August 05, 2009

New trail signs reveal history of Woollen Mill

As published in The Erin Advocate

It may be hard to imagine downtown Erin as an elaborate industrial complex, but in the mill-driven economy of the 1800s, that's exactly what it became. A new series of signs being erected on the Woollen Mills Trail is designed to bring that part of Erin's history to light.

The trail starts at the end of what was originally called Factory Lane. Now it is Woolen Mill Lane, off Millwood Road, just across the West Credit River behind Mundell Lumber. The trail runs between the river and the St. John Brebeuf schoolyard, which in the 1850s was the Erin Fairground.

As the trail enters a thicket of eastern white cedar, it crosses a large ditch. This is one of three major flumes, also called millraces, built between 1838 and 1849. They enabled millers to divert water from ponds, created with dams on the river, to the drive wheels of their mills.

The first was a flume from the Charles Street Dam to the Oat Mill, which later became the Mundell Planing Mill. The longest flume in the county runs from the Church Street Dam (behind the current Busholme Inn) to the Grist Mill (behind the current Budson Farm & Feed).

The West Credit flows south, then turns sharply north, where it would receive water back from the two upstream flumes. Then it flows into Woollen Mills Conservation Area, and turns east. The modern trail loops through this bend, where a dam, flume and grist mill were built in 1840. Ten years later it was converted to a carding or woollen operation, where wool was combed and prepared for spinning.

Daniel McMillan, with his brothers Charles and Hugh, was the driving force in this series of ventures, with seven mills serving the rapidly growing farm community in Erin Township. Before 1852, the village was known as McMillan's Mills.

"It was a wild and woolly time," said Erin history buff Steve Revell, who helped write the text for the trail signs. "I am amazed at the strength and ingenuity of our pioneers."

Also working on the signs was Amy Doole of the Credit Valley Conservation Authority (CVCA). She coordinates WeCARE (West Credit Appreciation, Rehabilitation & Enhancement), a project to clean up and restore the river, and educate the public about it.

On Saturday August 15, as part of the Erin Doors Open event, Revell and Doole will be conducting guided walking tours of the Woollen Mills Trail, at 11 am and 2 pm. Meet in front of The Porcupine's Quill, 68 Main Street.

The Town has spent $5,000 on the five signs, while the CVCA is providing labour, including trail pruning and cleanup by students with the Credit Youth Corps. The signs, created by As the Crow Flies Cartography, are also sponsored by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

The project has been promoted by Bill Dinwoody of the Town's Recreation and Culture Advisory Committee, and the Trails Subcommittee. If you would like to be involved in trail planning and improvement, call the Town office at 519-855-4407.

Revell is hoping that the success of the Woollen Mill project will spark interest in improving other village trails, such as the Height of Land (Water Tower)Trail.

The Mundell mill was still in occasional use up to the 1980s, but as technology and the economy evolved, most water-driven mills were left behind much earlier. The Woollen Mill was abandoned before World War I and the dam removed. Many Erin residents had hoped that the ruins of the mill could be preserved, but in October of 1995, with the walls disintegrating, the Village decided to bulldoze the site. It had become a safety hazard, and restoration was considered too costly.

The land around the mill, which had been stripped bare in the 1800s, is now forested, but the natural river ecology has not fully recovered from the damage caused by milling. Through WeCARE, sediment traps have been placed in the water, to narrow the channel where the Woollen Mill pond once was.

Sooner or later (probably later) the other dams in the village should come down too. How much benefit do we get from our mill ponds? Should we preserve them forever, as historical artifacts from the Victorian era, or should we return the river, as much as possible, to its natural state?

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