Ch.13 Jobs



This heading could be ‘employment’ but much of the work I did over the years was fairly mundane – “jobs” to be sure.

Earlier I talked about my first real job – i.e. one for which I got paid – was driving the tractor cultivating Uncle Walter Smith’s summer fallow fields. That doesn’t take into consideration earlier entrepreneurship, remedy the gopher tail bounty money, pharm of course. After grade 12, I stayed for the harvest of 1949 and then took the train north to the mining town of Flin Flon. The highway to Flin Flon was not completed at that time. My cousin, Maurice Smith and friend Howard Elkington accompanied me. They were a bit older, bigger, and got jobs right away. I was not quite 18 and the “company” (Hudson’s Bay Mining and Smelting Company – H.B.M.& S.) wasn’t keen to hire a skinny kid like me. So I got a job with a Mr. Belanger who, with his mentally-challenged son Louie (guess what his nickname was), had a small John Deere tractor and saw rig that went from one home to another sawing wood – mostly slabs – in people’s backyards. There was no natural gas for home heating in those days, heating oil was (relatively) expensive and electric heating wasn’t yet common. So people heated their homes – and many cooked – with wood. I already had applied for, and been accepted, for a job with Midwest Diamond Drilling Co., but their drilling was exploratory and often on the ice of a lake. Ice didn’t form until December – at least ice thick enough to support a drill rig. I became a “helper” on a rig on Birch Lake, about 15 miles west of Flin Flon – in Saskatchewan, actually. There was no road to Birch Lake off the Beaver Lake main road – just a path through the snow on the ice. The camp consisted of a cook tent, where the cook did his thing and we came to eat plus two wood-walled tents for the men, heated with a tin stove in the middle of the floor. My drilling companions were tough, older guys and I soon learned the “rules of the bush”. My first lesson was to limit conversation to terse requests like “pass the salt” in the dining tent. I guess meal times were places – and times – when grievances might boil over and fights could start. So – no talking. I got 64 cents an hour and shifts were 12 hours a day. We worked 7 days a week. The bathroom was a peeled pole over a hole in the ground some distance from the camp in the bush – no roof or walls. One morning all the mercury was in the bulb at the bottom of the thermometer nailed to a tree outside our tent. That was probably one of the many days when there would be frost on the blanket at a spot where I had been breathing all night. That thermometer went down to minus 50 degrees F. How much colder  was anyone’s guess. All I know is that the mercury was staying in the bulb at the bottom. We worked all day. As a helper my job was to climb up onto a small platform above the very noisy air-cooled Wisconsin drill rig motor and, after a 10 ft core barrel had been drilled and filled, to use a pair of pipe wrenches to loosen, disassemble, and stack the 10 ft lengths of drill pipe. Not a big job when the drill hole was only at the 150 ft level. But some of the holes went to 1000 ft, so it could be a demanding job. The heat from the engine and the shrouding around the drill, the driller and me, kept things comfortable enough, other than when I was up on top “pulling rods”. We carefully took the cored rock out of the drill barrel and placed it in specially grooved wooden boxes to be analyzed by the geologist back at camp.

I remember coming into Flin Flon from Birch Lake for Christmas. That was December of 1949 – the year automobile body styling changed so dramatically. I got a ride in a new ’49 Ford taxi and can remember how impressed I was with the “new look” in cars.

But back to diamond drilling. Diamond drilling consisted of drilling a 11⁄2 inch hole through solid rock with a diamond studded bit in order to get a picture of the minerals that lay below. At Birch Lake there was 100 ft of water under the ice, and then a thick layer of sediment (“loon shit” as it was called) before we started to drill into the pre-Cambrian rock. Years later I returned to Birch Lake. They had put up a head frame, mined the high grade copper, zinc and gold, closed the mine, removed the head frame and nature had started to take over. I worked at Birch Lake until March of 1950 when I got an infected thumb and finger and spent a week in the Flin Flon General Hospital. Then back to the farm at Oak Lake before starting university in the fall.

In 1951, after 2nd year (grade 12 was considered 1st year), I travelled to a summer job with the Giroday Logging Company on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. Gordon Newton was there, too. I was a chokerman; he was a whistle punk. My job was to place steel cables around huge Douglas fir tree sections already felled and bucked into lengths, then get out of the way while these sections were hauled up the slope and loaded onto logging trucks for the perilous journey down the mountain to the ocean. The wood was then boomed up and hauled by tugboats to mills to be made into lumber. Gordon’s job was to signal the engineer with a special kind of corded horn device so that he (the engineer) could throttle up the big donkey engine and haul in the logs to the landing for loading. After 2nd year university and before we started 3rd year, we “Aggies” were required to produce an insect collection for Entomology 301. Hardly anyone did, of course, and satisfied requirements by buying a collection from a previous student. (Some of the bugs got pretty sad looking!). So, in the logging camp on Vancouver Island that summer of 1951, I could be seen running through the woods with a butterfly net collecting specimens. This did nothing for my status in this camp of rough and ready loggers.

Forest fires put us out of Elk Bay after 2 months. I was then flown out to Tahsis on the Island’s West Coast – another logging camp – but that only lasted 3 days, when forest fires stopped operations there as well. For the balance of the summer and for several summers prior to that, actually, I worked for Commonwealth Construction Company servicing road packing equipment with fuel and lubricants as the Trans Canada Highway was being improved west of Brandon and in the Virden/Elkhorn part of the province.

I always enjoyed the town of Flin Flon and in the summers of 1952 and ’53 I returned to work – underground – for Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting. I remember seeing, as I stood in line to sign up for work the first day at mine headquarters, a letter from H.B.M. & S. to Midwest Diamond Drilling – checking me out, I guess, as I had used Midwest as a reference. “Good boy!” someone at Midwest had scrawled across the letter before returning it. I enjoyed working underground. It wasn’t as dank and dangerous as you would think. Hallways were, for the most part, wide and the main ones well lit. We had battery-powered lamps on our hard hats; without that lamp you couldn’t see very far in some of the mine’s narrower spots.

The 390 foot level had permanent ice where it opened onto the bottom of the open pit mine dug and blasted out many years before. I worked as a lowly “mucker”, mostly at the 650 and 1170 foot levels. I think I earned $1.35 an hour. The main ore body at Flin Flon ran from (almost) the surface east of the North Main head frame down and across the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border about a mile to South Main shaft, where the mine bottomed out at 2210 ft. It was warm down there. One of the underground survey crew was ill, so I got the job for part of the summer of 1952. It was interesting work, drilling a hole in the rock ceiling, pounding in a wooden plug with a hook attached, and sighting with the transit on a plumb bob string hanging down from the hook. In the afternoons (no night shift) we plotted on maps the surveying we had done in the morning. 

There were lots of summer students working at Flin Flon and we partied out at lake cottages on those long summer evenings and on weekends. Playing ball for the Flin Flon “Miners” baseball team was a bonus. In 2008, H.B.M. & S. paid huge bonuses to all its Flin Flon employees, as the company racked up embarrassingly huge profits with top prices for copper and zinc – a temporary situation as it turned out (in 2009).

I worked on the home farm with my brother Lyman the summer of 1954. That year should have been my graduating year but I had a couple of subjects – Economics 201 being the major stumbling block – to make up. So I had a fairly easy final year at the University of Manitoba. 

After graduation in the spring of 1955 I travelled to Alberta and took a job in irrigation development work with the Province of Alberta. Although I had had some surveying experience (underground in Flin Flon), I was happy to have a knowledgeable assistant assigned to me. We determined where to “cut and fill” low lying areas in farmers’ fields to facilitate flood irrigation. We worked mostly east of Taber in the southern part of the province, directing the slicing off of the top of a knoll and spreading that soil in a low spot. It leveled the field but left the yellow clay exposed on the knoll – all this done with a D-7 Cat and scraper. That yellow clay was unlikely to grow much of a crop. The practice is rarely done now.

In the mid-summer of 1955 I chose to leave Alberta and return to a position offered to me in Holland, Manitoba as an Agricultural Representative for the Manitoba Department of Agriculture in the south central part of the province. My annual (not monthly) salary was to be – in 1955 – $3,480). When I look back I realize how ill-prepared I really was for that job. My knowledge was book knowledge and I really hadn’t been an outstanding student at University. It would have been much better had I grown up and worked on a modern (for the times), larger farm. One such Ag Grad came along a few Ag Reps later to the Holland office and he was really effective. Still, I muddled through and look back to the Soil Conservation Clubs I set up and the 4-H Club work, too, with satisfaction. I wasn’t yet married and boarded with Vera Jamieson, a recently widowed, older woman.

In 1958 I asked to be allowed to go to the University of Wisconsin for graduate studies. A number of my Department colleagues had already done so and Helgi Austman, our Director of Extension, had received his Ph.D. in Extension Education from Wisconsin. 

Joy and I were married on September 6th, 1958, after I was required to spend three summer months at the University of Wisconsin to see if I could handle the course work (my undergrad marks hadn’t been great!). Two As and a B+ in three courses ensured that I could continue. Joy and I set up house at 111 Ash Street in Madison, Wisconsin, the beautiful home of a Mr. Meagher, an eccentric wealthy widower who we agreed to keep house for in exchange for no rent. Good deal – especially with Joy being such a good cook. (She did singe her eyebrows in her first attempt to use the new-to-her gas oven!) I did well at the University, received a M.Sc. in Extension Education and we returned to Manitoba via B.C. in July of 1959. I didn’t go back to my old job as Ag Rep but joined Vern McNair in the Manitoba Department of Agriculture’s newly formed Radio and Information Branch in Winnipeg. Vern had had a few years with CBC’s Farm Department in Winnipeg after serving in Carberry as Agricultural Representative. He returned to the Department to form this new Branch. I worked with Vern in Winnipeg from 1959 until 1972 when I moved to the Agricultural Extension Centre in Brandon.

Without going into too much detail, my work with Vern, Jack Giles, Boyd Solnes and others over the years included writing and editing agricultural bulletins and other publications, and interviewing and recording 5 minute taped items for a program called Country Comment. Recorded on 5 inch reels, these items (5 to a reel) were mailed out to 5 rural stations – 4 in Manitoba and Yorkton, Saskatchewan’s CJGX. As well, we produced several 20 minute black and white and colour 16 mm films – Fresh for Flavour for the Vegetable Growers’ Association of Manitoba, Our Farm Business for the Diploma Course in Agriculture, The Winnipeg Floodway, plus others. Sadly, we never kept any examples of these early extension activities now so out of date, both in content and format.

In 1969, as Manitoba’s Centennial year (1970) was approaching, I was seconded from Manitoba Agriculture to serve as Director of Communications for the Manitoba Centennial Corporation. On this 100th birthday, communities across the province celebrated with hundreds of diverse projects. Our job was to encourage, publicize and fund these projects. Even small communities did amazing things and there was a terrific groundswell of pride in our heritage. My office was in the lower level of Winnipeg’s (then) new Centennial Concert Hall. Staff consisted of (mostly) high school and university students and they did a marvelous job. I recall the oldest family-owned farm project – one that the top PR guy from Shell Oil (in Manitoba) and I came up with. The final winner was the Hourie family from Portage la Prairie, whose ancestors had homesteaded their Assiniboine River lot in the 1860s. There were older farms in the province, but none that had always been owned by the same family group. Today there are hundreds of these “Century Farms” signs proudly displayed – more every year – at the gates of Manitoba farms.

We were always on the lookout for good stories for our monthly Manitoba 70 newsletter. I was told by someone that an old man from Minnedosa had a special story to tell. He was 99 year old Bob McQuarrie and he was blind and very deaf. He had grown up around Blythe, Ontario and in 1881 as an eleven year old was taken by his father to see Prime Minister John A. McDonald whistle stopping on the train in an election year. The father thrust out his hand as John A. came down the Blythe station platform. “Shake a good Grit hand!” said the staunchly Liberal senior McQuarrie. “Not possible”, quipped John A. “Too honest a face!” Eleven year old Bob shook hands with the Prime Minister as did his father and John A. moved on. So I asked Mr. McQuarrie if I could shake his hand. I did, and so I can say, if anyone wants to know, that if they shake my hand they can say that they “shook the hand of the man who shook the hand of the man who shook the hand of Canada’s first Prime Minister!”

I returned to my job with Manitoba Agriculture in the Norquay Building in Winnipeg in the fall of 1970. In late 1971 we moved to Brandon. The Department of Agriculture was regionalizing and I was one of the first Winnipeg-based staff to move. By this time we were providing regular content for a weekly television program on CKX-TV Brandon called Agriviews, so I provided some of the film footage and other content, including doing some live on-air studio interviewing for that half hour. Later on, colleague Boyd Solnes moved to the North West region and he and I worked together, interviewing and being cameraman – alternatively – to provide 16 mm colour film footage for both Agriviews and a Yorkton (Saskatchewan)-based TV farm program. I also provided taped radio items for Vern McNair back in Winnipeg.

After a one year (1978-79) stint with the United Nations (FAO) in Washington, D.C. we returned to Brandon where I was fortunate to be offered the job of Principal of the Agricultural Extension Centre. As Principal, I was responsible for organizing adult education courses – mostly one day sessions – for men and women who farmed. My communications experience was useful here and many of the research scientists – and farmers – were interviewed by me for radio and television spots. 

Joy and I, in the early ’80s, guided several groups of rural leaders through a series of leadership/political experiences via the Manitoba Rural Leadership Training Committee. Local, provincial (Winnipeg), federal (Ottawa) and international (Washington) situations were explored. Some “graduates” of this program went on to bigger and better things in later years. (e.g. Merv Tweed, Member of Parliament for the Brandon-Souris constituency).

I held the job of Principal of the Ag. Centre from 1979 to 1988, when I retired. I was 58 years old. 

So that’s my work, in a nutshell. Thirty three years – and though I loved the work, I never missed it for a moment once I retired. Keeping up Gwenmar – our 5 acre place North West of Brandon – kept me too busy to think about the old job and we were in the middle of a 17 year stint of Bed and Breakfast hosting. And then there were the overseas assignments….