ELMSDALE: For the past 70 years, our forests here in Nova Scotia, have been fortunate enough to be cared for by Downey Thompson.
As Elmsdale Lumber prepares to celebrate their 100th anniversary in business, they are also celebrating Thompson’s huge milestone. At the young age of 85, Downey has now worked for the company since 1947, starting when he was just 15-years-old.
Thompson grew up on his family’s mixed farm with a wood lot in Nine Mile River during the great depression. At the age of 10, he began helping his father in the woods before leaving school at the age of 15, taking his love for the forest to Elmsdale Lumber.
“I started working in the woods, supplying logs to the saw mill in Elmsdale, then shortly after that I became a log and trucking contractor for Elmsdale Lumber,” he explained, “Then in 1970, the company never had a woodlands manager before so they asked me if I would do it, so I’d been doing it anyways for a while, so they gave me the title.”
“When I arrived here the company didn’t own any land, they purchased logs, I kind of thought that looking down the road, we should have a timber base so we developed that along with management here. In 2004 I was promoted/demoted to woodlands consultant and my son Stephen took over the woodlands management job and he’s our general manager and also woodlands manager and we all answer to him, including me. He’s been here for about 40 some years.”
Thompson has worked alongside four generations of the Wilber family, who started the company in 1917, the company to this day remains very much so, a family business.
Throughout his career, Thompson said he often worked 100 hour weeks, heading into the woods most days by 6:30 a.m. and not returning home until the late evenings.
“I guess the reason for that was there was either so much to be done or so much I wanted to be done,” he said.
When you hear that someone is putting in 100 hours a week, you can assume that for them that their job, is more than just a job. But listening to Thompson speak about the forest with tears in his eyes, you know there is a genuine passion and love involved in the work he does each day, and a real hope for the industry’s future.
“One of Downey’s passions is communication, and making sure that those lines are kept clean and clear,” said Gennie Himelman, Controller at Elmsdale Lumber, and Thompson’s long-time co-worker and friend, as she talks about the many projects Thompson has taken on over the course of his career that were aimed specifically at educating people about the positive environmental impacts the forest industry brings, and his willingness to be the first to step up and correct anyone who may have any negative or ill-informed opinions about the industry.
He laughs as he tells the story from 10 years ago, that after getting into a bit of an argument with someone who was against the forest industry, he broke down their case with the simple response: “have you come up with any reasonable substitute for toilet paper?”.
One of his “pet projects” that he speaks so highly about is called the Atlantic Provinces Teachers Tour, in which school teachers take place in a four day session with forestry experts, learning about the industry, so they can have a better understanding, allowing them to pass on this knowledge to their students, and encourage them to consider the forest as a viable career option.
“We’ve evolved, there are better ways to keep us well, to keep the forests well so that’s why we need to be passionate about it and have the kids passionate about the environment,” he said.
“I knew at a very early age that forestry is a very important resource because it was renewable, when the oil and coal was gone it’s gone, but the forest, as long as we manage the forest and grow the trees and harvest them and treat the forest right, we’ll always have the Kleenex, toilet paper and paper towel.”
Thompson refers to himself as a half environmentalist, half forest technician, “We can treat the environment right and do the harvesting and not hurt anybody. After the harvest, nature takes care of it with some help from the human beings,” he said.
But not only is Thompson passionate about educating others about the forestry industry, he’s also remained adamant about educating himself to be able to keep up with the industry to make his contribution be as great as it can be. When he began his career harvesting was done by way of axes, saws and horses, in 70 years, the developments have been huge.
“I think the thing for me that I most respect about Downey is that he appreciates new technology, he loves new technology, he embraces it, he says let’s use everything available to us so that we can be the best that we can be,” said Himelman.
“Technology, if you don’t accept it you are not going to get there, it’s moving everyday and it’s moving faster, there is always a new tool coming out and a new way to do things,” added Thompson.
If the 100 hour work weeks weren’t enough time spent in the forest, Thompson said he hasn’t taken a vacation since 1995, which Himelman was quick to correct him on, laughing as she explains that even his vacations were spent scoping out other saw mills across the country.
“I always joke that if you cut him open, he’d bleed sap,” she said.
In his 70 years, he hasn’t taken one sick day.
He has an extensive resume putting in countless hours with various groups and organizations, showing he has left his mark on just about every inch of forest in the province, but he has absolutely no sign of stopping anytime soon.
When asked if there were any retirement plans on the horizon, the response was a blatant, “no.”
He then starts discussing the recent developments on the soft wood lumber agreement between Canada and the U.S., before Himelman interrupts concluding his point, “there is still much work to be done.”