Mystery of what happened to village’s sawmill and gristmill in late 1800s finally solved
By Steve Hill
Curator, Haliburton Highlands Museum
When Haliburton Village was first settled in 1864 under the direction of the Canadian Land and Emigration Company, the crucial factor that determined the village’s location was the presence of a suitable mill site. The settlers needed lumber to build their homes and the means to grind their grain.
They required food and shelter: sawmills and grist mills were essential to a community’s development. The original means of access to the Land Company’s holdings was up the Kashagawigamog chain of waters by boat from Minden and into Head Lake. The Drag River flows into the lake at its far end. Not far upstream was a small waterfall suitable for powering a mill – a necessity – making it the perfect location for a settlement. These falls were located in the general vicinity of Emmerson Lumber’s present dam. This property was reserved by the Land Company as the Mill Reserve; its ownership or tenancy obligated the resident thereof to ensure that such mills did, indeed, operate and thereby serve the needs of the developing community.
The Land Company welcomed the settlers who purchased lands nearby to set up farms and establish new lives for themselves. One of the Land Company’s initial priorities was the construction of a sawmill to serve the settlers’ needs. Late in 1864 the Land Company’s sawmill was completed and began operating. By 1866, a gristmill had been set up and was running as well. Both these mills were water-powered, straddling the Drag River as its waters rushed toward Head Lake. The history of the mills and their importance to the fledgling community are described in Leopolda Dobrzensky’s wonderful book Fragments of a Dream, along with Kim Emmerson’s well-researched publication The Mill Reserve.
Haliburton Village initially developed in the shadow of the mills; this was the downtown core before the arrival of the railway and the elaborate Grand Central Hotel seemed to draw the focus further down-street. The mills themselves operated for approximately 30 years, perhaps even sporadically toward the end, although the details have evaporated in the mists of time.
Minden Village, established 1859, had a similar arrangement on the Gull River where a sawmill and gristmill faced each other across the river’s roar. These mills served the needs of settlers in that part of Haliburton County and operated for several years; they were torn down in the early 1930s to make way for the Orillia Water, Light, and Power Commission dam and powerhouse set-up. The powerhouse’s Art Deco style is attractive but the quaint old mills which stood there previously were both photogenic and an inspiration to artists with their sketch pads and easels. The image of water tumbling over a rickety-looking dam between two rambling mills appeals to many people’s artistic appreciation and sentiments. That quaint view, so typically associated with Minden, is something that lasted far beyond Haliburton Village’s similar picturesque setting, now long forgotten.
What happened to the Haliburton mills? They were large, imposing structures housing the machinery of civilization so important to a village’s growth and survival. Yet they have seemingly escaped the photographer’s lens and the artist’s brush. They are conspicuous by their absence in old village views of Haliburton from the late 1890s and onward. How could something so important vanish and nobody know what became of them? What happened? This is a quirk that has perplexed every historian who endeavoured to record the village’s bygone days. When Nila Reynolds wrote In Quest of Yesterday commencing in the early 1960s and Ron Curry wrote Haliburton 100 Years in 1964, it seems there was nobody then living who could put closure on the mills’ story. This has long been an embarrassing omission, although not the fault of these authors.
Recently I happened upon a snippet of history that would have been so very welcome by all chroniclers of the village’s past. I had to read it twice, to make sure it really said what I thought – and hoped! It is a very sad story, but it solves the mystery of the fate of the Haliburton Mill Reserve’s sawmill and gristmill. This is a detail of history, a missing link in the museum’s own research over the past 30 years, that has finally been uncovered. It came from the Lindsay Public Library’s local newspaper archives site. It is an excerpt from the Lindsay Warder newspaper of Aug. 27, 1896, p. 7, as copied by them from the Bobcaygeon Independent, and it describes the tragic fire which destroyed the two mills in less than two hours early one summer morning. The Stewart family (who were involved with the Land Company in its earlier years and owned the property where the Haliburton Highlands Secondary School now stands) ran the Independent and often included Haliburton news. We do not know who their Haliburton correspondent was; however, he rather tastelessly refers to the fire as the great event of the year. Sad but true, the sawmill and the gristmill on the Haliburton Village Mill Reserve succumbed to fire in 1896, were totally destroyed, and then forgotten. Long forgotten.
I could not help but wonder what thoughts were running through the minds of the older members of the community as they watched the fire destroy their beloved mills, helpless to do anything about it. They would have remembered the mills’ opening ceremonies and lived through the era of the mills in their heyday and appreciated their importance. It goes without saying that John A. Lucas (1860-1945) of the Grand Central Hotel would have been devastated. His father John Lucas Sr. (1823-1874) was responsible for the establishment of the sawmill in a partnership with William Ritchey and a silent partner, William Gainer, back in 1864, the year of the village’s founding. John Lucas Jr. would have attended the opening ceremonies for both mills, albeit as a very young child.
The following information is gleaned from Emmerson’s book Alexander Niven and Dobrzensky’s Fragments of a Dream. Apparently, Mr. Ritchey was a carpenter and had previous sawmill experience before moving to Haliburton. The extent of the involvement of Lucas and Ritchey personally in the actual construction is not known; such an undertaking would require the use of many hands but, unfortunately, there is no surviving record of the workmen’s names. The project suffered a setback when the dam broke and part of the river bank was carried away, but the repairs were immediate. On Dec. 8, 1864, the sawmill officially opened amid much cheering, speeches by company officials, and a complimentary dinner for all those in attendance. The sawmill used an up-and-down or pit saw to produce lumber for the settlement; it had the capacity of 3,000 feet per day.
In late 1865, Lucas and Ritchey commenced with the construction of a gristmill on the Mill Reserve Lot. It was officially opened on Feb. 6, 1866, amid cheers, speeches and a commemorative dinner, as had been the sawmill. It is not known how much part Lucas and Ritchey played in the actual building process, nor is there any record of the workmen involved. Also, it is uncertain whether they ran this mill themselves. In all probability an outside party was likely hired, for a gristmiller’s job was a skilled profession requiring some years of training.
After a few years, Lucas and Ritchey decided to pursue other interests. In 1870 they sold the Mill Reserve and the mills back to the Land Company, who took over the management of these important community enterprises. Lucas subsequently became a local hotel keeper while Ritchey opened a store in the village. As owners of the mills and the property, the Land Company arranged for their continuance of operation. Their resident agent – local surveyor Alexander Niven – oversaw the conversion of the sawmill from the up-and-down workings to the more efficient circular saw machinery, which allowed for an annual cutting of 600,000 feet of lumber. They experienced a washout of the dam in 1872, but it was soon repaired. It would appear that while the Land Company had taken over the mills, they leased them to outside parties. The full particulars are not known, but the sawmill did end up being run by a partnership known as Boyd and Irwin. This was Gardiner Boyd, a son of lumber baron Mossom Boyd, and James Irwin, Mossom Boyd’s son-in-law. A listing of the gristmill’s operators is not available but by 1878 they were being leased by one Patrick Conway.
The Land Company’s settlement plans suffered serious setbacks by the late 1870s. The poor soil conditions hereabouts, the mass exodus of many of the pioneer families to better lands in the West, the presence of free-grant lands in adjoining municipalities and faulty management decisions all combined to jeopardize their operations. In 1883, the company arranged that the same James Irwin, along with a Toronto lawyer named Lockhart Gordon, act as their commissioners. These commissioners later set up the Canadian Land and Emigration Company of Haliburton Limited in 1889, taking over ownership of the original Land Company at that time. The priority changed from settlement to lumbering. Over the years, the new company squabbled with the municipality on several matters, including taxation, road allowances, water access, etc with some hard feelings, unfortunately. The 1893 insurance plan of Haliburton Village shows both the sawmill and gristmill still standing on the Mill Reserve Lot, but by then the sawmill is marked as being vacant. An interesting riddle is a statement by the late Arnot Roberts of Haliburton (1898-1986), as told to Leopolda Dobrzensky during the course of researching her book. Mr. Roberts claimed that, as a child, he was told that the presence of the sawmill had an adverse effect on the flour produced in the adjacent gristmill; some sort of contamination. He did not know the details, he merely parroted what he had been told by elders. This, he added, compelled the local farmers to take their grain over to Stinson’s mill in Minden for grinding. Thus it may be that the farmers’ trips to Minden for grain grinding began while the Haliburton gristmill was still standing. It is not known for certain when the mills officially ceased operation, but it is known that they were not running at the time of their fiery demise. An item in the Canadian Post from Lindsay, Ont., dated Aug. 21, 1896 states:
“The Irwin Lumber Co. grist and saw mills at Haliburton were burned on Aug. 13th at 4:30 a.m. They had not been operated for some years, owing to a dispute with the corporation [Municipality of Dysart], and most of the machinery had been removed. Incendiarism suspected.”
After the fire, the dwindling number of farmers from the “et al”s of Dysart who required their grain to be ground were compelled to go to Stinson’s mill over in Minden. Those mills were well-known in the county and were a reputable operation, without question. However for the Haliburton farmers it just meant they had a long drive over and back by horse and wagon, a trip that could mean a stay-over at one of the Minden hotels, which was an additional expense. In 1897, the provincial MP John H. Carnegie (Conservative), tried to arrange to amend the municipal act to enable Haliburton townships or villages by giving them the right to grant a bonus or loan to assist in the establishment of a gristmill, but it is not known if he succeeded. Nevertheless, by 1901, the Municipality of Dysart was advertising in The Globe (Toronto) for someone to build a gristmill for Haliburton; unspecified inducements were offered, but nothing seems to have come of this. It does not appear, however, that they considered re-building the sawmill; perhaps there were enough to serve the community’s needs by then.
The sawmill and gristmill which once graced the Mill Reserve Lot in Haliburton Village served the community well in their day. They deserved better than destruction by fire, but at least the mystery concerning their fate has finally been uncovered. Hopefully future local history books that document our fair town can make good use of this information.
Steve Hill is curator of the Haliburton Highlands Museum.