Burchill, John

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                                           JOHN BURCHILL
                              Burchill family…pioneers in lumber, Co-op
                                           By Bill Vickers


Sometime around the year 1857, George Burchill and Sons Lumber Company was established under the direction of John Burchill. Operations began on the banks of the Miramichi.

It was destined to thrive on the same site for more than a century. For most of these years, John’s son, George Percival Burchill, would be the sole owner and operator. George Percival Burchill entered politics and eventually became a senator.

Nelson, a rural area, became a village with a new name, Nelson-Miramichi. When the village of Nelson-Miramichi was incorporated, the little communities surrounding Nelson, Nowlanville, Craigville, and South Nelson Road were all incorporated and united under the name Nelson-Miramichi.

Regardless of these apparent changes, George Burchill and Lumber Mill continued to grow and expand, even though the senator would be compelled to spend more and more time in Ottawa. His keen interest in the lumber business never waned.

Senator Burchill maintained that the excellent quality of lumber that he was supplying to the United Kingdom was the real reason for this firm’s lengthy existence. With the exception of one year, the lumber mill operated through the Depression in the 30s. Many residents in Nowlanville, Craigville, Chatham Head, Douglasfield, and the surrounding communities depended on this company as the sole source of their income.

Sometimes three generations of the same family could be found working for this lumber firm. In the summer months, when the lumber mill was operating at peak capacity, the planning mill was going night and day. The Sash and Door Factory was turning out finished products on demand. Included those who worked in the woods supplying the timber and the longshoremen loading steamers, the number of employees at this peak period would range in the vicinity of 300.

Probably Senator Burchill’s greatest characteristic was his ability to instill in his employees the value of their good work. He especially had great respect for any of his long-term employees, considering them a vital part of the company. Senator Burchill was the consummate good neighbour. He could call everybody in the village, as well as the employees, by their first name. Despite the demands of the large business and his obligations as a senator, he made it a point to be close to the residents of his community.

Probably the greatest contribution was the bringing of the airport to Chatham in 1940. Every community on the Miramichi benefited from this. Thousands over the years were employed, and there was never any other employer that engaged so many employees. The payroll from this airport was beyond our imagination. The effects it had on other small businesses or the spin-offs can never be measured.

The next major contribution to the people of the Miramichi, as well as the people of New Brunswick, was the years he spent as chairman of the Board of The New Brunswick Telephone Company.

Then there was the Miramichi Hospital, where he served for years as director. The Chatham Exhibition was another project for which he served as a director for years. Charles Butler, in writing about Northumberland Co-Op Creamery, stated it was senator Burchill who decided that the agricultural societies in the Miramichi area should get together and study plans to lay the foundation for Northumberland Co-Op Creamery Ltd.

Accordingly, several meetings were held, and on Oct. 1, 1942, the Co-op was given the green light to proceed. It is said that when senator Burchill signed the charter, he whispered to J.C. Benett, the agricultural representative at the time, “I hope that when this Co-op materializes and flourishes on this river, that it will be said of the 20 members who signed the charter, Never did so few people do so much for so many.” These were the same words that Churchill had quoted a few months previously.

This was the birth of Northumberland Co-Op Limited. Senator Burchill served two terms on the board of directors. From the very beginning, his interest was keen and genuine. He was instrumental in hiring James Stables as the first manager. Then he recommended John Williston to take over after James Stables resigned.

I was introduced to the Co-op Aug. 10, 1943, by the senator. On April 1, 1947, I assumed the position of manager. When I became manager, most of the directors of the Co-op were already leaders in their respective communities in that they were county councillors. Sheriff Frank A. Menzie was the first president. He was one of those colourful leaders.

The membership of the Co-op today cannot begin to visualize the struggle that was encountered in the early days of the Co-op. The senator always had it in his mind to make better the lot of the farmer. He, himself, maintained a beautiful herd of Jersey cows. He was well aware of the hardship of farming.

In 1951, Charles Butler introduced a check-off for all farmers who supplied cream and milk to the Co-op, the check-off was a system whereby each milk producer would have $8 per month deducted from his milk cheque. This contribution would go to pay off the bank loan of $40,000. Senator Burchill endorsed the check-off. The senator requested that he would prefer to give a personal cheque rather than have the deduction made because he wanted to maintain proper records for his farm operation.

With no check-off on the senator’s monthly cheques, many members were disenchanted. The majority of the members thought he was given special privileges.

As the years went by, no contribution, no cheque was received. But there was an upright reason. About 1955 we were supplying the Chatham Air Base with milk. It was indeed our best account. In those days, milk was delivered in eight gallon cans. It was indeed a shortcut compared to old milk bottles. This milk was delivered before 6:30 a.m. daily.

The contract at that time was for a period of six months. However, when the contract was about to be renewed, I was officially informed that General Dairies had the contract. This firm was located in four centres of the province (Saint John, Fredericton, Moncton, and Bathurst). The Moncton Branch was scheduled to pasteurize the milk and deliver it to St. Margaret’s Radar Station, as well as the Chatham Air Base.

Senator Burchill in Ottawa, but not on the board of directors, was informed immediately that we had lost the contract. He was informed at 10 a.m. and he assured me that he would work on this problem immediately and would have an answer within 24 hours. At 10 the following morning, the telephone rang and it was the senator informing me that I was to continue to supply the milk to the air base for the next six months.

He and several other M.P.s and a cabinet minister from this province had a meeting with the defense minister and the contract with General Dairies was cancelled and awarded to Northumberland Co-op.

I think the loss of this contract certainly put an end to the expansion of General Dairies. Within a year, General Dairies shut down their plant in Bathurst. About a year after the closing of the plant in Bathurst, I met up with Bill McDonald, General Manager of Co-Op Farm Services in Moncton. He stated that he had a conversation with Mr. McLean, the general manager of General Dairies and that Mr. McLean informed him that with the loss of the contract for Chatham Air Base, there was no future for General Dairies in the North Shore. So that was the main reason for ceasing operations in Bathurst. Several years later, General Dairies was purchased by Baxter Dairies. If their branch had not closed in Bathurst, then Baxter’s would be in command of the milk business in that city.

So the membership of this Co-op can never measure the debt, the positive effort, and the co-operation of Senator Burchill. Northumberland Co-op would never had the opportunity to purchase five dairies in the City of Bathurst had Baxter’s made a foothold in that city.

If any member here thinks that Senator Burchill did not contribute his fair share of capital, I want to state firmly that he contributed more than his share. Most members that contributed to the check-off received dividends 10 times over on their investment.

I am enclosing a copy of the letter written by the senator in 1953. Again it shows the influence, the co-operation and the sincerity of this great gentleman. When the letter was written, we were preparing to move from downtown Newcastle to the present location. I say thank you, Mr. Senator, for your knowledge and your capacity to accomplish so much in a lifetime. You have left us with a legacy of good deeds and memories. You were certainly the necessary man in the early years of the Co-ops.

I should mention that when I was appointed manager at the first meeting with the senator present, I informed the meeting that our delivery horse had run away and demolished the wagon. The senator did not hesitate to tell me that this should not have happened and that I had lots of experience with horses and he wanted this situation brought under control. I agreed with him, stating that I never bought the delivery horse and that at the next meeting I would have the best horse on the Miramichi deliver milk. The next morning, I drove to the senator’s office in Nelson and I stated that there was only one horse on the river that could fulfill this delivery service and that was “Pat”, Burchill’s best horse among some 30 horses. He told me to take the horse and we would decide on a price someday. That day never came. He gave up his best horse for a cause which I think he thought was worthwhile.

This was not the first time that the senator gave generously to a cause which he thought was vital to the community. When Father John Ryan was appointed parish priest in Nelson, Father Ryan asked the senator if he would sell one of his purebred Jersey cows. The senator gave Father Ryan the best cow in his dairy herd.

Besides his keen interest at the local level, he still was more active at the provincial level. He was president of the New Brunswick Liberal Association from 1941-1953, chairman of the Maritime Lumber Bureau from 1941-1943, chairman of the board of directors of the New Brunswick Telephone Company for a number of years, a director of Bathurst Power and Paper. He was also a warden of the County of Northumberland and also was instrumental in the building of the courthouse in Newcastle.

There were numerous other organization where he played an important role at the provincial level. The senator was a graduate of U.N.B. having received a science degree in forestry. Several degrees were conferred upon the senator by Kings College in Halifax. He was summoned to serve in the senate in 1945, and resigned in 1977.

He died on August 22, 1977.

His passing left a void on the Miramichi that will be difficult to fill. Many Co-op members never knew him, but I can assure you that you have a richer, fuller life because of the legacy he left.

The highest distinction is service to others. This highly intelligent, successful and brilliant citizen more than fulfilled his duty in this life.


Source: Miramichi Leader – April 1, 2003

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