The life and legacy of Hugh Leir

Penticton Herald - - OKANAGAN - By JOYCE LANGERAK

It’s al­most 3 p.m. and chil­dren pour through the glass front doors of Leir House b Cul­tural Cen­tre — one boy with a vi­o­lin and oth­ers on their way to piano and voice lessons.

The big stone house is head­quar­ters of the Pen­tic­ton and District Com­mu­nity Arts Coun­cil, ac­tive in the city since 1960.

All over the house, and even in tiny stu­dios built into stone out­build­ings, artists and mu­si­cians work, play and teach another gen­er­a­tion of Pen­tic­ton chil­dren the rap­ture of artis­tic and mu­si­cal cre­ation.

“My mom and dad would be so happy to hear all th­ese things go­ing on, like the mu­sic,” said artist Jill Leir Salter, seated at the for­mal din­ing room table in the house where she grew up. Now 82 (at the time of this 2007 in­ter­view), Jill is the mid­dle of 11 Leir chil­dren — seven daugh­ters and four sons.

Her en­tre­pre­neur­ial father, Bri­tish-born Hugh Charles Mus­grove Leir, at one time em­ployed as many as 100 men in a town of about 3,000. Leir kept many Pen­tic­ton fam­i­lies in work for years ex­pand­ing and up­grad­ing log­ging in the Pen­tic­ton area. For six decades, the Leir name was associated with Pen­tic­ton devel­op­ment, be­gin­ning in the pi­o­neer days.

De­spite enor­mous dif­fi­cul­ties pre­sented by the Great De­pres­sion and two world wars, her father was al­ways a good provider, said Jill.

Born in 1880 in Som­er­set, Leir ar­rived in Hal­i­fax in 1902 with 50 cents in his pocket. A typ­i­cal prod­uct of Vic­to­rian Eng­land, his life was nev­er­the­less in some ways par­al­lel to those of to­day’s youth. MA­JOR AD­VANCES Dur­ing Leir’s boy­hood, mas­sive trans­for­ma­tions oc­curred in tech­nol­ogy and medicine. The year be­fore his birth, Thomas Alva Edi­son in­vented the light bulb. When Leir was a tod­dler, the mo­tor­car was in­tro­duced by a Ger­man, Got­tlieb Daim­ler. In France, Louis Pas­teur de­vel­oped vac­ci­na­tions for sheep and cat­tle, and Bri­tish chemist Joseph Lis­ter led the way with an­ti­sep­tic con­di­tions for surgery.

By the time Leir reached kinder­garten age, hy­dro-elec­tric­ity was be­ing pro­duced at Ni­a­gara Falls and when he was in his early 20s, Wil­bur and Orville Wright made a 12-sec­ond air flight.

Lo­cal his­to­rian Charles Hayes au­thored a book about Pen­tic­ton’s lum­ber gi­ant ti­tled “HUGH LEIR: The Re­mark­able Enigma.” In the 1999 pub­li­ca­tion, Hayes ex­plained that Leir, the son of a long line of Angli­can min­is­ters, had gone through the usual ed­u­ca­tional stint, in­clud­ing two years at War­wick, one of Bri­tain’s old­est pri­vate schools.

In 1902, he coaxed his father into giv­ing him cash for a one-way ticket through Canada to New Zealand where a rel­a­tive had es­tab­lished a farm.

Af­ter land­ing in Hal­i­fax, he worked his way west, tak­ing farm jobs to pay his fare on the Cana­dian Pa­cific Rail­way. Once he saw the Okana­gan and Sim­ilka­meen Val­leys, Leir did not want to leave. Among a va­ri­ety of jobs, he was a labourer at a sawmill near Hed­ley.

“One very in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic about my father, he bluffed his way into a lot of things,” said Jill. Prior to leav­ing Eng­land, Leir was a bank teller — a job he loathed. A bank in­spec­tor asked staff if any­one knew about a new in­ven­tion — an ad­ding ma­chine.

“He put up his hand be­cause he was sick and tired of be­ing a teller,” said Jill. “So he took it all apart and put it back to­gether and learned how to use it.” Leir was then cir­cu­lated among other banks as an ad­ding-ma­chine re­pair­man.

“It’s the same way he got into the sawmill busi­ness,” said Jill’s hus­band of 60 years, Derek Salter. “He had to learn on the job.” Derek, 84 (at the time of this in­ter­view), moved to Pen­tic­ton at age five and has known the Leir fam­ily through­out his life.

He worked for his father-in-law fol­low­ing his mar­riage to Jill in 1947, but af­ter a year, moved on to a po­si­tion as fore­man of the Oliver Ranch at Okana­gan Falls owned by Char­lie Oliver. “He was arch en­emy of Hugh Leir,” said Derek, “mostly be­cause of wa­ter rights.”

“My father loved a hot dis­pute,” added Jill. “He was a rough-and­tum­ble busi­ness­man.” “He got beaten up a few times,” noted Derek.

In 1905, Leir bor­rowed money from an un­cle in Eng­land and bought land be­side the trail to the Carmi gold mine. Liv­ing in a cabin above a por­ta­ble sawmill, he be­gan us­ing lum­ber con­tracted through the South­ern Okana­gan Land Co. to man­u­fac­ture wa­ter flumes.

A con­tract to de­liver three mil­lion board feet of flum­ing boards by 1908 was met, said Jill. “Th­ese are heavy boards. He had the first mil­lion by 1906. He seemed to take over the flum­ing busi­ness and got a start.”

In 1910, with the Carmi mill still in op­er­a­tion, Leir es­tab­lished a larger sawmill, the Leir Lum­ber Co., on the flat­lands be­tween the two lakes. It stood near what is now the in­ter­sec­tion of the Chan­nel Park­way and Duncan Av­enue West.

While Leir was among the most prom­i­nent busi­ness­men in Pen­tic­ton at the time, his life was far from easy. In 1914, shortly af­ter mar­ry­ing English im­mi­grant Joyce Lane Has­sell, he served in the Great War. From 1914-1918, Leir was over­seas.

Upon his re­turn, he dis­cov­ered the busi­ness was bor­der­ing on col­lapse. Tim­ber was gone and had not been re­placed; tim­ber ti­tles had been ne­glected, pro­duc­tion costs had gone up and war con­di­tions had cut off some pre­vi­ously es­tab­lished mar­kets.

On top of that, in 1919 the sawmill was de­stroyed by fire — one of four that would level it over its 61-year life span. Re­sum­ing op­er­a­tions proved costly be­cause ad­e­quate in­surance on the mill had not been main­tained in Leir’s ab­sence.

In 1921, Pen­tic­ton Sawmills Ltd., largely fi­nanced by over­seas cap­i­tal, took over the Leir Lum­ber Co. Though the new com­pany ap­peared ad­e­quately fi­nanced, the de­pres­sion of 1921 sup­pressed rapid growth.

In the mean­time, how­ever, the fruit in­dus­try in the Okana­gan grew fast, pre­sent­ing the op­por­tu­nity for Pen­tic­ton Sawmills to pro­duce “box shook” — dis­as­sem­bled wooden fruit boxes. Such a mar­ket re­quired low­er­grade lum­ber for which no other mar­ket had pre­vi­ously ex­isted.

To par­tic­i­pate in the box shook in­dus­try, the mill bought ex­pen­sive equip­ment in the mid-1920s. It was ex­pected the move would ini­ti­ate a well-bal­anced op­er­a­tion with lower grades of lum­ber used for box shook and higher grades shipped to strong prairie and Amer­i­can mar­kets.

Again, with the on­set of the Great De­pres­sion in the 1930s, Leir’s com­pany sus­tained a heavy blow. The in­tro­duc­tion by Amer­i­cans of a tar­iff that cut him out of the U.S. mar­ket left only the box shook end of the busi­ness vi­able.

Through­out th­ese eco­nomic strug­gles, the Leir fam­ily con­tin­ued to ex­pand. A home had been built on the sawmill site where eight of the Leir chil­dren lived prior to their move to Leir House, but Joyce wanted her chil­dren away from the dan­gers of the mill log-pond on one side and the Ket­tle Val­ley Rail­way on the other. PIC­NIC SITE In 1927, ex­ca­va­tion be­gan on the wooded, 10-acre plot known un­til then as Pen­tic­ton’s pic­nic site. Halted by the de­pres­sion, work resumed on the house in 1929 us­ing lum­ber from the mill for which there was no mar­ket. The fam­ily moved in in 1930.

Con­struc­tion was su­per­vised by Leir us­ing mill em­ploy­ees. The 25-room house was de­signed by Leir and his wife with 10 bed­rooms up­stairs, all with wash basins, a large bath­room and play­room ringed by a wide, circular hall­way. There, the chil­dren roller skated and rode scoot­ers, pro­duc­ing a din so loud, Dad didn’t like it.

Dur­ing the de­pres­sion there was no mar­ket for the studs pro­duced by Leir, so the walls were con­structed of stacked two-by-fours faced with studs stand­ing tightly to­gether.

Leir, who planned to face the home with stucco, no­ticed one worker was a skilled stone ma­son. From then on, thou­sands of rocks from the dry stream bed where the base­ment was ex­ca­vated were used to face the house, con­struct out­build­ings and build low rock walls around the prop­erty.

De­scribed as a “worka­holic”, Leir never let up. Joyce gave birth to three more chil­dren fol­low­ing the move and as Derek re­called, “He would work, work, work. He’d ex­pect ev­ery­body else to work hard, too. I’d say in those years, he was do­ing the work of three men — tim­ber cruis­ing, go­ing out to buy tim­ber.”

Jill re­calls mas­sive tracts of land owned by her father both for tim­ber and grow­ing hay for the mill horses. There was no such thing as clear-cut­ting, she noted. Leir used horses, and later, ma­chin­ery for se­lec­tive log­ging only.

Her mother was “very long-suf­fer­ing, a gen­tle woman,” said Jill. Though Joyce did not en­joy be­ing the host­ess of tea par­ties for her con­tem­po­raries, Leir House be­came a gath­er­ing place for teens. Joyce formed Pen­tic­ton’s first Teen Town with its own mayor and coun­cil, chap­er­on­ing dances up­stairs at the Pen­tic­ton Aquatic Club and host­ing games on the main floor. Her ef­forts earned her the ti­tle “Mother of the Teen Town Move­ment”.

By then, she and Hugh had be­come dis­tant. “He would come in late — eight or nine o’clock and have his din­ner,” re­called Jill. “My poor mother.”

Just weeks be­fore her death in 1955, Joyce’s son, John, be­gan plan­ning to take over the mill’s op­er­a­tion, which he con­tin­ued to do fol­low­ing its sale in 1966.

By then, his father was liv­ing in Abbey House in Eng­land, an an­cient home he had in­her­ited through his fam­ily. He died there in 1971.

Twenty years ear­lier, in 1951, Leir House was sold to the Pen­tic­ton Re­gional Hospi­tal for nurses’ res­i­dences. The Pen­tic­ton and District Com­mu­nity Arts Coun­cil pur­chased the build­ing in 1979.

Her dad was a bit of an enigma, ad­mit­ted Jill — an ornery man once fined for not pay­ing his in­come tax. He was also gen­er­ous, dis­creetly dump­ing fire­wood in front of the homes of First Na­tions peo­ple and the poor and do­nat­ing to char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“He had sort of two per­son­al­i­ties,” said Jill. “He was charm­ing, and a gen­tle­man, but he could be very dif­fi­cult to work for. He used to tell us that the rea­son he got ahead in his busi­ness was be­cause he didn’t drink and gam­ble.”

While the other guys were out drink­ing on the week­ends, Leir was out scout­ing for more tim­ber. “He was very much a duty-bound church man,” said his daugh­ter.

This fea­ture orig­i­nally ap­peared in The Pen­tic­ton Her­ald on Feb. 19, 2007.

Hugh Leir

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