ERIC REILLY CONSTRUCTION

THE CONTRARIAN
ERIC REILLY CONSTRUCTION
Some events have a way of making outsize changes to local history, and one of them was the Eric Reilly Construction Company, who came in 1954 to build the TransCanada highway at Oxdrift.
Part of what made them different was their very young crew, and that they were very open to hiring inexperienced local boys, offering ‘on-the-job’ training and experience. Dryden’s social scene was pretty rough in those days, loaded with single young men with all the construction going on in the mill, Hydro, woods, roads. The only time I ever saw my friend Tommy Potter get excited was in the midst of one of the brawls in Oxdrift Hall parking lot during dances there. Tommy was the strongest guy around, for his size, and usually the most even-tempered. A couple of the combatants started ragging on him, and he lost it – he grabbed the aerial on a car near him, you know the kind, a whip solidly bolted through the front fender of most cars in those days, and ripped it out by the roots, leaving a jagged hole of torn metal, and waved it at his tormentors. They suddenly became a lot less aggressive; sort of like the Fonz intimidating challengers on Happy Days. Don’t know if anyone involved was a Reilly employee, but certainly the Reilly crew added a young man element to Oxdrift social life. They stole the hearts and made wives of quite a number of Oxdrift girls.
I was a skinny undersized 16 year old, so did not make Reilly’s list, but it seems almost all the teenage Oxdrift boys bigger than me were hired by Reilly, along with some Dryden boys and a contingent from Dyment led by Ed Swanson. Our boys learned something about heavy construction and heavy equipment which served them well in later life. They learned how to drive trucks; once they mastered piloting those 4 ton bobtails over the hills from Griffiths pit to Oxdrift, they were skilled truck drivers. This was in the days of unsynchronized transmissions and split axles and double-clutching, when a missed shift might mean an unscheduled trip backwards down the hill and often into the ditch.
There is a famous tale about a Reilly driver (name unknown) on the phone in Fotheringham’s store trying to tell the CPR that his loaded dump truck was stalled on the crossing at Oxdrift so they should stop any trains which might be heading that way. Hearing a train whistle, he told the phone “Forget it”, and went outside to watch the destruction.
Bill Blair recalls Eric Reilly as an older schoolmate at Ochre River, Manitoba, where they grew up – Ochre River is a small farm community east of Dauphin. Bill recalls when he was a boy his father had a threshing outfit which included a steam tractor. He remembers his and Eric’s fathers doing road grading projects with the steam tractor; perhaps the start of Eric being interested in construction.
Eric went away to war, and after the war he ended up on the tractor-train run on Lac Seul. Before there were ‘Ice Road Truckers’, there were ‘Ice Road Tractor-Trains’, consisting of a crawler tractor pulling a train of work sleighs over the frozen lakes. Possibly the biggest Tractor-Train operation in the world was from the railway at Hudson, down Lac Seul toward Ear Falls and on to supply the Red Lake gold fields. This service continued until after the Red Lake Highway was opened in the late 40’s.
Peter Jalkanen lent me an excellent book some years ago which told how the tractor-train idea was invented and perfected by his fellow-Icelanders the Sigfusson family, commercial fishermen on Lake Winnipeg, back in the 20’s and 30’s. Occasionally a tractor would go down through the ice – even the smaller crawlers of that day were pretty heavy. The story that most amazed me was that they were able to retrieve the tractor from the bottom of the lake, have it disassembled enough to get the water out of the engine, and have it running again in as little as 24 hours, all done right there on the ice.
Ochre River is not far from Lake Winnipeg, so it seems at least possible that Eric might have had experience with tractor trains in Manitoba before the war.

In the late 40’s, the country roads through the Dryden District were connected up into a basic highway, pretty much along the route of the present Highway 17. Bill Blair recalls that his friend Eric Reilly worked for Dufferin Construction on that work, on contracts in the Jackfish lake area, and in the Eagle River area, and so gained some local knowledge. This would be summer work, off-season for working the tractor-trains on Lac Seul. After that Eric started his own Company in Kapuskasing, Ontario, hauling wood for Spruce Falls Paper Company, and he invited some of his friends from Ochre River to join him there, including Bill Blair and Howard Oversby. He was using trucks pulling a train of sleighs, the same technology used on ice roads but with trucks not tractors; perhaps he was building on what he learned on Lac Seul.
Trucks in those days were tiny compared with the giant’s we see on the highway now. Before about 1955 or so, the single-axle trucks in general use could haul perhaps 5 cords of wood, often loaded by hand, stick by stick. Eric could put as much as six cords on a sleigh, and could haul as many as 8 sleighs in a train, depending in topography and conditions of course. Bill says the largest load he remembers hauling was 43 cords.
Kapuskasing is in ‘The Great Clay Belt’, quite a large, relatively flat plain where this technology might be more competitive than in the hilly country of most wood limits, although Bill recalls there was a sizable hill down to the lake where they were dumping their loads on the ice. He was going down that hill one trip when his truck kicked out of gear and of course ran away; those truck brakes were no match for a string of loaded sleighs pushing the truck down a steep hill. He remembers the startled/terrified look on the faces of the guys unloading on the lake as he hurtled by at an amazing speed, coasting far past the unloading area, and feeling lucky to have survived the hair-raising trip.
Eric then got into heavy construction; Bill recalls one of his highest profile jobs was grading and landscaping around the new DeHavilland aircraft plant in Toronto. His last job before Oxdrift was work on the Trent Canal at Washego.
Eric was awarded the contract to rebuild the highway at Oxdrift to TransCanada standards in 1954. He sent his Superintendent who arranged a headquarters for the project at Owen Fenwick’s garage. Bill says he was the first of Eric’s workers to arrive, and before road work could start, Owen had him running a swather on his farm! Serious construction began in 1955, and that’s when most of the local boys joined the crew.
The Oxdrift project apparently did not prove a financial winner for Reilly Construction. In those days of regulated monopoly trucking, floating his fleet of self-propelled rubber-tired scrapers from Wachego to Oxdrift looked awfully expensive. Eric opted instead to have his crew drive them all that way; unfortunately all that running at high speed with no load damaged the engines. Then they proved not the best choice for our heavy clay soil. They needed to be pushed by a dozer when loading and sometimes again when unloading, and at least one of the scrapers ended up upside down in a ditch, trying to place slippery clay on a steep fill.
At any rate, it appears Eric wound up his Ontario operation after Oxdrift, and moved out west. Ab Mackie says his last job working for Reilly was driving a derelict old truck with debatable steering and questionable brakes from Kapuskasing to a scrapyard in Toronto, still avoiding those excessive floating costs. But Reilly Construction left a legacy in Oxdrift, all those farm boys with experience in heavy construction and trucking!

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DRUG DEALERS DOWN ON THE FARM

THE CONTRARIAN
WILLY BRANT’S DIARY — Stopped at Joe’s on the way home from town the other day to drop off some parts I picked up for him at the bus depot. Getting parts for some of his ancient equipment is getting to be quite a challenge, he found these at a scrap dealer in Minnesota, but they came by way of a customs broker in Fort Erie, so it took a lot of time. Joe says as soon as FedEx or anybody like that sees Ontario, they route it to Fort Erie, even if it is going just across the border. “Just a small one of the problems we have”, he says.
Anyway, Joe glowered at me over the top of his reading glasses when I came in, he wears them on those occasions when he can actually find them and thinks about it, then forgets to take them off before he goes outside and leaves them on the workbench in the shop, or in the barn. So I ask “feeling kind of sour today?” and this prompts quite an outburst.
“Yes”, he grits out, “I am catching up on my reading, and as usual this issue of “Landowner” magazine puts me in a rage. I am already up on step halfway down the first page, should be good for a couple more rages and a tantrum by the time I finish it.”
“So what’s up this time?” I ask. So he went on to explain that a farmer in eastern Ontario has had a long-standing business, raising lambs for the ethnic market. Some of the folks from southern or southeastern Europe have a tradition where they buy a lamb and butcher it according to their own custom for some religious observance or whatever. So this farmer has been selling the lamb live, and allowing the buyer to butcher it while still on the farm property, then take the meat away. But this time an MNR official turns up and charges the farmer with operating an illegal slaughter plant, as the premises has not been inspected, and the animal not government inspected before and after slaughter.
I butt in “so other than you have to wonder how this gets to be the MNR’s business, this sounds just like business as usual in Ontario, bureaucrats taking away our property and our rights, enforcing ‘food safety’ laws which mostly just protect the big guys and keep us peasants down. So why would that get you all worked up? Just Ontario doing its thing.”
“They asked the officer why he charged the farmer, not the guy who did the butchering, and his reply was that we treat the farmer like a drug dealer, he is responsible and the customer is innocent,” says Joe, “that kind of over-the-top anti-business, anti-private property thinking has no place in the Canada I grew up in. Imagine, if the guy shot a moose or a goose and butchered it on the farmers property that would be fine, no inspection needed. But a lamb means the farmer is a drug dealer? I give up.”
Joe needs to cool it, no use stressing about something we can’t do anything about. We know the city is taking away our land and our rights, now get on with your day.

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TEACHERS

THE CONTRARIAN

My clever University-student grand-daughter asked “So, why do we even need teachers? Or even schools? All we need is proper computer programming, and they can learn by following along on their computer.”
Wooh, good question, why, indeed, given that our kids can graduate from high school without being able to do basic math, or understand basic grammar.
Or given that exploitation and abuse are rampant at the same time as teachers cannot even comfort a skinned knee for fear of persecution. Given that school is a convenient whipping boy for parents to blame for every kid not ending up a brain surgeon. Given that the kids psyches are warped by a rigid class system which primarily depends on how fast a child matures, and where the wrong brand of running shoes can consign one to perpetual purgatory as socially unacceptable. Given that sorting kids into even-aged groups when in fact they develop at different rates, thus forcing them into unequal competition for social standing, could be about as cruel a treatment as could be devised. Given that bullying and exploitation go un-noticed in the large herd that is the student body. Given that proper food and exercise are not even on the radar screen. Given that all these take away from the supposed benefit of learning to socialize in a healthy way.
Add to that how students time is considered of little value, hours routinely wasted while the bureaucracy grinds on. Decisions are made by bureaucrats far removed from the classroom. Good teachers are hamstrung by bureaucracy, while powerful unions mean that incompetents cannot be disciplined much less fired.
Why indeed do we need schools; little wonder the fastest growing trend in Canada is home schooling. And it would grow a lot faster were it not for government pressures; after all, how can we brainwash them if we don’t get control of them?
The problem starts with the ‘bigger is better’ mentality which has prevailed in the education bureaucracy for some 40 years now. After all, bigger schools mean more activities, more facilities, more choices and more specialization. Unfortunately, bigger also means more crime, drugs, bullying; more social segregation, less personal attention or even proper recordkeeping. It means more time wasted on buses, and of course more bureaucracy with more mind-numbing regulations.
So there has to be an optimum size for schools, a ‘goldilocks zone’, to use present terminology, not to big, not too small. Modern thinking is the optimum size is small enough so every teacher knows every kid by name and even something about him/her. It has been proposed this would be a max of 300 kids in one school.
Teachers would be able to relate to kids, one on one, as people, not as anonymous ciphers, and pretty much know everything that is going on, so crime and drugs would be minimized. Kids would learn to interact socially in a civilized fashion, not the jungle primitive way of our large schools. Helping and playing among kids of different age groups and maturity levels would allow them to learn leadership and be inspired to be all they can be.
Maybe in about 20 years our cities will see the 5000 student dens of evil and waste replaced with 300 student cells of education excellence. Or maybe not. In the meantime, we are fortunate in that our smaller towns mean smaller schools. We need to fight closing our smaller schools just to be fashionable, at the expense of ridiculously long bus-rides and waste of kid’s time. Just another Contrarian opinion

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CALIFORNIA FLOODS

THE CONTRARIAN

A page from Willy Brant’s diary — Went over to help Joe with some fence repairs the other day. We were fixing up his bull pen so he can keep old Sam separated from the cows for a few months so he won’t have calves born in winter. We ran for the barn when a shower came up, which reminded me of the floods in California. So I says ”funny thing, after so many years of drought with the whole state in danger of shutting down for lack of water, they suddenly got so much rain the place is washing out to sea. Why would anyone move there? Talk about climate change!”
Joe looked surprised, I guess his mind was still on the bull pen, and then he responded “Yeah, and I haven’t seen anything claiming this is carbon-caused climate change, that’s sort of surprising.” We listened to the rain on the barn roof for a bit, doesn’t take much rain on a tin roof to be really loud. Then Joe went on “I read a paper a year or two ago about that drought. It said there was a big patch of ocean off the coast of Oregon where the water was warmer than it should be, stayed that way for months and months. That was deflecting the normal weather patterns and causing the drought in California. It claimed the last time this happened they were able to connect it to a big volcano going off under the ocean. The paper suggested the same thing might be happening now with some smaller volcanos, not one big one they could detect.”
So I came up with “So, are you suggesting maybe their drought was all about volcanos under the sea? And maybe the weather change and flooding is all about the volcano’s shutting down?”
“Who knows?” from Joe. “For sure that whole coastline is on unstable ground, they are always getting little earthquakes, and some people expect one of these days they will have a big one, like San Francisco a hundred years ago, with houses falling down all over the place”.
“I saw a documentary last winter about Yellowstone Park”, says I, “they claimed the whole place is a huge volcano ready to go off someday, so big it might cause a years-long worldwide winter, with starvation and so on.”
“Yes, I saw that one too”, from Joe. “Also I read a paper that said that they took some drill cores in the muddy bottom in some swamps or small lakes close to the Pacific, and lines in the mud told them that a huge tsunami floods the whole west coast of the continent every 500 years, like clockwork. They said it is 500 years since the last one, so we are overdue for the next one. Maybe the small underwater volcanos shutting down means the big ones that cause the tsunami are getting ready to blow!”
The rain stopped, so I finished with “I guess folks out there ought to hang onto their hats! Or keep a boat tied up outside the back door!” “Amen” from Joe, as we went back to work.

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ROOTS FIT INTO THE CANADIAN MOSAIC

THE CONTRARIAN

So, I am sitting on a steno’s chair, in some kind of an office setting, looks sort of like the office scene on a cop show. This attractive, plumpish woman comes and plops right down on my knees; kind of heavy, but nice and soft, not an unpleasant experience. Chair morphs into a couch, and woman swivels a bit so we are side by side on the couch, can make eye contact, she keeps shapeshifting between several plumpish attractive women I know, not sure who she is exactly.
She says “so, how do your roots fit into the Canadian Mosaic?”
So I told her how my main root is Germanic, from Bohemia in eastern Europe; we have long bony faces and long noses, high cheekbones, with bright blue eyes set in slightly droopy lids so our eyes have the shape of a comma laid on its side, hollow side down; very fair skin, brown or blonde with lots of redheads. Told her we were scattered in small enclaves all across eastern Europe, going back at least a thousand years to the time good king Wenceslas brought Christianity to Bohemia, Wenceslas is an English corruption, actually his name was Vaclav in Czech and Wenzl in German, translates to Lawrence in English (don’t know if that’s all true, but that’s the narrative of the dream)
Then I go on about how these eastern Germans missed the Reformation, and were generally Catholic, and being a minority saw a steady emigration once America began to fill up in the 19th century, with some enclaves in the Canadian colonies, one being around Carlsruhe, Ontario. Many moved into western Canada in the great land rush around the opening of the 20th century, including my ancestors who went to St Peters Colony in Saskatchewan, a development especially for German-speaking Catholics. After World War 2, the Communists kicked out all the German-speaking people in Eastern Europe, made all 14 million of them walk to West Germany, 2 million perished along the way. From there they were scattered around the world as ‘displaced persons’, many ending up scattered across Canada. So my Germanic root is well-integrated into the Canadian mosaic, to use her words.
I am about to launch into my French-Canadian connection, roots going back in Quebec all the way to colonial days, but she interrupts. She makes a remark about the plumpish attractive lady I had been chatting with the day before. Aha, she is not really interested in me or my roots at all; she is just testing to see if she can attract me away from the other lady.
I wake up at this point. Very interesting; I do not think of myself as a prize, a Mr. Studley, I see myself as a reject, the dweeby nerd of any group. So I am feeling pretty good until it sinks in that this is only a dream. Lying awake, I wondered, where does my hairy body come from? The Germans and Norman French are pretty hairless, and so is any aboriginal in that French Connection, but I look like a bear with my shirt off. Maybe an Italian hid in a woodpile somewhere along the way?
Silly dream, wonder why I remember it.

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WHEN IS A CITY TOO BIG?

THE CONTRARIAN

There is a theory in urban planning that there is an optimum size for a city. Quality of life gets better as the city gets bigger up to the optimum size, and then the problems grow while the benefits do not, and quality of life is diminished.
As towns and cities get bigger, more and better recreation facilities can be afforded; there is more variety of shopping and things to do; folks have to travel less for medical specialties; education facilities including a university become possible; public transit gets better; major league sports franchises arrive; high level cultural amenities such as an opera hall or a symphony orchestra are possible; world class medical care, hospitals, specialists become available.
As towns and cities become bigger, the sense of community, of belonging, disappears; traffic congestion gets worse; there is more and more crime and the community is not as safe; smog is a factor, and air and water pollution problems emerge; the connection to the land is lost, local food is not available.
Somewhere in there, the lines cross, the things that get better reach a plateau, more than one university or large hospital is no improvement, while the problems of pollution and crime and gridlock, and above all loss of community just keep growing. Textbooks suggest the optimum size is around 300 000 people – large enough for a university, a major league franchise, a world class hospital.
Some of us might think the optimum is a lot smaller, say like Thunder Bay, and some might argue it needs to be even bigger, say a half a million. The point is we can all agree there is an optimum and bigger after that is not better for anybody.
Of course cities need to be spaced out so that they are not merely suburbs, there needs to be enough distance between so there is space to handle pollution problems, and open country for food production and recreation opportunities. Textbooks suggest that spacing needs to be at least 50 miles.
So we can all agree there is an ideal, say cities of no more than 300 000, spaced no less than 50 miles apart. This is recognized by such initiatives as the Green Belt idea around Toronto; now languishing as Ontario half-heartedly resists the blandishments of developers. Or the effort a few decades ago to spread government services/jobs around the province, such as printing lottery tickets in Sault St Marie (whoop-de-doo!). But overall, only half-hearted efforts to address the ‘too big’ problem.
Canada was built by immigrants, who came here to make a home, and who went to the end of the road to make that home, that is, literally built the country. They came to be citizens, and accepted our language and our culture. But in recent decades, much of what we do pushes immigrants to our largest cities, cities which by any measure are already much larger than the optimum. In ghettos where they do not learn our language and our culture, and do not become Canadians, so their prospects are limited and we have in fact done them a great disservice.
One has to ask, what useful purpose does it serve to bring people here and put them into ghettos in cities already too large? All the while busily emptying our countryside in favour of growing those too big cities even bigger? Instead of encouraging new immigrants to disperse across the country and help to build a strong and united Canada? Buys votes, I suppose

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IT FREEZES HARD IN WISCONSIN

THE CONTRARIAN
Just to prove I am not the only windbag in this world, here is an excerpt from a novel “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman

An old man talking, says
“ — Things freeze harder and faster up here in northern Wisconsin than they do most anyplace else there is. I was out hunting once – hunting for deer, and this was oh, 30 or 40 years back, and I shot at a buck, missed him and sent him running off through the woods, this was over acrost the north end of the lake. —
Now he was the finest buck I ever did see, 20 points, big as a small horse, no lie. Now I’m younger and feistier back then than I am now — there was clean snow on the ground, fresh as anything, and I could see the buck’s footprints. It looked to me like the big fellow was heading for the lake in a panic.
Well, only a damn fool tries to run down a buck, but there am I, a damn fool, running after him, and there he is, standing in the lake in oh, eight or nine inches of water, and he’s just looking at me. That very moment, the sun goes behind a cloud, and the freeze comes – temperature must have fallen 30 degrees in ten minutes not a word of a lie. And that old stag, he gets ready to run, and he can’t move. He’s frozen into the ice. Me, I just walk over to him slowly. You can see he wants to run, but he’s iced in and it just isn’t going to happen. But there’s no way I can bring myself to shoot a defenceless critter when he can’t get away – what kind of man would I be if I done that, heh? So I take my shotgun and I fire off one shell. Straight up into the air.
Well, the noise and the shock is enough to make that buck just about jump out of his skin, and seein’ that his legs are iced in, that’s just what he proceeds to do. He leaves his hide and antlers stuck to the ice while he charges back into the woods, pink as a new-born mouse and shivering fit to bust.
I felt bad enough for that old buck that I talked the Lakeside Ladies Knitting Circle into making him something warm to wear all the winter, and they knitted him an all-over one-piece woolen suit so he wouldn’t freeze to death. Course the joke was on us (hunters) because they knitted him a suit of bright orange wool so no hunter ever shot at it. Hunters in those parts wear orange at hunting season.
And if you think there is a word of a lie in that, I can prove it to you. I’ve got the antlers up on my rec room wall to this day!”

There, let’s see you top that!!

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