A ghost town in the making— silent houses, workers going ... That’s Nobel, Ontario—first war town to be hit by a shutdown
IT WAS a strange happy little town, some of its happiness lingering—although uncertainly—for a brief while even in the first critical days after the inhabitants received notice to move on.
Perhaps I should use the present tense, because the town is still there. The great factory buildings stand, the neat houses, row on white row, in the hilly streets. The women and children are still there, some of them, burning the winter’s fuel.
The town was born of war, built in a wilderness of rock and scrub timber and swamp. Parts of it were on the very foundations of another ghost town. For the second time in 25 years silence has come to Nobel, Ont., 156 rail miles north of Toronto, on the east shore of Georgian Bay, seven miles north of Parry Sound. By the end of April, when spring spreads its warmth in the northland, the houses will be shuttered against the sun. Only the watchmen will guard the buildings and walk the empty streets.
Although it was a war town, and its people engaged in the dangerous business of manufacturing explosives, Nobel was no wild hellion place of booze joints and high-stake cards. Somehow it never developed the uproarious spirits of a frontier town. I have said it was a happy place, which needs understanding.
A lot of its people were enjoying, for the first time in many years, security; some even sufficient food. These people worked at the same jobs, received the same pay, lived in houses all alike, wore the same clothes, ate the same food, faced the same problems of rent and debts and schoolbooks for the kids. They went to the same churches. They were, in every meaning of the word, family. They had their social halls Two) where they bowled, shot pool, saw movies, danced, borrowed books from the library. They had
open-air rinks (two) in winter, and in summer the beautiful waters of Parry Sound in which to bathe and fish, and canoe. No one made much money, but enough.
Word came in mid-December that Defense Industries Limited, a Crown company, one of the greatest explosives plants in the British Empire, was to shut down. It had been rumored for days before but no one believed it possible, not while the war continued, not with the big push in Europe still to come.
Word of the shutdown blazed through the factory, and, I think, bewilderment and dismay touched every home. Rebelliousness sprang up, then died away into steady resentment of the wholesale uprooting of families and friends, an entire community. And then, as will happen, hope took shape again; the town fed itself on rumors of new contracts. Happiness flooded back, stayed a while, then collapsed. On Dec. 27, two days after Christmas, more than 300 workers received seven days’ notice that their jobs were done. The company officials explained that the
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DIL contract had been fulfilled and would not be renewed.
There were then 2,236 workers in the Nobel plant, including approximately 450 women. On Jan. 3 the great exodus began. More than 300 received railway warrants (to be paid for by their new employers) and departed for Sudbury, for Malton and Toronto and other points. Some went into the bush to log; some went back to farms. Fourteen days later more than 1,200 had left. Death of the town was very, very certain. By the end of April or early in May there will be only 77 men at the plant, a maintenance crew and guards. Once again, as at the end of the other war, Nobel will be only a whistle-stop on the Canadian Pacific’s main transcontinental line.
Now, indeed, the town folk needed leadership. They had no mayor and no council, for Nobel was not incorporated as a village or town. They had a union —Local No. 1 of the Defense Workers’ Union, but it was powerless in this new crisis. An order had come from Ottawa—there would be no more production, work would cease as quickly as raw materials were used up in the various departments. The gigantic, impersonal, world-sprawled machinery of war had touched Nobel briefly, given it life and wealth; had touched it again, and killed it.
F’or the people the future was a frantic uncertainty. They had no plans—and what is the future without certain plans of a roof, food, fuel? They had the rents paid on their neat new wartime homes. They had the winter fuel in, cords of wood and tons of coal. They had bought warm winter clothing; many had gone into debt purchasing household goods. Some were kept poor paying off old depression-made obligations. F'ew had any reserves of capital, except the war bonds they had lx>ught on the payroll savings scheme. Their children were midway through the term in the fine new brick schoolhouse. Eleven teachers had been employed.
The people were caught unprepared, or practically so; but preparations had been made for them. When the shutdown order came, fieldmen from National Selective Service appeared, offering jobs and free transportation to new locations. The people were not overly encouraged. Here "was notorious bureaucracy at work. What followed then was something new in the annals of unemployment, and proved surprising to both workers and the Government officials.
From the Government point of view this was a test that had to be met — successfully! Failure now, in this new experiment, would destroy the faith of the whole country in the muchvaunted postwar plans of all governments federal, provincial and municipal. This was not postwar but of war. A forerunner. The Minister of Labor, Hon. Humphrey Mitchell, described it, in a radio broadcast on Jan. 16, as "the biggest layoff in Canadian history.” What was done for the people of Nobel would establish a pattern to be followed elsewhere, he said.
When the Nobel workers were given their seven days’ notice they were told to report to National Selective Service officials in the company’s employment office. They were, under this system, to be given new jobs before they had finished their old ones. The idea was
that not a day’s pay should be lost in the change-over. Under pressure it could have worked that way. A man could quit Nobel on Monday, take an overnight train, and shirt work in Toronto on Tuesday. But most workers wanted a day or two at least to settle their affairs.
In addition to government employment officers there were, in adjoining offices, representatives of at least eight high priority industries, waiting to sign the men on. These included such companies as Victory Aircraft, at Malton (Lancasters), Massey-Harris, International Harvester, International Nickel, etc.
I will use Robert McEwen, McKellar, Ont., as an example of how the system worked. He is a young man, married, and has one child. He worked in the Nobel plant for 37 months. Prior to that he had been a construction worker and had been employed in a rubber factory in New Toronto. This is the way the interview went between McEwen and the Selective Service officer:
“Well, Bob,” asked the official, “what have you got in mind?”
“I think I’ll go to Victory Aircraft,” McFlwen said.
“Are you sure that’s what you want?” the official asked, checking through a card index of jobs available. “I can offer you work in Oshawa, Toronto or Guelph, in iron foundries. Might be steadier, you know.”
“No,” McEwen said, his mind made up, “I think I’ll go to Victory.”
> “Very well. You’re the judge. I’m afraid it’s a job that is like a bridge— there’s an end to it.”
The official made out the work permit and the railway warrant. McEwen went along the corridor to the aircraft office and was signed on. Victory Aircraft, like all other, companies, had made previous arrangements to find a room in Malton or Toronto for him. As a matter of fact, Selective Service regulations now specifically provide that accommodation must be assured before a job may be offered. Companies in all cities have had the active co-operation of the Y MCA and the YWCA in finding rooms for transient workers.
Such courtesy in employment offices was so rare prior to the war, and more particularly in the depression years, that I watched the interviews rather suspiciously. But it was sincere in every case, and did not vary. The officials encouraged the workers to
take jobs that might prove permanent, but there was no compulsion or interference (except in rare cases where a man wanted to go to nonessential work). Management-employee relations have come a long way in the war years.
McEwen, of course, had to leave his wife and child behind. For him and all others like him, it meant paying rent in Toronto and also in Nobel. And when the day comes that he does find a house or a flat for his family near his new job he must pay their transportation. Company responsibility does not extend to the family, only to the individual worker. Those are two very sore points with the Nobel workers—two rents to pay, and transportation for families.
Others, like Henry Cuttress, chose jobs that seemed to offer greater security in the postwar years. Cuttress went to Massey-Harris, which, in the last six months, has shifted some of its production to peacetime work, with the Government’s blessing. Seventy-five percent of the Massey-Harris output is now food-producing machinery, such as plows, harrows, cultivators, combines, etc. The machinery will go first to the Canadian farmers, then to the freed lands, as the Allies advance.
Cuttress, who is 50, was English-born and has four children. He had lived 19 years in Parry Sound, owned his own home on a quarter acre of land and kept chickens and a cow. Now, with the prospect of several years of work ahead of him in Toronto (MasseyHarris officials say they have a fullwork program that will last three or four years), Cuttress may sell his home and move his family. “I didn’t want to leave my home,” Cuttress said, “but I couldn’t hang around there without work.”
People Were Bitter
In interviews with Selective Service officials, the Nobel people were not communicative of their personal feelings. It was in their homes they talked, and it was in their homes that I met Alex Guald and his wife. They had been in Nobel since the plant started. Alex, a maintenance man, had worked in a woollen mill in Peterborough and also had been a painter and decorator. Approaching middle age he wanted permanency, not a drifter’s life.
“It’s rotten,” Guald said bitterly. “Rotten! Breaking up the town this way. We can’t understand it. Surely
the plant could be converted . . . ” He stopped and shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose we’re better off’ than some; at least we are not in debt, and there are a lot who are.” Guald stopped again and turned his face to his wife, who was standing near the stove, across the room. “If I go to Victory,” he said, “we’ll have to go through all this again. We’ll have to move on. We want something better than that.” He turned his glance out the window. “1 bought five cords of wood and a ton of coal. I couldn’t sell it again—there’s no one to buy it. We’re all in the same trouble. Now I am to live in a single room in Toronto until I can find a place for us.” His wife was remaining in Nobel and I asked her how she felt about it. She was a fine smiling woman with greying hair. “Wherever he has to go I will go too,” she said simply. “Wherever he wants to go; wherever there’s work.”
That was the attitude of almost all in Nobel. They contained in themselves a burning resentment against leaving the town they had come to regard as home; but they had no alternative but to move on. I talked to many, and the answers varied little. All of them seemed to have been made suddenly aware, by the Nobel closure, that any job they may take may be regarded as transient. They are wondering now of the postwar years and the promises of security.
I had expected that the attitude of the wives and mothers would be the most bitter, but it wasn’t. They were all pretty much like Mrs. Guald. Mrs. Ernest McGinnis, for instance, had four children. Her husband, an electrician, had gone to the Toronto Shipyards. “It doesn’t really matter where we live,.” she said. Her eyes wandered, a little wistfully, around the room, its comfortable furniture, the pictures on the wall. “Wherever there is work there is a home. That is what is important.
(Where a man and his wife both worked at DIL, new jobs were found for both in the same company; transportation was provided for both and accommodation found.)
The National Selective Service is no respecter of persons or locale. If a man lived in Parry Sound all his life, had his own business, had taken work at the explosives plant, and now wished to return to his peacetime work, it did not necessarily follow that he was given permission. There was the case of John Bushey, who had once been a railroad man.
Bushey had prospered more than others and had lived a long time in Parry Sound. Over the years he had invested $8,000 in a tourist camp with twelve cottages. But the Selective Service officer who studied his occupational record sent him back to the railroad. John Bushey went willingly.
The nearest thing Nobel had as a spokesman was the president of the union, Roy Smith, who is also CCF member of the Ontario Legislature for the district. Smith was an electrical worker and a carpenter before he went to work for DIL.
“I sent a wire of protest to Howe,” he said. (Hon. C. D. Howe, Minister of Munitions and Supply.) “But nothing came of it. There has been a terrible lack of planning here. Only last September they stepped up production and we all thought the work would continue. We all have our winter fuel in. Now, in the middle of winter, they stop production entirely. The whole town is being shot out to new jobs.”
Could this union do anything? No, Mr. Smith regretted, it couldn’t. Paidup members would be transferred to other unions wherever they worked. That was all. No case for unions.
What happened to Nobel is going to
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happen to other war-industry areas, to j cities and towns all over this continent.
Paralyzing shutdowns. Construction i of Nobel —the plant and the town -was started in the first month of the war, .September, 1939. Wartime Housing Limited, another Crown company, erected 220 houses in Nobel itself and an additional 130 on the edge of i Parry Sound. Great staff houses (dormitories) for single men were built and apartment blocks went up. (Nobel probably will be the only ghost town to boast modern apartment blocks.) A hospital was erected and staffed with three doctors and trained nurses. Modern fire equipment was brought in, and RCMP and provincial constables provided police protection. Hydro lines were strung up, a sewage system laid. Telephones were installed.
The call went out for defense workers, and they came from all over the district. Loggers laid down their axes; farmers put away their plows. They came from greater distances; from .Sudbury, Bracebridge, Toronto, Windsor, Montreal. They left their homes behind to follow the war work. Uprooted once, they have now been uprooted again. And it may not be the last time. It may be, indeed, that there is being created in Canada a new transient class of people, not the boxcar travellers of the early 30’s, but nomads of war. Followers of the rivet guns.
Nobel grew and flourished. Rents were cheap enough in the wartime houses — $22 a month for a four-roomed i house and $30 for a six. This included a heater, and a kitchen range could be rented for one dollar a month. But workers came faster than the houses could be built, and they set up their own homes on the two roads leading into Nobel. Shacks, they were, strung along the highways, but they were cheap. Some started with one or two rooms and each payday they bought a few sticks of lumber and built additions. Shacktown, it was called. So they lived, some of them for more than three years.
Parry Sound Suffers
¡ To the people of Nobel the shutdown meant the loss of homes; to the Government it meant an exodus; but to Parry Sound, the nearest town of any consequence, it meant the loss of a new trade. The Nobel payroll ranged from $250,000 monthly to, probably, $750,000, with the average coasting near the half-million mark for three years or more. Except for what was paid in rents to Wartime Housing, what was spent in two small Nobel groceries, and what was drawn off by two mail| order houses, the bulk of the payroll j went to the merchants of Parry Sound.
The work stoppage brought a curious reaction from these merchants. I had expected really a howl from them because Parry Sound normally is a town of only 3,600, and a half million dollar payroll, in addition to regular trade, is a fortune. But there was no resentment, or almost none. They had been through all this before—after the last war. Then, as at the start of this war, Nobel was a hamlet of 25 or 35 homes until a firm called British Cordite Company started production of explosives for the Allies. Then, as in this war, Nobel boomed to a town of several thousand workers. At war’s end the plant shut down and the factory was demolished. (Last war there was no Wartime Housing Limited to build workers’ homes; accommodation was found in Parry.)
Nobel has always lived by dynamite j or TNT production. In the last war, in I 1915, it was a small firm called the j Canadian Explosive Company which i kept the town going until British
Cordite took over early in 1917. Since then, in the peace years, Canadian industries Limited has operated a dynamite factory employing about 150 workers. DIL took over in this war but in the peace years to come it is expected CIL will continue to employ its normal 150 workers, depending on the dynamite needs of the mines and roads. There has been no decision about demolishing the vast DIL plant.
Parry Sound is a solid cautious town, not given to sudden expansions or depressions. Through all the bad 30\s there was not a single business failure in Parry Sound. When the payroll boom was at its height in this war only two chain stores (A & P and Metropolitan) moved in, and a new shoe store. A new theatre was built, but the old one was torn down. That’s all the expansion of the business district that occurred in the town. I don’t suppose there’s any doubt that the merchants made a packet of new money, hut they banked it against dark days that may come.
Most of the firms are old established houses with the same owners today as 25 years ago. Or their sons are the owners. “I guess we are a pretty levelheaded people hereabouts,” explained A. N. Fenn, the town’s biggest hardware merchant. A quiet mild-mannered man with white hair, he was there in the last war. “We don’t splurge much, but we get along all right.”
C. C. Johnson, many times mayor of Parry (defeated this year), was an engineer at Nobel in the last war, and took root in Parry Sound when the plant closed. Now he owns the biggest lumber firm in the district. “We,” he said, speaking of the town council, “adopted a most conservative policy. We didn’t want to ruin the town. We knew the end was coming sometime and we prepared for it.” The municipal .¿expenditures, he went on, included f$58,000 for three miles of asphalt pavement, to be paid for in five years by a local improvement tax; and $50,000 for power substations, lines and equipment for the 130 Wartime houses on the edge of the town. (Nobel bought its own power from the Ontario Hydro Electric Commission.) Mr. Johnson did not think the town would lose on its investments. Parry Sound, he said, was prosperous and had a wealthy bank account.
Once Boom Town
Parry was not always such a solid place and was, in fact, a boom town before the turn of the century when the townsite was surveyed. It was a great lumbering centre, with three sawmills roaring steadily. Millions of logs annually chocked the swift Seguin River, and were dumped into the Sound. But that is all gone now, the sawmills shut down. Except for the rich American tourist trade in three or four months of summer, no one seems to know definitely what it is that keeps Parry Sound prospering. Even Mr. Johnson couldn’t quite put his finger on it. “I guess we’re just hard workers; that’s all,” he said.
The lumbering industry is dead, yet a few sawmills exist in the backwoods. It is too rocky for good farming, but farms exist. The fish market is uncertain, but there is a small fishing fleet. South Parry is a divisional point on the Canadian National Railways, which helps the town. All in all, they are hard cash people.
Some of the Nobel workers, a few hundred, will, like Johnson, take root in or around Parry Sound. The town expects to be about 4,000 when the war is over.
The other workers are, at this writing, trying to re-estahlish them-
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selves in their new jobs. It is no easy thing. They have been set down overnight in new communities, asked to work, temporarily, at reduced wages; compelled to learn a new type of work. They live alone in rooming houses, their families still back in the wartime houses, burning the winter’s fuel.
I followed them on their great trek to Toronto, gave them a few days to get settled in their jobs and their new homes, and then mingled with them again as I had in Nobel. The feeling among the men was better. Once again hope had taken a fresh hold.
Oscar Lavoie, 27-year-old former schoolteacher of the Parry Sound district, is typical of the nomadic warworkers. He was a country teacher, but quit to do defense work and became an operator in the acid department in Nobel. He left his family behind in the home he had built on the old road to
Nobel and went to work in MasseyHarris. He is learning to be a molder.
“God knows I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “I’m making less money right now, but I expect to make more in the long run. I’m learning a trade, and that means a lot.” Lavoie did not think he would ever return to teaching. His home? He shrugged. “It’s broken up now. Guess I’d better sell it.”
Nobel, the first major casualty of this war, soon will be a ghost town, but so far they haven’t started to shutter the windows of empty homes. It is, it seems, a rather delicate subject with the administrator of Wartime Housing Limited. “It wouldn’t look nice for the others,” he said, searching in his mind for the right words. “It would look dead if we put up boards and shutters. It would look like death itself had come.” He gestured up the silent street. “It’s not dead yet, hot quite.”