Up the Gatineau! Article

This article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 24.

Sully’s Mill, the Backbone of Wakefield Village

Ernie Mahoney

Talk to any of the old-limers around Wakefield about the days gone by and inevitably they get around to mentioning T. A. Bernard Sully and his big lumber and planing mill. The mill was the mainstay of the local economy from 1914 until it closed in 1970. “Taby,” as he was fondly known, became one of Wakefield's leading businessmen, and is also remembered as a very aclive member of the United Church and a postmaster from the late 1930s until the early 1950s. The Post Office was located in a building next to the United Church. It is now 737 Riverside Drive, a lawyer's office and apartments. Ernie Mahoney

His great-grandfather, Robert Sully, one of the early settlers in the area, established a homestead in the 1830s in Hull Township in the Old Chelsea area. The family moved to the Meech Creek Valley in the 1850s and continued to farm there for more than a century. Bernard's father Newton Sully was one of the first to exploit the new railway, with a sawmill at Sully’s Siding in Venosta by 1898. The operation was moved to Wakefield in 1914. Bernard and his brother Cecil were 16 and 14 years old when they went west to farm in 1902, but an injury during World War I prevented Bernard from returning to farming, and both brothers decided to come back to Wakefield. Their father Newton died tragically in 1931, when a large tree fell on him, breaking his back while he was sheltering from a violent windstorm in the Meech Creelk Valley. Bernard, who had been active in the operation of the business, then took over running the mill and never looked back.

The mill was a large complex, located on what is now Sully Road in the “upper” or northern sector of the village, opposite the present-day Alpengruss Motel and Restaurant. The sash and door mill was established in the old tannery at the present sile of the Wakefield Library and one-time fire hall on Valley Drive. It used finished wood from the main mill to manufacture sashes and doors. The mill was largely supplied from local wood lots and shipped rough and dressed lumber to points in Ontario and Quebee, as well as selling locally. There were 10 or 12 men employed at the height of the winter season. A bunk house was provided for the men who did not live close to the mill. The late Arthur Ferguson Brown, who lived at Kirk’s Ferry, said in an interview some years ago that back in the 1930s he went to work for his uncle Bernard Sully at the mill with his team of horses for $1 a day and cooked for himself at the bunk house.

The mill was first powered by a steam engine that ran on the sawdust and slab wood generated by the operation. The fireman was the first person to arrive at the mill at 5:00 a.m., to get the steam up for the seven o'clock shift. One conveyor belt fed sawdust directly to the boiler and another took the rest out to big piles in the yard.

One of the main dangers at the mill was the threat of fire. Although the mill engine had a high smoke-stack, the workers were always on the lookout for sparks thal might set fire to the sawdust piles or the stacked lumber. The mill did in fact burn in 1924 and again in 1934. Improvements to its fire safety were added with each rebuilding.

The mill was powered with great rubber and fabric belts that connected from the steam engine to the various saws. One of the jobs assigned to a younger man was to “tail the big saw,” or remove the slab wood as it accumulated from the cutting process. Another job was manning the butting saw that cut knots from the boards and removed other blemishes from the sawn lumber. The sawyer had one of the most important jobs in the mill. Bernard's brother Cecil held this position as he knew his wood and was able to get the best out of each log with as little waste as possible.

Once the logs were cut into lumber, it had to be piled correctly. Each row had to overlap one quarter of an inch to keep the rain out. Piles were sometimes 20 feet high. Sully was very fussy about this, said his nephew Bert Sully some years ago. If they weren't piled right, they had to come down and be redone.

The mill bought hemlock, poplar, clear basswood, spruce and pine to produce one-inch siding and two-by-fours, and all other popular sizes of the day. Hemlock was used in the production of railway ties. These were loaded into boxcars, or, in later years, shipped to their destination by truck. In fact, Bernard Sully was a smart enough businessman to have a company-owned three-ton truck that could carry 125 ties at a time down to the old CPR yards on Broad Street in the Lebreton Flats area of Ottawa.

A constant stream of wagons arrived to load up at the sawdust piles. The sawdust was commonly used in icehouses to keep the ice from melting during the heat of summer, and in house-building to provide a form of insulation in cavity walls. It was also used for heating.

The mill was a mainstay for the local economy, with farmers from miles around supplementing their meagre incomes by working in the bush on their own lots, or on contract to other owners during the winter and drawing the logs by team and sleigh to the mill. As legend goes, one of the favourite pastimes of the village kids was to hitch rides on the back of the sleds as they made their way slowly along Main Street.

Reg Clarke of Wakefield, now over 90 years old, farmed across the Gatineau River on what is now part of the Cascades Golf Club. He recalls taking logs across the river on bobsleighs near Farm Point and coming up to the mill along River Road. (A load of six big pine logs would sell for $30 cash in the late 1930s and early "40s.) Apparently it was easier to take this route than to use the Gendron Bridge thal was built in 1915, a year after the mill opened. Lorne Shouldice, who grew up on a farm that is now the site of Ski Vorlage, said that he recalls as a youth spreading snow on the bridge deck for logging sleighs to gel their loads across to the mill.

Sully could be a tough employer, and was known far and wide as a prudent businessman who demanded a hard day’s work from his employees. The wages varied a little, but 25 cents an hour was about average. However, late in the Depression years, probably around 1938, the workers went on strike for 35 cents per hour and they won, according to the late Lorne Brown. He thought that $3.50 for a ten-hour day was indeed a princely sum! By the way, the strike took place during the men’s lunch hour so as not to disrupt production at the mill.

Of course, most of the men were seasonal workers, or at best, part-time. One exception to this was Charlie Trempe, who was the right-hand man at the mill and was “on steady,” as the expression gocs. In fact, Sully allowed him to build a house next to the mill with Company wood. The cost of the wood was deducted from his salary. A number of other workers in the mill took advantage of this deal and built houses, still to be seen on the west side of the River Road, to the north of the Alpengruss Motel.

The mill was sold in 1970 and never ran again. Its driving force, Bernard Sully, died on June 7, 1978 at the age of 90. Although the name Sully Road gives visitors an idea of the mill site, it is virtually impossible to locate where one of Wakefield's biggest businesses once stood. The bush has pretty well overgrown the place and the buildings in most part have disappeared. One dilapidated shed can still be seen behind a structure that was built (and never used) as the intended terminus for the Wakeficld Steam Train. From Sully Road, just visible through the underbrush, a pile of old cinder blocks is all that remains of the boiler house. Only a handful of old-timers can still point out the site of Sully's Mill, and under a dozen men are left to recall the glory of the hard work they did there.

Volume 24 table of content.

Return to List of articles