August 26, 2009

New booklet tells story of master mill builder

As published in The Erin Advocate

The recent Doors Open event in Erin was not only a great way for people to learn about the community, but an opportunity to start conversations about how we got here and where we are going.

In that vein, may I recommend a little booklet, just 16 pages, written and published by Tim Inkster of The Porcupine's Quill, called A Brief History of McMillan's Mills. It celebrates the work of Daniel McMillan, a "compulsive entrepreneur" who shaped the industrial design of Erin village between 1829 and 1849.

It is published to mark the third annual Hills of Headwaters Doors Open, a concept started in Europe, encouraging people to enter and learn about places they may not normally visit. The Ontario Heritage Trust – the agency that has replaced our aging historical sign on Main Street – now coordinates the Trails Open and Doors Open programs.

"Erin is one of the places it has been most successful," said Inkster. "It is a way to help the local populace appreciate what we have here. The historical walking tours have been hugely popular." A Brief History of Erin Village, by local historian Steve Revell, was published for the first local Doors Open. The booklets cost $2.

This year, people visited Century Church Theatre in Hillsburgh, the Pioneer Cemetery, All Saints Anglican, Burns Presbyterian, Erin United, Devonshire Guest House, Woollen Mills Conservation Area, the Mundell Mill and The Porcupine's Quill, where the booklet was actually on the press.

It should be required reading for local students and anyone who cares about the village. It brings together the story of McMillan's seven mills and places it in the context of Ontario's population growth and the evolution of industrial technology.

It includes historic photos, maps of the raceways cutting through the downtown, and photos by George Beshiri of the mill-driven nineteenth-century woodworking machinery used to make windows and doors in the Mundell Planing Factory.

The 1838 mill is not being used now, but is still operable, the last intact mill in the Credit Valley watershed. It uses water diverted from the Charles Street dam, built with a sawmill in 1826 by Henry Trout, eight years before the first house went up. The water drops seven metres and generates 30 horsepower through a horizontal waterwheel.

Conducting the tours at Mundell's was Brian Oates, who once operated the mill. When I introduced myself, he asked me if I was the one who had suggested that Erin's dams should eventually come down. We had a good conversation.

He said the mill ponds create an environment that people enjoy, with plants and animals we would not otherwise see here. He values the heritage aspect of the dams, and their usefulness for flood control. He sees the dam and mill not only as an educational resource, but as a potential source of energy.

He agreed that sometimes the pond water is not very attractive, but would like to see it improved, not drained away. The lower pond has 183 years of sediment, which traps nutrients from waste, and who knows what else we have dumped in there. I am sure the folks downstream do not want it.

Tim Inkster, who enjoys the view of water lilies and turtles where his back yard meets the pond, said that even a slight lowering of the dam could create huge mud flats in the shallow areas outside the centre channel. That could lead to an expanse of bullrushes, like those in the upper pond near the Dundas Street bridge. He said water quality has improved since farmers were encouraged to stop grazing cattle near the river.

What else is being done, or could be done to improve our ponds? Is there a long-term strategy for the dams? Trout's 1826 sawmill was already in ruins by 1880, a reminder of the temporary nature of human endeavour. The Credit River flowed a long time before we started building dams, and will flow a long time after we are gone – or at least until the glaciers return, re-organizing the hills and scouring the land clean once again.