Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Quality vs. Quantity

Last summer, I visited Grand Falls-Windsor to go to the local museum (which has an installation on the paper-making process and the mill) and the logger's museum. This year, I returned with a plan to interview a few people to get a feel for how the Grand Falls paper mill experience compared with the Corner Brook experience. I contacted a former reporter for the Advertiser, the Grand Falls-Windsor Heritage Society, and church groups asking for suggestions on who to interview. I also placed an ad in the paper and shared it on Facebook. The ad was seen by a CBC reporter who interviewed me for this morning's show. And with all of these efforts, I managed to arrange two interviews before leaving Corner Brook. I admit, I was a little disappointed, but was truly grateful for everyone who had helped in this process.

When I arrived this morning, I headed downtown to buy a book on the history of the town. It's a beautiful hard cover that I can't wait to read! Then I went to a new coffee shop and did some work before checking into my hotel and having lunch. Over lunch I checked my messages one last time to see if anyone had responded to my ad and much to my surprise there was one call! We arranged to meet at 4:00.

Both of the interviews this afternoon were incredible (the third one is tomorrow morning). Two very open and interesting research participants provided a great deal of information on the whistle in Grand Falls-Windsor and life after the mill. I was struck by their insightful comments on the meanings embedded in sound and the power and place of memory. And then, when I confessed that I had not yet seen the company houses and mill in Grand Falls, one of them offered to tour me around. I followed him in my own car and we stopped periodically as he pointed out architectural features, described the changes that have been made, and identified the heritage areas where the the stone walls must be preserved. After thanking him, I drove to the old mill, now owned by Nalcor, and snapped a photo. With my window down in my car, I was struck by the silence, the lack of smell, and the lack of smoke.

As I drove back to my hotel, I reflected on the day and was reminded of something very important that I lost sight of while planning this trip: in ethnographic research, it really is quality over quantity in many cases. And I had struck gold.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Visit to Engineering

A few years ago during one of my research trips for the Mill Whistle Project, I realized that it would be interesting to know exactly where the whistle is located on the roof of the Corner Brook Pulp & Paper Mill, its dimensions as a sound producer, how it operates, and so on and so forth. I even thought, maybe I'd be able to get a photograph of the whistle to see what it actually looks like. Just how big is that thing?

Well... Today, I had the opportunity to speak with an engineer about the operation of the whistle.

It's been several months in the making. A very kind local reporter (who will remain nameless) shared an email address with me so that I could contact the Mill with my request. Initially I thought I might speak with someone during my June trip, but that didn't quite work out as I had hoped. So, when I found out that I would be in Newfoundland again this month, I tried again. This time, I was able to arrange a meeting. Following minor scheduling difficulties on Friday, I got my chance today. I am incredibly grateful to everyone at the Corner Brook Pulp & Paper Mill who made this happen!

I arrived at the mill gate at 8:40am and identified myself, signing the temporary visitor pass (which, incidentally, is basically a waiver should any injury, damage, or death occur while there). Slowly (so as to avoid transport trucks and the like), I proceeded into what has always seemed like forbidden territory. At the stop sign, I turned right and drove around the front of the Mill -- an impressive sight so close up! Eventually on my right was a blue building that turned out to be Shipping, the place where my grandfather worked so many years ago. Across from Shipping was a brick building marked Engineering. I parked nearby and walked to the door, all the time thinking it would really suck to finally get this interview and then be injured somehow. Extra caution required! I checked and rechecked, and then checked again for good measure, to ensure I wasn't walking into the path of a truck.

Up one flight of stairs was the reception area for the engineering department. Inside, my two contacts were alerted to my presence and not long after I was in a conference room with a diagram of the mill on the table and the engineer drawing locations of the whistle and control room on it. I asked about dimensions, pitch, the pressure of the steam required to operate it, the volume, its operation, the current schedule, the cost associated with operating it, and so on an so forth. As many questions as I could pack into that half hour, I did! And when I asked if there were any photographs of the whistle, I was told that surely there were a few around, but if not, it shouldn't be a problem to go up there and take a picture! Him, not me. A researcher on the roof of the Mill is probably not a good move just from a liability standpoint (though, I did sign a waiver...). So, I'm hoping one day soon to have a photograph of the whistle arrive in my inbox!

Now, I'm deliberately keeping the details of what I learned to myself. I need to go back and listen to the interview to be sure I've got all the facts straight. But here's a shocker for those of you following this project: my contact at the Mill told me there are two whistles! Who knew?!?!?!? Not I, I tell you.

This interview really will add an important dimension to my study. I am so inspired to keep working on this project and get writing an article very soon!


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Tracking Down Newfoundland Books: More Fighting Newfoundlanders

As many of you know, my research on the mill whistle in Corner Brook has led me to learn more about the Home Guard that organized in the community during WWII. In one of many resources I consulted, I read that the book More Fighting Newfoundlanders by Nicholson had a chapter on the "Home Front" and thought it might be of value to my project. My first instinct is always to buy a copy of any book related to my research rather than borrow it from the library. I like to be able to access at will, I suppose. And I especially like to have the books close at hand when writing articles for last minute fact checking.

From a quick search online, I discovered that the book wasn't available new through my usual channels (Chapters and Amazon). It was, however, available used on AbeBooks with several copies priced between $25 and $50 US (used copies were also available on Amazon, but at higher prices). Armed with this information, I headed to a local book seller to see if there was a copy available. I'd always prefer to support a local business if possible. As I expected, the local seller did indeed have several used copies of the book. However, it seems he believed them to be "rare" and out of print. The price: $95. I tried negotiating, thinking that $40 would be a fair price based on my research, but didn't get far. I left empty handed.

Then I thought back to other research projects and recalled that I had luck finding obscure items (like a CD of patriotic songs) on a website called Tidespoint.com. I remembered being impressed with the selection and speed of service, and decided to search their site for curiosity's sake. Sure enough, More Fighting Newfoundlanders was available NEW for $39.95. I placed the order on June 20th and on June 26th when I returned home from work I discovered the book in my mailbox. That's fast. And sure enough, it's brand new. I can't wait to read it this weekend!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

How beautiful is this place?

I'm presenting a conference paper tomorrow on the research I've conducted over the past few years, but what I'd really like to do is just show pretty pictures of Corner Brook and listen to all the different recordings of the whistle that I've made... and maybe hike everyone down to the Corner Brook stream trail for 4pm and let them all see and hear it for themselves...

Friday, June 14, 2013

Presenting a Research Update on the Mill Whistle Project

On Monday, the annual meeting of the Folklore Studies Association of Canada will begin at Memorial University's Grenfell Campus. In the first session, I'll be presenting a research update on the "Hum on the Humber" project, which I more often refer to as "The Mill Whistle Project." While I'll provide a brief overview of the research, I'll focus specifically on the relationship between the mill whistle, remembrance, and World War II. Drawing on archival and ethnographic research from 2012, I'll explain the role of the whistle as a signalling device during the war years to warn of perceived enemy threat and/or assemble the Home Guard; describe its use to celebrate -- and notify the community of -- the end of the war; and discuss its continued use in Remembrance Day ceremonies.

I'm looking forward to hearing the feedback of colleagues, some who are familiar with the project and some who'll hear about it for the first time. I'm sure to have new ideas and avenues to pursue following the discussion!


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Acting Out the Paper Production Process

Last summer, I was excited to discover that in 1995 a theatre class at Grenfell had worked on a production called When the Whistle Blows. After some digging, I got in touch with the director of the masterclass, Tessa Mendel, who very kindly sent me a VHS of one of the rehearsals. Chris Jones at the Centre for Cape Breton Studies digitized the recording and burned a DVD for me, and last night I watched it for the first time with one of the performers.

Now, it's important to note that it is a recording of a rehearsal -- parts weren't memorized, staging was still in flux, and even the order of scenes wasn't yet set in stone -- but the two-hour video provided a very good understanding of the content of the production. Of course, watching it with one of the performers was a great help -- she explained the background of the project (students were involved in research, writing, and staging), described the dress of actors in performance, and pointed out where scene order was changed. She also managed to identify all of the performers!

Two parts stood out for me. First, there was an absolutely hilarious scene that demonstrated the paper-making process. Actors mimicked machinery -- both in sound and movement -- and one even played the part of a log going through the chipper. Then there was a great scene where an elderly man reflecting on life says, "I listen for when the whistle blows and then I know I'm home." It's during this scene that we hear an original song with the refrain "When the whistle blows." It's sung by the cast and accompanied by guitar, and it's a very pretty and poignant song.

I can only imagine what the final production looked like and how it might have been received both here in Corner Brook and in other towns like Grand Falls (which at the time of the performance still had an operating mill). Fortunately, it looks like I may actually get to see one of the performances. I've been in touch with an instructor at Grenfell who has located a video of the performance and is working on having it digitized for me. I can't wait to see it!


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Quality Time With The Western Star

I've always wondered how and when the mill whistle became associated with Remembrance Day, marking the two minutes of silence. In the past few days, I've been trying to come up with strategies to pinpoint this information, since in conversations and formal interviews no one seems to know the history behind it -- just that it's "always" been that way.

Since the mill whistle is barely mentioned in most publications (for example, I can't recall reading those words at all in Horwood's "Social History of a Paper Town"), it seems unlikely that I'll stumble upon it in similar sources. I expect that papers related to the mill may have documentation of this practice hidden in them, but of those I've been able to access and search, nothing has turned up. So, then I thought that perhaps there might be some description of the observance of Remembrance Day or Memorial Day in the local newspaper, then a weekly publication. I decided to begin my search today at the library at Memorial University -- Grenfell Campus.

I started with the DAI (Digital Archives Initiative), which has scanned to PDF (and indexed!) issues of the Western Star dating between 1900 and 1926. While I found a few interesting references to mill whistles being used to help locate individuals lost in the woods and to summon the fire brigade in areas like Grand Falls (which will provide great comparative narratives), I found no references to mill whistles in relation to Remembrance Day or Memorial Day, and no references at all to the Corner Brook mill whistle. This isn't entirely surprising, given that the mill only opened in 1925, but one has to be thorough and there were other mills with whistles operating in Corner Brook prior to the opening of the paper mill.

Unfortunately, once you get to April of 1926, you have to switch to microfilm to read the Western Star. No convenient search mechanisms available here. As a matter of fact, you might even need special training to operate the rather terrifying machine on which you are expected to read the film. It took me forever to get it loaded and then even longer to locate someone to point out the obvious means of rotating the page ninety degrees (boy did I feel stupid). I decided to search around the two dates in question -- July 1 and November 11 -- as a way to trim down a gargantuan task. I managed to scan through 1926 and 1927 before my eyes decided to go on strike. A migraine quickly approaching, I decided three hours of staring at glowing screens was more than enough for one day. I walked away empty-handed, at least in terms of my quest to find references to the mill whistle, but thinking that perhaps over time the answer could be found.

I also realized that my approach may be flawed. You see, newspapers of the past aren't like those of today. Yes: Mistress of the Obvious, reporting! I think I knew that. I mean, I often laughed at the thought of columns dedicated to naming who had arrived by train that week and/or checked in at the Glynmill Inn. But I made the erroneous assumption that beyond this there would be coverage of local happenings. The reality is, there isn't much local in the local paper from that time period. A great deal of each issue is devoted to international news and advertisements, with the occasional update from the paper mill. Local columns are informative: remember to support the poppy campaign, there was a dance the day after Memorial Day, etc. They aren't particularly descriptive, as least not in the way modern papers are. So, I may not find an entry that describes how Remembrance Day and Memorial Day were observed in the early years of Corner Brook. And even if I do chance upon such a reference, the most it would give me is the first time the whistle was mentioned in news coverage of an event -- and that may indicate more about changes in reporting styles than anything else.

Still, it's my plan to continue this search for descriptions in the newspaper with the help of an assistant. And I will keep my fingers crossed that the remaining years of the Western Star are digitized soon to allow for even better searching for future projects!

If you have thoughts on how/where I might find the answer to the question of when and how the mill whistle became part of the Remembrance Day observance, please send me a message at millwhistle@hotmail.com.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

History of the Mill and Corner Brook

As part of the mill whistle project, I've been searching for relevant publications on the history of the mill and Corner Brook more generally. So far, I've found three primary sources:

1. Corner Brook: A Social History of a  Paper Town by Harold Horwood. Breakwater Books, 1986.
This is the first resource everyone points to and several people who completed the survey mentioned it. I found a copy on ABEBooks for an absolute steal and it's in great condition. I'm excited to see that there is a chapter on the War Years, since this has been an important recurring theme in my research thus far.

2. Global Game, Local Arena: Restructuring in Corner Brook, Newfoundland by Glen Norcliffe. ISER Books, 2005.
This resource seems to be less known locally; however, it provides an interesting look at life in a company town. Of particular interest to my project (I think) will be the chapter on "Patterns of Work and Family Life." While I don't expect it will have much to tell me about the sonic environment or the mill whistle specifically, it should fill in details regarding the shifts that were worked and how they changed over time, etc. This book is available by mail-order from ISER Books.

3. Company Towns: Corporate Order and Community by Neil White. U Toronto Press, 2012.
This book takes a comparative approach, contrasting two company towns: Corner Brook in Canada and Mount Isa in Australia. While it works its way through comparison of power and management structures, built environments, and labour histories for each town, likely the most valuable parts will be those addressing daily life in the community. The book, which is a smidge pricey, is available from Chapters and Amazon.

So, this will be my reading for the next little while. Am I missing a great resource? If so, please share! You can tweet a suggestion at @Dr_Janice_Tulk or email the Mill Whistle Project at millwhistle@hotmail.com.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Sharecroppers 25th Anniversary Tour

Well, this blog has been dormant for a while. Too long, in fact. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to juggle multiple sound- and music-focused research projects while also being a full time researcher in an unrelated discipline (business). I'm doing my best to keep this one afloat.

In March, I was scheduled to present on the Mill Whistle Project at Cape Breton University's Research Week. I got to talk about the project on CBC Radio and it seemed to resonate with people in the Sydney area given that the soundscape here once featured signalling devices related to the mines and steel plant. Unfortunately, the presentation was cancelled due to a storm day. I'm hoping that it will be rescheduled sometime in the near future.

Tonight I'm wishing I was in Corner Brook. About two weeks ago I saw a tweet by CBC Radio in Corner Brook indicating that the Sharecroppers were touring Newfoundland in celebration of their 25th anniversary. Naturally, I contacted Mike Madigan and asked whether their song about the mill whistle would be part of the line up. Of course it is and Mike graciously gave permission for me to send a research assistant to the Church tonight to record the live performance of "Mill Whistle" as part of the Mill Whistle Project. So wandering ethnographer Ryan is installed in All Saints Anglican Church tonight with a video camera. He tells me it is well attended with a door count of 160. I'm sure that many of the songs, including "One Room School" are bringing back great memories tonight.

I'm hoping that I'll be home again soon to continue work on this project. Until then...