My Eighty Years on Wheels
R. S. McLAUGHLIN
The McLaughlins said that Young Sam had “wheels in the head” — and it was true of them all. One of Canada’s most famous and well-loved business leaders here begins the richly intimate story of how his family fashioned a mighty industry by building a better horse’s carriage and then replacing the horse
PART ONE OF THREE PARTS
WHEN A MAN looks back on his life from his eighty-fourth year those who will listen to his memories expect him to become nostalgic about the good old days. But I happen to take more interest in the present and future than in the past, so to me everything that happened before yesterday belongs in the old days...
Should I remember particularly that day in 1907 when the first automobile bearing the name McLaughlin rolled out from among the doomed graceful carriages in our Oshawa shop?
Or that spring afternoon in 1934 when my graceful Horometer won me my first King’s Plate in record time?
Or the latest report of General Motors of Canada which shows that the company that grew from an axe handle my father fashioned on a backwoods farm a hundred years ago is, more thajMÄfct-Ahe largest single producer of consumer goods in Cam
All those things, and a thousand more memori? old days; and all of them were good.
My father’s days were good too—all his Ion never reconciled himself to the supplanting of
by the automobiles he could never learn to love, even though they bore our name.
So were the days of my grandfather John, who first stepped on the soil of Ontario with no other possessions than the clothes he wore. And very wet clothes they were, too.
Grandfather John McLaughlin came to Canada from County Tyrone on a sailing ship in 1832. He and the 140 other Irish men, women and children on the ship were not “potato famine” immigrants but had been persuaded to come to Canada by an agent for a scheme to populate the Peterborough area. I don’t think Grandfather McLaughlin required much persuasion; he was eager for the opportunities offered to an energetic young man by the
big new country across the Atlantic.
At Montreal John McLaughlin and his companions transferred to river boats for the hazardous trip up to Lake Ontario. It proved so hazardous that Grandfather nearly did not survive it. His boat was swamped in rough water and all his possessions were lost. When he landed at Cobourg for the overland journey to Peterborough he had only the contents of a thin wallet between himself and destitution.
Grandfather stayed in Peterborough only a short time, then took up a 160-acre grant of crown land in the virgin forest six miles north of Bowmanville. Some of the other Irish settlers took land nearby, and, nostalgically, they called the place Tyrone.
Granddad cut enough trees to build a log cabin and make a clearing to sow his first crop. In that log cabin was born his eldest child, my father Robert McLaughlin. It was a thrifty life the McLaughlins and the other settlers led. They could grow much of their own vegetables, catch fish in the creeks, and occasionally butcher and share a pig. But there was mighty little cash for the tea, salt, sugar and flour they had to buy in the bustling town of Bowmanville, half a day’s journey away. In fact, my father remembered that about the only cash crop on the farm was the potash they made by burning the hardwood they cut as they cleared the land, slowly and laboriously, acre by acre.
As soon as my father was big enough to swing an
axe he was en ¡rafted in that work that never finished for the Tyrone settlers felling trees to make land for the plow. They say that if a person gets a surfeit of anything when he is young he will grow up hating that, thing; well, that certainly wasn’t the case wich my father. From the time he was a hoy until he was a grown man and married, my father felled and logged and stacked hundreds and thousands of cords of hardwood. And when he married, what do you think Granddad gave him for a wedding present? Why, fifty acres of virgin forest to be cleared into a farm of his own!
And so he sharpened his axe again and fell on those endless trees to build a house and clear a field for his wife and the family they were soon to start.
Yet, next to God and his family, wood was the great love of my father’s life. He loved the smell of it and the feel of it and the way it worked under axe and saw, adze and chisel and plane. There was to come a time when I would have to stand before him, more than a little nervous and prepared to be ordered indignantly from his office, and tell him that the McLaughlin Carriage Company should start making automobiles as well as carriages in order to keep abreast of the times. Yet he took my brash suggestion surprisingly quietly and calmly, and I know he agreed albeit sadly and reluctantly - only because cars in those days had bodies made of wood which required quite as much skill to fashion as his carriages. This was something he could understand and approve of, even though he disapproved the noisy smoke-belching iron machine which took the place of the stately horse. If wasn’t unt il metal bodies replaced wood that he finally lost interest.
“That’s the end,” he told me quietly.
While he was still a boy my father had taken up a hobby. In those days, on a backwoods farm, you pretty well made your own entertainment; there were no movies to go to, of course, and no radio or television to keep a boy entranced. Even such entertainments as “the city” might offer—in this case the village of Bowmanvillewere out of the question; the trip over the narrow rutted muddy road from Tyrone to Bowmanville was a major undertaking.
So, in the few hours between the end of a day of hard labor with his axe, and his early bed time, my father occupied himself with what was to become his life’s work: shaping wood. At first it was axe handles, fashioned with such skill that when Granddad took them into Bowmanville on market day t he merchants declared they were the best they had ever seen, and even paid a penny or two above the going price for them. In addition to being my father’s hobby, those axe handles were an important supplement to the family’s other source of cash income, potash. The axe handles also were in a very real sense the first production units of the enterprise that is now General Motors of Canada.
Granddad was a devout man, and the only activity permitted on Sundays was church-going. But that in itself was an adventure, a complete change of scene, a transition from the “Little Ireland” atmosphere of Tyrone to the mixed Irish and Scot-
tish settlement of
Continued on page 89
From a country carriage shop grew huge GMC of Canada
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 13
Enniskillen, four miles away. For there was no Presbyterian church at Tyrone, and the good Ulstermen journeyed to the kirk at Enniskillen.
It was in the kirk that my father met Mary Smith, the daughter of Scottish settlers who had come to Enniskillen from Perthshire two or three years after the McLaughlins reached Tyrone. She was a bonnie lass, this Enniskillen girl who was to become my mother; I can remember her to this day, nearly eighty years later, even though I was only five years old when we had the great misfortune to lose her in 1878, the same year my father moved his little carriage shop to Oshawa. I know just how my mother looked then, in the days not many years after my father courted her after church on Sundays and then married her; I know not only from my memory, but because she had once had her photograph taken, and many years later Sir Wyly Grier painted her portrait from it for me to hang in a place of honor in my home.
In due time after his Sunday visits to Enniskillen my father could inform Granddad that he was going to marry Mary Smith. On the acreage Granddad deeded to him on hearing this news, my father set to work to build a home for his bride. It was to be a better house than the one the McLaughlins had started in—of boards, not logs. Nowadays when a young man says he is going to “build a house” it usually means calling in a contractor to do the work. In my father’s case it meant building a house with his own hands, of his own materials.
Cutters in a Catalogue
It meant felling the trees, cutting the logs to length, hauling them to the sawmill, hauling the lumber back to the site he had chosen for the house and then building it. Nearby he put up a driving shed. There wasn’t much to be stored in that shed, just a few tools and odds and ends. But there were compensations for the emptiness of the shed— it meant that my father could build a fine big work bench. At that work bench, in the evenings, he made dozens of axe handles, using the finest straightgrained bits of hardwood that he had selected from the lumber milled for the house. With his little farm still being cleared of virgin forest, those axe handles were an important source of revenue.
But the Governor—I might as well start using now the name we called him, in affection and respect, for all his life—the Governor wasn’t satisfied. He was eager to make more ambitious use of his self-taught skill in working wood. One of his treasured possessions was an old catalogue illustrated with wondrous pictures of carriages, wagons and cutters. The Governor pored over these pictures with endless interest, tracing with his finger the elaborate curves and carvings of the bodies; he studied the methods of fastening the body frame to the springs and the springs to the wheels or runners. Then one day he reached a decision:
“I’m going to build one of those.”
His first project was comparatively modest—a sleigh. While he was working on it, a neighbor passed by, stopped to see what Bob McLaughlin was up to in his shed, watched the quality of wood and workmanship he was putting into his first sleigh, and said:
“Will you sell me that cutter when it’s finished?”
“I’il xuake you another one like it,” said the Governor, “and you can specify the time you want it.” Thus his first “production line” was two cutters at the same time. He couldn’t do all the work himself, of course. In those days small carriage and wagon shops were dependent on journeyman artisans— and “journeymen” they really were— blacksmiths and upholsterers who traveled about the countryside, stopping off to perform their special work on as many vehicles as the shop had ready, then moving on to the next shop.
It was a very casual schedule these
journe; ¿ept. The state of the
roads, iWP»ámount of work to be done at any one place, the artisan’s own habits of temperance or intemperance —all these determined how punctually a journeyman would arrive for his assignment. In that leisurely age the uncertainty of the journeyman’s coming was of no great consequence as a rule, but it so happened that the Governor’s first production schedule was geared to a very tight deadline.
He was fortunate with his upholsterer, J. B. Keddie, of Oshawa, who arrived in good time. In his wagon were
two apprentices a öd hi ; supply of horsehair, canvas, leather uphol-
stery materials. My m vfcsd to proyicU qpqft and boaVd ft)r Uic ¿ortsrmgrm;Ä tura his apprenticesthat was part. .(í'UParTi n w ritten contract.
The promised date of delivery of the neighbour's cutter was drawing near and still the blacksmith who was to do the essential ironwork on both cutters had not arrived. Meanwhile the man who had ordered the cutter came around to see how it was progressing. He said to the Governor:
“Bob, I forgot to tell you—I want a
picture painted on the back, of that cutter: King Billy crossing the Boyne on his white horse.”
My father, unlike many of his North of Ireland Protestant neighbors, was not an Orangeman. Moreover, he had never seriously tried his hand at picture painting. But he set to and produced a creditable—and vivid—picture of the event that made July 12 famous. Three quarters of a century later that cutter came back into the possession of the McLaughlins, and the picture the Governor painted on the back of his first vehicle was still recognizable— especially the white horse. Thereafter no customer had to use any great persuasion to get my father to paint pictures on their vehicles.
When the blacksmith finally arrived, quite unabashed at his tardiness, there was so little time left that he and my father had to work day and night to finish the cutters. But finished they were, and one was delivered to the staunch Orangeman.
But, strangely enough, it was the Governor’s near-failure rather than his success that probably led to the growth of the Tyrone shed into General Motors of Canada. It is not difficult to imagine what might have happened if that blacksmith bad arrived on time and given my father no cause for worry: the Governor might well have been content to continue the production system then in vogue with the dozens of small carriage shops in Ontario, which used visiting journeyman artisans for important roles in carriage building, with resulting limited production and dependence on the whims of a very independent bunch of men.
The lesson the Governor learned from the belated blacksmith led to an important decision: to build his own tiny blacksmith shop in front of the shed at Tyrone. The upholstering end was never a problem; J. B. Keddie was a reliable man and a fine workman. He was to stay with my father as journeyman upholsterer until the business moved to Oshawa, when he became foreman of the McLaughlin Carriage Company, a position he held for the rest of his life.
Soon the demand for cutters and wagons outgrew the Tyrone shop, and in 1869, two years after he made his first pair of cutters, the Governor decided to move to a larger community— Enniskillen. In that year my brother George was born. My eldest brother Jack (J. J. McLaughlin) was three years old; I was to be born two years later.
In Enniskillen the Governor built a somewhat larger shop with a separate blacksmith shop; on the second floor was a room where wheels hung from the ceiling to dry and, surmounting everything, a small tower where the town bell was installed. The Governor was still building only cutters and wagons, but in his fine new shop he decided to try his hand at a carriage—the McLaughlin representative at the coming county fair at Bowmanville. He and Mr. Keddie gave it their best and produced a beautiful phaeton. Among entries, which included the products of two of eastern Ontario’s largest carriage makers, the McLaughlin phaeton won first prize. Immediately the McLaughlin carriage shop stopped making wagons and went in for carriages.
Mv own first recollection of the carriage business was a painful one. One day when I was five I wandered into the room where the wheels were hung from the ceiling to dry. A wheel fell on me, knocking me out and opening a deep gash in my head. I was carried to my father’s office—howling lustily as soon as I recovered my breath, I have no doubt—and while everyone else fussed around wondering what should
be done next, the Governor solved the problem simply: he produced one of those brown-striped humbugs and gave it to me. The pain and the tears stopped miraculously. After that, the family always said I had “wheels in the head.” And I suppose they were right. I have now been earning my living with turning wheels for just sixty-seven years.
The McLaughlin carriage shop outgrew Enniskillen within half a dozen years of moving there. It now employed as many as eight men at busy seasons, but it operated under conditions that would cause a businessman today to pull out his hair in handfuls. There was, for example, no bank; Enniskillen was a long way from the nearest railway, and all supplies had to be carted in. In 1876 the Governor decided to make the big and daring move —to Oshawa.
H might be wondered how any business could expand, or operate at all, without banking facilities. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that a village carriage maker seventy-five years ago didn’t do business the way it is done today. 1 have before me a faded and
torn journal in the Governor’s handwriting, in which a typical entry is that of Feb. 10, 1875:
H. Taylor—one cutter, $30 in cash next fall and seven cords of good dry hardwood, maypole or beech.
When I say the move to Oshawa was daring, I am not reflecting my father’s attitude, but that of our competitors. There were at that time two established carriage makers in Oshawa, and they let it be known that in their opinion “McLaughlin will last six months.” It took a little longer than that for further changes to occur in the Oshawa carriage industry—and when they did it was the competitors who disappeared.
It is true that the Governor brought no great ambition for expansion to Oshawa. After he had bought a lot and erected a smallish three-story building on it, with a separate brick blacksmith shop, he sold the balance of the lot to the town, which built a jail on it and later the city hall.
And indeed my father’s methods did not permit mushroom growth. People called him “a crank for quality,” and he took it as a compliment. No workman would dare skimp a job, or rush it through, because my father inspected everything and poor workmanship was the one sure way of calling down his wrath; he was disdainful of the quality of the carriage-hardware traveling salesmen tried to get him to buy, and insisted on using nothing but Norway iron, a tough and durable metal which cost five to ten times as much as ordinary iron.
But, early in the Eighties, the Governor produced an invention that was to revolutionize the carriage industry and expand the little McLaughlin shop into a million-dollar-a-year enterprise. It was, strangely for my father whose great concern had been with the woodwork and who had hired others for the metal parts, an invention made of metal. It was a new “gear” for buggies and carriages. The “gear” is all that part of a carriage bet ween the body and the wheels—the springs, couplings,
chassis and»,. »anism that, per-
mits the fro*. Th >;o turn and thus steeí the vchlcte. !
The McLaug^si^ar had long flexible springr; w.aiphngs of Norway iron, of’^oUitsefnirass and rubber washers. But the most important part was the turning mechanism. There’s an old saying, “as useless as a new-type fifth wheel,” but the Governor belied that saying by incorporating a fifth wheel into the turning mechanism of his gear, and he patented it. The McLaughlin gear is, I suppose, part of the vanished history of a vanished type of vehicle. But in those days it was big news. It made carriages safer and smootherriding.
From my father’s point of view, his new gear was just another improvement in the design of his carriages, and he made them only with the intention of using them in his own products— until Tony Foster saw the gear.
Tony Foster was the most popular of the many traveling salesmen who called on my father. He was a memorable and colorful figure, and we were always glad to see him come to the shop, dressed in a soft tweed hat, braided velvet coat, horse-blanket vest, yellow gloves, and carrying a cane. Tony sold upholstering material and hardware items, and he was always sure of an order from the Governor, even when we weren’t really low on inventory of the goods he sold. But this day Tony didn’t have time for a sales talk. He took a look at a McLaughlin gear that had been set up, leaned his ample weight on the springs, tested the fifth wheel steering mechanism and said:
“By Jove, Mr. McLaughlin, that’s a fine-looking gear ... I could sell some of those to my customers, now.”
The Governor thought of this idea for a moment, then said: “All right,
Tony, if you can sell them, we’ll sell them to you.”
Tony waited to hear no more. He hurried back to Guelph and described the gear to his boss, Chris Kloepfer (later MP for Guelph). A couple of days later both Tony Foster and Mr. Kloepfer arrived early in the morning. They looked the gear over again, then spent the rest of the morning in the Governor’s office.
When my father came home at noon he held a solemn conference with his sons, two teen-agers and me not yet in my teens. “Boys,” he said, “I have had an offer to sell the gear patent.” He paused. “Ten thousand dollars.” Pause. “That’s a lot of money.” Pause. “Will I take it?”
I suppose that, since he had done us the honor of consulting us on this very important matter, we should have thought over the question for a minute or two. But we didn’t. In one voice we chorused: “No, don’t sell it.”
The Governor returned to Foster and Kloepfer and announced his decision not to sell the gear patent. But he offered them exclusive rights to sell the gear itself across Canada, provided they placed a minimum order for 1,000, to be taken over a period of two years. As it turned out, that was a conservative contract which underestimated Tony’s salesmanship and the appeal of the gear to other carriage makers; in the years which remained of the heyday of the carriage Foster was to send in orders for nearly 20,000 gears.
To manufacture this sideline we had to expand both the carriage factory and the blacksmith shop; and then we had to enlarge again to meet the increased demand for the carriages with the new gear which we built ourselves. It might be thought that by selling other carriage makers this important part we were competing with ourselves. But it didn’t work out that way. Carriage factories all over the country advertised
ere advert ising us. ,!WÍ’>U a carwhv not carnage?” ikers came .Uia«r .point i view. After ars to their own .ney started order.riages and thus bear our agenti.
sales had almost al. Often a buyer would our shop with a horse and
drive away in a new carriage. Now orders for gears and for carriages started to come in from places that our shipper had never heard of, places far beyond Ontario in eastern and western Canada. Walking through the crowded busy shops the Governor regretted that he had sold that “surplus” half of his lot.
To take advantage of this gratifying new demand for the carriages he had been building for nearly twenty years, my father hired his first traveling salesman, John Henry. Others were put on the road in quick succession: William
Stevenson, Manley Rose, T. A. Chadburn. They sold McLaughlin carriages literally from coast to coast.
In the early days of this expansion, while the carriage shop was still small, 1 graduated from high school. I was only sixteen, so I suppose I should confess modestly that I was a fairly bright scholar. But I think one reason was that I found the world such an exciting place that I wanted to get out into it as soon as I could.
I had no great urge to go into the carriage business. My brother Jack had graduated as a chemist from the Uni-
versity X ..my%^j^î^was in New York doing what uncalled “looking things over.” Actually, he was even then planning his own great enterprise —the founding of the Canada Dry beverage company. My brother George, a couple of years older than I, was already apprenticed to the carriage shop, and I thought that one second-generation carriage maker in the family was enough.
Besides, there were other things I wanted to try. I thought I might like to become a hardware merchant, and worked in Dan Cinnamon’s store for five months. I thought of becoming a lawyer—I fancied I looked a little like one. I knew from George that apprenticeship with the Governor was no rest cure. It meant working practically from dawn to after dusk, six days a week, and that would interfere with the bicycling I was so keen on.
Not, mind you, that the Governor let any of his family suffer from idle hands. We were not allowed to run the streets at night; there was cordwood to be sawed, the horses to be looked after, any number of chores around the house. We didn’t have a hired man until much later. But I still managed to find time for some furious cycling. The Governor must have been concerned about this, although he never reprimanded me. But he mentioned my overenthusiastic cycling in a letter to Jack. My brother replied:
Regarding Sam’s bicycling propensities, it seems to be a kind of fascination that gets hold of a boy but it usually wears off in a year or two. It seems to stick to Sam longer but it’s a mistake for him to travel such long distances.
Long distances? Once for a holiday I rode from Oshawa to Brockville and back over dirt roads, a distance of more than 300 miles. Often I rode the thirty miles to Toronto and back in one day. That was a toll road, but being on a bicycle I didn’t have to pay. Almost every day of the week I took a sixteento eighteen-mile swing around the Oshawa - to - Whitby - to - Columbus circuit. And this was not on a modern cycle, but on an oldtime solid highwheeler with a little bit of a pilot wheel. I entered races at all the fairs and meets I could get to, with pretty fair success. In fact, George said jokingly that I brought home so many cups and cruets and pickle dishes that I would be able to furnish a house when I got married.
I knew the answer to that one. I wasn’t ever going to marry. I was going to be too busy to be anything else but a bachelor.
What finally decided me to go in with the Governor was a very pleasant but firm letter from Jack, in which he persuaded me that it was my duty to enter the family business. So in 1887 I became an apprentice in the upholstery shop. I soon found that George had not been exaggerating when he said it was no advantage to be the boss’ son. I swept the floors and did all the other menial work that apprentices have hated from time immemorial. Everybody in those days worked a fifty-nine-hour week except the bosses (and, I soon discovered, the boss’ son). They sometimes worked seventy or eighty hours, without overtime either.
The Governor was impatient at the paper work involved in business. The working day of a carriage maker, he felt, should be dedicated to making carriages. He never started the office routine-making out purchasing orders, writing letters and such things—until after six. I was expected to stay and help with such chores as copying letters on the big old-fashioned screw-press. We seldom got home until after seven
at night—and work started sharp at seven in the morning.
I was thirty years old, a partner in the business and a family man, before I decided I had come up in the world enough to start going to the office at the luxuriously late hour of eight o’clock. The first morning I did so my conscience grew more and more bothered the nearer I got to the plant—and finally I sneaked in the back door, thoroughly ashamed of myself. It took a long time for me to become accustomed to keeping “executive’s hours.”
As an apprentice I was paid three dollars a week; and every payday the Governor solemnly deducted two-fifty for room and board. I had fifty cents a week to spend as foolishly as I wished. In later years when I related this to the younger generations of my family, they looked at me with incredulous eyes and exclaimed: “But what could anyone
do with fifty cents a week?”
Well let me tell you that in Oshawa sixty-five years ago there was a lot a boy could do with fifty cents a week; perhaps I should say there were a lot fewer ways of getting rid of the change in your pocket; there were no movies, no twenty-five cent sodas and sundaes, no fifty-cent ball games in enclosed grandstands, no bus or streetcar fares to pay if you wanted to go somewhere a couple of miles away. We made our own games, we could hunt and fish and hike. And when it came to spending money you’d be surprised how many wintergreen candies you could get for a cent; or, better still, there was the old lady who made taffy in her little shop, and for one cent she would hand over a lump that could pull all the fillings out of your teeth, if you had any.
The Governor’s Spoiled Brat
Or you could get a smoked herring for one penny. Today at my salmonfishing lodge at Cap Chat, Quebec, there is an elaborate smokehouse which processes the fine Atlantic salmon my guests and I kill. It is done by the long cool-smoke method that is supposed to produce one of the world’s great food delicacies; and it undoubtedly does. But to this day I can still remember the savor of those smoked herrings that came out of a barrel in an Oshawa grocery for one penny each.
Certainly I didn’t suffer any hardship during my three years of apprenticeship. I learned to stitch and sew, to make wax ends, to lay out jobs, to make cushions—everything an upholsterer must know from the ground up. It was so thoroughly worked into me that I am still a journeyman upholsterer, and I think I could make a living at it even today.
But I wasn’t so confident back then in 1890, when I was still in my' teens and the upholstery foreman told me I had become a full-fledged journeyman. Oh, I was cocky enough, but I just wanted to make sure that I was good enougfi to make a journeyman’s full pay—$1.75 a day—in carriage shops other than McLaughlin’s. In other words, I wanted to find out that I wouldn’t be paid all that money jast because I was the Governor’s spoiled brat.
So I put twenty dollars in my wallet, took the train to Gananoque, crossed the St. Lawrence in a ferry and went on to Watertown, N.Y., where the H. H. Babcock Co. was located. The company was noted for making magnificent carriages and having a very high standard of workmanship. If I could get a job there—and keep it—it would be a good test of my ability. I got a job right away, and, to my surprise, top wages of $1.75 a day.
After I had been there two weeks I heard a couple of men working near me
whisper, “Here comes the big boss, Mr. Rich himself.” Mr. Rich was superintendent of the plant. He came up to me and said: “Are you a McLaughlin from Oshawa?” I suppose he had seen my name and address on the plant records. I told him I was.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m just testing my apprenticeship, sir,” I answered. “I am out to learn a little more and look around.”
Mr. Rich smiled and said: “I was
born in Brooklin.” Brooklin is a village a few miles north of Oshawa, in those days about the same size as Ennis-
killen. \ ... yas kind.
He gave rru ,e plant and
helped me in So in Water-
town I not only learned that I was worth $1.75 a day, but I absorbed a lot of ideas about plant management, design and quality control. I stayed with the Babcock company for two months, and was sorry to leave. But I wanted to see more of other carriage factories. 1 got a job with Sturtevant and Larabee, carriage and sleigh makers in Syracuse, N.Y., and later moved on to a similar job in Binghampton. Then l took my savings, went to New York
City, and “did the town.”
After sixty-five years, the detai that first visit to the big city are so what hazy—but still pleasant. I rived back in Oshawa with fifteen cents in my pocket. Now I was ready to settle down and make carriages . . . for a while, anyway, if
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