Hugh Leir

This feature originally appeared in The Penticton Herald on Feb. 19, 2007. We are running it as part of our Canada 150 series.

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-and-tumble 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 lower-grade 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.

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