per cent today. In fact Haliburton Forest doesn’t cut down any white pine they only harvest those that have fallen or blown over on their property.
Since the companies were mainly harvesting softwood hardwood would often be cleared and wasted. Haliburton Highlands Museum curator Steve Hill remembers his former boss Robert Carver had a diary he kept from his grandma where she wrote about cutting down all the hardwood trees and skidding them into the middle of a field and putting a match to them.
Cockwell says that the environment is something the industry now puts a lot of effort into sustaining. “There were no environmental concerns. There would have been no concern given to how wastes were dealt with or waste oil coming out of the machinery or how the forest was being managed” he says. “Now we spend more time thinking about how to sustainably manage the forest than we do how to make money out of the wood that we’re harvesting.”
While focusing on environmental issues like regeneration efficiency and invasive species helps Haliburton’s logging industry develop it’s unlikely it will ever return to as prominent a role as it played in the early days of Dysart et al.
As Emmerson explains Haliburton’s economy has “transitioned from agriculture to logging to what I call recreation or cottaging. That’s basically the way the community has gone.”
Back at the Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve Emmerson’s words ring particularly true. As one of the last stops on our tour Cockwell takes me to the Forest’s base camp which used to be home to a sawmill abandoned in the mid 20th century because of a lack of wood.
The cabins that used to accommodate sawmill workers are now being used to accommodate tourists and visitors coming to the Forest to participate in outdoor activities and explore the wilderness.
“The economy has diversified so much in this area that there’s a greater focus on tourism and related activities than there is on raw material processing” Cockwell says. “That’s not a bad thing it’s just been sort of a shift…the whole dynamic has changed quite a bit.”