Harry Leaf had a long career at Hammond Cedar, supported his family, and got his son Scott a job there in 1987 that lasted 20 years.
Scott had been travelling, and when he got home, Harry said ‘I got you an interview down at the mill.’
You had to know someone to get a job there.
Scott said he did everything.
“You start at the bottom, and you work your way up,” he said. “But it was a really good job as a kid.”
The mill was woven into the fabric of Hammond.
“Every family had someone at the mill, or knew someone at the mill.”
He worked there when it was owned by B.C. Forest Products, then Fletcher Challenge, and finally Interfor.
He’s got a lot of memories. He had a shift one night in 1994, when the Vancouver Canucks were in a hockey game with a championship on the line. Productivity was not high.
“I remember the night the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup final – guys had smuggled in TV sets and radios,” he said.
The place virtually shut down in those moments at the end of the contest, as the workers watched the fateful game unfold.
“It was a sad moment, but as a Canucks fan you’ve come to expect that.”
A dead sturgeon washed up on a log boom. It was a huge, prehistoric-looking fish. Ugly as it was, it became a political football in the labour environment of the day. First somebody took it to the front steps of the IWA office, then it wound up on the front steps of the mill, he said.
Another time there was a power outage. After waiting an appropriate amount of time, the foreman “called it,” and sent the shift home. They were walking away when the lights came back on. They didn’t stop. Leaf and the crew were crossing the train tracks when they could hear the foreman yelling “Come back!”
“Everybody ran for the parking lot.”
He won’t forget seeing a co-worker lose the tip of his finger, and there were worst accidents.
“It was the most dangerous occupation in B.C. when I started there.”
“I’ve still got all my fingers,” said Leaf. “And most importantly, I still have my hearing.”
He kept his ear protection on, but not everyone did. His father has major hearing loss.
“Those saws sing like a million bees.”
He remembers fishing derbies and company picnics that gave the place a comfortable feel. The man in charge of those fun events was John Ambrosio. For 40 years, ending in his 2005 retirement, he was the first aid attendant, social convener and “the heart of the place” according to Leaf.
Ambrosio said everybody had a small payroll deduction for these events, and the company would match it. They went on ski trips to Hemlock, rented a boat to watch fireworks in English Bay, held their annual picnic in Pitt Meadows, and ran their fishing derby in Mission.
Cedar mills were notoriously a place where you could lose a finger or worse, he said.
“It was a very dangerous place, and we had some fatalities,” said Ambrosio. “But we really tried to keep serious accidents down.”
He moved to Maple Ridge from Port Hardy for the job, and found it a great place to work.
“When I was there I enjoyed myself a lot. Management was good, and the union was good. They had their squabbles, but at the end of the day everyone got along down there.”
Ambrosio wrote a book about the mill, and in his research found there were many families, like the Leafs, where there were multiple generations who worked at the mill.
Despite tough times in the forest industry, he said former workers are surprised to see it about to be shuttered.
“It’s sad. There were threats over the years that they would shut down, but they always persevered,” Ambrosio said. “We’re all sad to see it closing.”
Leaf said 12 years ago when he left, the mill was already struggling. He knows a lot of people who are still there, who will be looking for work.
“I feel sorry for the guys who have been there a long time,” he said.
He went on to be a city councillor, and is now a realtor. He said the property is valuable, and being on the waterfront, he could see it being re-developed into a residential area like Bonson’s Landing.
“Make it a community once again,” he said.