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Milling Through History

Watson’s Mill was built on the Rideau River at Manotick. [PHOTO: COURTESY OF CITY OF OTTAWA]

Watson’s Mill was built on the Rideau River at Manotick.

Escape the super highways and travel the back roads along popular waterways and you will find significant, but often overlooked connections to Canada’s industrial past. Your reward may be a simple limestone wall or the rough outline of a foundation. Or it could be a working mill that is still operating the way it did 100 or more years ago—grinding grain, carding wool or sawing wood.

It is important though, not to be fooled by the apparent quaintness of these living museums, because what seems old-fashioned today was cutting-edge, high technology a century ago. That’s not all: these historical structures were dangerous places to work for the inexperienced and inattentive. Personal mutilation was a constant danger by the roaring belts and spinning shafts; hor­rible death an ever-present option.

Co-owner Joseph Currier sold the mill after his wife’s death. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA033344]

Co-owner Joseph Currier sold the mill after his wife’s death.

To add to the drama, pioneer mills were the economic intersection of pioneers and their barter economy, and the outside world’s cash economy that provided items that the pioneers could not make for themselves. This included everything from buttons and fine cloth to complex farm implements and guns. “Mills kick-started the local economy,” explains Harvey Powell, vice-president of the Canadian Society for the Preservation of Old Mills. “They were considered to be so vital that the British government sent trained millers to Canada to set up ‘crown mills.’ Without them, there would have been no place for the farmers to mill their grain and use its value to buy the goods they needed.”

Typically, mills were located within a day’s wagon ride for farmers, making it possible for them to haul their wheat, wood and wool in for processing without having to travel too far. Of course, the farmers would need some place to eat and sleep when they arrived, and so taverns and inns sprang up along with blacksmiths, stables, feed stores and the all-important mill store. Established by the miller, the latter extended credit to the farmers, allowing them to pay it off with a share of their crop or of the money it generated for the miller. Not surprisingly, all this commerce attracted settlers. In Canada, mills were the foundation on which thriving communities were built.

All told, mills played a pivotal role in Canada’s social and economic development. This is why a working mill can be such an enlightening way to visit the past, especially when you can see all the monstrous spinning parts that make their magic happen.

Where To Find Them

Actual working mills are few and far-between in Canada, but not so rare that you cannot find them. We can’t tell you about them all, but we can give you some examples. For starters, Nova Scotia is home to the Bangor Sawmill in Bangor, the McDonald Brothers’ Sawmill in Sherbrooke and the Carding Mill in Iona, Cape Breton. Ontario has working grist, saw and carding mills at Upper Canada Village; the Lang Grist Mill and the Hope Mill (wool carding) near Peterborough; and Watson’s Mill in Manotick, south of Ottawa. British Columbia has one working pioneer grist mill at Keremeos, plus the fully functional McLean’s Mill at Port Alberni on Vancouver Island.

The Lang Grist Mill operates in the Lang Pioneer Village near Peterborough, Ont. [PHOTO: LANG PIONEER VILLAGE]

The Lang Grist Mill operates in the Lang Pioneer Village near Peterborough, Ont.

The remains of many non-working mills can be found in the Maritimes, Ontario and Quebec, and Canada’s west coast. “However, mills were never a fixture on the Prairies,” Powell says. “By the time these lands were settled, the railroad made it possible to ship grain eastwards to Ontario for processing. Prairie wheat farmers were able to sell their grain, and thus buy the goods they needed with cash without having to go through a miller’s general store.”

Watson’s Mill:  A Time Machine To The Past

Built on the Rideau River south of Ottawa, Watson’s Mill is a monument to the power of 19th century milling. Walk up to this beautifully maintained building—suitably located on Manotick’s Mill Street—and you’ll find an elegant limestone monolith three stories high. Walk inside, and the ceilings are high; the thick stone walls cut open by large, multi-pane windows. If you have any doubt that this mill was built to impress, take a close look at the main floor’s dark wooden support columns. They’ve been topped with scrolled Ionic capitals, as if the mill was a Greek temple rather than an Upper Canada industrial site.

This impression is no accident, explains Watson’s Mill education and programming officer Cam Trueman. “The men who built the mill in 1860, Moss Kent Dickinson and Joseph Currier, were successful local entrepreneurs who wanted to make a statement about their prosperity and vision. They knew that this mill, originally called the Long Island Flouring Mills, would be the centre of the village of Manotick that subsequently grew up around it.”

Dickinson and Currier were also men of technology, as a tour around Watson’s Mill (named for Harry Watson, who purchased it in 1946) readily proves. For one thing, the mill has never used an old-fashioned water wheel. Instead, deep in its basement beside the main flume (waterway) are six turbines. Built by an Ottawa foundry, these turbines are activated by opening gates in the flume. The higher the gate, the faster each turbine spins and the more power it delivers to the millstones above. Not only does this deliver more power than a conventional water wheel, but the turbines don’t freeze up in winter, allowing the mill to run year-round. “These turbines were the latest thing when this mill was built,” adds Trueman. “Today, three of them are still operational, and we rely on them to power our milling operations.”

British Columbia has a working grist mill in Keremeos. [PHOTO: HERITAGE BRANCH, PROVINCE OF BRITISH COLUMBIA]

British Columbia has a working grist mill in Keremeos.

All of the power for the mill—not just the millstones, but the belts that drive the machine, plus the enclosed vertical belts equipped with scoops (elevators) that take the grain from the basement to the attic and down again—comes from the turbines. In the past, they also provided power for a sawmill, a carding mill, and a small bung mill (which made stoppers for barrels) that was on the other side of the river.

The power delivered by these water-driven turbines is tremendous. One look at one of the main vertical driveshafts proves this. Intriguingly, although the three-foot-wide drive wheel is cast iron, its teeth are hardwood. “When this equipment is used, it is not uncommon for the teeth to break under strain,” Trueman explains. “To cope with this problem quickly and economically, the millers made each tooth easy to remove and replace. One nice feature: the slot into which each tooth fits is sloped, so that a long triangular wedge could slide between it and the slot it fit into. As the tooth went under pressure and shifted, the wedge would fall down a little further into the gap via gravity. This meant that it was self-adjusting and self-tightening.”

As you walk up the stairs through Watson’s Mill, the inventiveness of the millers becomes increasingly apparent. For instance, on the horizontal driveshaft that connects to the vertical milling shaft—the one that turns the millstones—there is a small, thin metal ring. It sits loosely on the rod, able to move along as the driveshaft spins. “This ring is actually a form of self-maintenance. As the shaft rotates, the ring moves back and forth, from end to end. This cleans flour dust off the shaft. Add grease to the ring, and it will lubricate the shaft for you,” explains Trueman.

The millstones themselves consist of two horizontal circles measuring about eight feet across. Each one—the fixed bottom stone and the rotating height-adjustable upper stone—consists of grooved pieces of stone. The grain enters in the middle, then, as it is ground, flows out through the grooves to fall into the hopper. Each stone was carefully assembled from smaller pieces of stone which were imported by Dickinson and Currier from France. “These are where the hardest stones could be found for grinding grain, both for fineness and operational durability,” explains Trueman. “As technologically advanced businessmen, Dickinson and Currier were willing to pay extra to buy the best.”

The Bangor Sawmill built in 1850 still operates near  Saulnierville, N.S. [PHOTO: NOVA SCOTIA TOURISM, CULTURE AND HERITAGE]

The Bangor Sawmill built in 1850 still operates near Saulnierville, N.S.

A horizontal wheel mounted next to the millstones allows the miller to adjust the amount of water flowing through the turbines without having to take his eyes off the stones. A second wheel is used to lower or raise the top millstone to achieve the perfect grind.

Up in the attic of Watson’s Mill there is a large suspended rake hovering just above the floor. It is attached to a vertical rod which can be connected to the mill’s driveshaft, which in turn causes the rake to rotate slowly. The device is called a Hopper-Boy, and it is designed to help cool and dry the grain, which has been warmed up by the friction of milling and has released natural oils from being crushed. Invented by the famed milling engineer Oliver Evans, the Hopper-Boy was an automated device that replaced the need for humans to do the job. Unfortunately, it became obsolete when the reduction method of milling made this kind of drying unnecessary.

This is the irony of Watson’s Mill. Although leading-edge when built, constant advances in milling technology forced constant upgrades in the milling equipment. But even that wasn’t enough. Once the Prairies started producing wheat in the early 20th century, the mill’s career in flour milling was doomed. Unable to match the price of Prairie wheat, local farmers switched to cattle or feed crops, forcing the mill to switch to seed separation and grinding for animal feed.

Working in any mill, of course, was dangerous business. A split second of inattentiveness could easily lead to serious injury or death. The story of the ghost of Watson’s Mill can be traced back to a horrific accident involving 20-year-old Ann Crosby Currier, wife of Joseph. The mill’s co-founder had met Ann at her family’s hotel in Lake George, N.Y., in 1860. Currier stayed on at the hotel, and by Jan. 25, 1861, he and Ann were married. A month later, they arrived in Manotick where the Long Island Flouring Mills was about to celebrate its first anniversary.

During a party to mark the occasion, Joseph and Ann were in the mill, but on different floors. He was in the basement while she was on the second level close to a spinning driveshaft. Without warning, Ann’s white crinoline dress was snagged by the shaft, which sucked the fabric in like a line being drawn onto a fishing reel. In no time at all, Ann was swept off her feet and slammed into a support pillar. She died instantly.

Joseph Currier was so devastated that he sold his share in the mill to Dickinson, and never stepped foot inside again. It wasn’t long before stories of a ghostly figure resembling Ann began to circulate. According to some, the apparition of Ann is seen standing at the second floor window in her long white dress and golden blonde hair.

The Steinbach Windmill in the Mennonite Heritage Village in Manitoba is a replica of the original built in 1877. [PHOTO: ©iStockphoto/mikerogal]

The Steinbach Windmill in the Mennonite Heritage Village in Manitoba is a replica of the original built in 1877.
PHOTO: ©iStockphoto/mikerogal

Steam Power

The McLean’s Mill, located in Port Alberni, B.C., is a National Historic Site. Built in 1926, when this was very much pioneer country, the McLean family created the mill to cut and finish local lumber. “There are two circular saws… one being 54 inches in diameter and the other, 50 inches,” explains Neil Malbon, manager of the sawmill. “They are powered by a steam engine built by the Whelan Machine Works around 1890.”

Like Watson’s Mill, the McLean Mill is mechanically automated. “The logs are stored in a log pond, where we attach a cable to them that draws them up to the log deck,” says head sawyer Keith Young. “There is a mechanism that tilts the logs onto the chain feed, then a log turner that helps position the log onto the carriage for cutting. The head sawyer makes the first cut to remove the bark and slab material. He then determines the dimensions of the pieces he can get out of the log. The cants (logs squared on two or more sides) he produces are then sent down the roll cage to the trim saw operator to cut into 18-inch lengths, or to the edger saw operator to see what he can get out of it. The cut wood then goes onto the green lumber chain, to be taken into the yard for sorting, storage and drying.”

Even though its capacity cannot compare to a modern sawmill, McLean’s Mill still manages to earn a living. It can produce 25,000 board feet a day compared to a modern mill’s output of a million or more. “Thanks to our ability to cut very long logs, we can custom-cut beams that are up to 42 feet long and 12 inches by 12 inches,” says Malbon. “There are not many modern mills that can do this.”

In Nova Scotia, the Bangor Sawmill dates back to 1850. It started as a waterwheel-driven mill, but—true to the 19th century hunger for new technology—switched to water turbines in the 1870s. Today, the restored Bangor Sawmill remains in operation, with the sawyer being able to control the speed and location of incoming logs using a simple lever and wheel behind the main circular saw. “In the 1890s, the railway came in, allowing wood cut here to be taken to Yarmouth for shipping by sea,” says Albert Geddry, president of the Bangor Sawmill Museum. “A diesel engine was installed in the 1950s, which increased our output until the market for recreational shipbuilding dried up in the 1970s. The engine was removed and the mill was left alone until 1995, when the local community decided to fix it up.”

In Quebec, the Isle-aux-Coudres (an island in the St. Lawrence River) is home to a working waterwheel mill and a real windmill, each of which produce flour. Both were built in the first half of the 19th century and continued operation well into the 1900s, only to fall into disuse and disrepair. The mills were restored in the 1980s and now play host to thousands of visitors each year.

The Steinbach Windmill in the Mennonite Heritage Village in Manitoba is a replica of a 1972 model destroyed by arson. The first was based on the original Steinbach windmill built in 1877 and demolished in 1920. The current version is a working mill and worthy of a visit.

Finally, for those who prefer to woolgather, the Hope Mill east of Peterborough, Ont., is worth a visit. Restored by the volunteer group, The Friends of Hope Mill, it “was originally built as a carding and fulling mill. Carding refers to preparing wool for spinning and later shrinking. Fulling refers to sizing woven woollen cloth prior to cutting the material into garments. “Carding cost six cents a pound and fulling cost eight cents a yard,” says Friends president Kathryn Campbell. “As did many millers, William Lang extended credit to his customers and carried their accounts, often for several years, until they were able to pay. And being an astute businessman, he charged interest.”

By 1892 the Hope Mill had been converted to sawmill operations with a full workshop for finishing the lumber including planing, edging and lathe work. “When running with a full team of six men, the mill processed over 120,000 board feet of lumber in a season,” Campbell says. Then, as now, “all the equipment in the mill was run by two vertical-shift, water-powered 1860s turbines.”

“The Hope Mill story speaks to the entrepreneurial abilities of the early settlers who brought with them the skills and finances necessary to build and operate a business under very difficult conditions,” adds Campbell.

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To learn more about mills,
visit these websites:

Bangor Sawmill:

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Canadian Society for the Preservation of Old Mills:

Hope Mill:

Isle-aux-Coudres Mills:

McLean’s Mill:

Steinbach Windmill:

Watson’s Mill:

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