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Seniors in Profile: Leander Pilgrim retires after 32 years as mayor

Leander Pilgrim of Main Brook stepped down as mayor after 32 years. He’s long worked in the forestry industry in the town as well.
Leander Pilgrim of Main Brook stepped down as mayor after 32 years. He’s long worked in the forestry industry in the town as well.

MAIN BROOK, NL – Leander Pilgrim says there’s much we can learn from the experiences of the past.

And if anyone would know, it’s him.

Pilgrim, 81, has a great deal of perspective on the past, thanks to the 32 years he served as mayor of Main Brook, in addition to many years spent working in the forestry industry from the age of 16.

Pilgrim reflects back fondly on those years, and his reflections function as a testament to the progress this little town on the Great Northern Peninsula has made over the past 50 years or so.

The mayor of Main Brook

Pilgrim first became mayor in 1974 and has assumed that role off and on ever since, until this year.

After 32 years in total, at the age of 81, he decided to retire.

In September, the town held a going away party for him at the community centre.

In the time he was mayor, Pilgrim saw running water and sewer introduced to the town.

When he first started, he says he can remember his mother still bringing in water in buckets.

“I thought ‘my God, is there any way to change things, this got to change, seeing my poor mother bringing in water is a bit ridiculous,’” said Pilgrim.

With the town council, Pilgrim fought hard to successfully bring water and sewer to the town.

Council has been able to get the roads paved to the town over the years.

Back when he started, he can remember gravel roads and he says they weren’t in very good shape.

Today, the biggest challenge facing the town is the same as that of every other town in rural Newfoundland and Labrador: keeping the youth and sustaining the population.

But Pilgrim says Main Brook remains a prosperous town for its size. The town got snow-clearing equipment in the last five years, which he feels was a big achievement with such a small tax base – the town’s population is 243.

When he decided to retire, Pilgrim was worried about who would take over. Those worries went away when he learned it would be Barb Genge.

He calls her one of the best people out there for the position.

Leander Pilgrim, 81, also spent many years working in the forestry industry.

“I think she’s going to make things bigger and better,” he said.

Today, the main employers in the town are the sawmill, fish plant, Tuckamore Lodge, and meat shop.

And Pilgrim has had his hand in much of that.

Starting up in Main Brook

Pilgrim’s own story actually starts in St. Carol’s where his family lived until he was 16.

They moved to Main Brook, where his father sought greater and greener forests: here, there was bigger and more plentiful wood for his sawmill.

Back in those days, they were still using bucksaws. And in the winter, when they did most of the logging as they fished in the summer back then, they used dog-teams and komatiks to ship wood across the land.

When they got horses, they thought they had it made.

“That was a big improvement,” said Pilgrim. “I was only a boy then, right out of school.”

In the early days, Bowater was harvesting pulpwood and shipping it out to Corner Brook.

Before Bowater closed its Main Brook operation in 1968, Pilgrim says they employed people from all over the Northern Peninsula trying to make a dollar.

“They were employing people from everywhere and when they closed down, they pulled the rug out from under our feet,” Pilgrim told the Northern Pen.

By that time, Leander was managing the operation with his four brothers. His father had passed away at the age of 52, and he was tasked with keeping the operation going as the oldest of the 12 siblings.

The Pilgrim Brothers

When Bowater left, Pilgrim Brothers Ltd., as their business was now called, took on a bigger role.

They lined up another company to come into town, Labrador Linerboard, and the Pilgrim Brothers cut pulp for them.

“We was the only employer in Main Brook then,” Pilgrim recalled. “Once Bowater pulled out, there was nothing.”

He estimates there were 65 people on their payroll, most of them from the Main Brook area.

They performed selective cutting, meaning they just harvested smaller trees so that it wouldn’t affect the development of the rest of the forest.

It was a winter and summer operation with the sawmill and pulpwood plant running.

Their harvest was shipped out from Main Brook to Stephenville.

When Labrador Linerboard went under, the Pilgrim Brothers were stuck with 10,000 cord of wood on a landing waiting to be shipped.

“That was one of our disappointments,” said Pilgrim.

They were unable to sell it to Bowater.

People ended up coming from all over the place to take the 10,000 cords of wood to simply use for firewood.

“The Struggle”

In another couple years, with both Bowater and Labrador Linerboard long gone, it looked like the bottom was gone out of the forestry industry.

So the Pilgrim brothers looked towards the fishery.

They built a 55-foot longliner out of their own timber.

Pilgrim says it was one of the biggest longliners around at the time.

“She was a real heavy boat, the timber that went into her was big timber,” he said. “A real hearty boat.”

The brothers, perhaps fittingly, called the vessel “The Struggle.”

“Everybody knowed about The Struggle,” said Pilgrim.

For a couple years in the summer, they used the boat for fishing up off the shores of Makkovik, Labrador.

While his brothers continued on in the fishery after selling off The Struggle and getting a smaller boat, Leander decided to go back into forestry.

He formed his own company with his town sons – Main Brook Forest Products.

Main Brook Forest Products

“We used to do plain lumber for people and their houses and we shipped all over the place, Labrador and up the coast, Stephenville, and places like that,” said Pilgrim.

He added that the people of Main Brook were never dependent on someone else for a job – they always created their own employment through local business.

That was a role Main Brook Forest Products fulfilled.

This operation ran until the mid-1990s. In 1994, his wife, Isabella, started a meat shop, Isabella’s Country Meats, and the family has been busy with that ever since.

They’re still hiring people at the shop, where they process meat.

“If you can create a job for people, that’s a good thing, it’s very important,” Pilgrim advises. “But you got to have a natural resource available to you.”

stephen.roberts@northernpen.ca

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