November 09, 2014

Trout adventures reveal mill history

As published in Halton HIlls Sideroads Magazine, Fall 2014

When William Trout was 33, he decided to sell his farm in Erin Township and set out to make a name for himself as a mill builder. His wife Catherine was reluctant, but they travelled together in 1835 with their one-year-old son, determined to tame a patch of wilderness north of Georgetown.

More than 80 years later that son, William Henry, would describe the move in his Trout Family History. It includes his mother’s recollection that it was “the beginning of a series of misfortunes”. 

The senior William was born in 1801 in Fort Erie and moved north with his family in 1821. He helped his father and brothers build a dam and sawmill, which made a starting point for the village of Erin in 1826. 

The junior William was born in 1834, the first of ten children. He published the family history in 1916, after retiring as a mechanical engineer and respected mill builder himself. Available free at, the book provides a fascinating glimpse into the pioneering spirit of the era.

The exact location of William and Catherine’s first business venture is not known. The History says, “They bought a site about ten miles south of grandfather's and built a dam on a nice large creek, at one side of which was built a small sawmill, at the other side a small grist mill. Our house was built up on the bank and directly overlooked the mill pond. A magnificently timbered forest covered the country. Game of all kinds was abundant.”

The grandfather was Henry Trout, who had established his homestead about three miles north of Erin village, giving farmland to his sons. William never cared much for farming, however, and with plenty of mill experience, decided build his own.

Life had already dealt him some harsh blows. His first wife Margaret Frank died in 1831. He married Catherine MacKinnon in 1833 and their first son William Henry was born in 1834. Just a few months later, however, six-year-old George from his first marriage died of alcohol poisoning after mischievously drinking from a whiskey jug.

It was a tumultuous time when he built his new mills, working with a trusted business partner. Catherine had two more sons there, and Willam Henry recounts an incident where they were rocking in a cradle next to a large wood stove, imported from Glasgow. A quarrel broke out with a neighbour boy and the cradle fell against the stove, causing some serious burns.

About this time, when William Sr. was repairing a waterwheel, he cut his knee badly with an adz tool. Like any hardy pioneer, he dressed the wound himself and was eager to resume work.

“Mother stood in the doorway and tried to prevent his going, but failed. He got into the water and remained there for over two hours. A sharp pain began in the wound before leaving the water, that was the beginning of three months constantly in bed with great suffering.”

He was unable to work for six months and with debts mounting, his business partner fled the country. Creditors took most of the family’s assets.

“That was trouble, real and deep; but we children knew almost nothing of it. Our real needs seemed always to be supplied, yet we knew no luxury in food, or dress, or amusement,” said William Henry.

His father moved the family about ten miles south to the bustling centre of Norval, and they lived in a home owned by miller and village founder James McNab. William Trout leased, repaired and operated a large flour mill for General Sir Peter Adamson, who was instrumental in the growth of the village. 

The Trouts' Norval home
He later built a distillery for Adamson, as he attempted to pay off his debts. But after a scare in which the young William got sick sampling some whiskey, the father declared it a “curse” and said he “would never do anything to aid or abet this essentially bad business”.

William Trout had been a devout Christian, being baptized into a congregation of Scotch Baptists and serving as a preacher with them in Erin, even though his family was from England and adhered to the Wesleyan Methodists. It was a time of religious upheaval, as the Restoration Movement sought to unify Christians, inspired by the early church of the New Testament.

In Norval he joined the Disciples of Christ, part of a US based movement that stressed bible study rather than strict creeds and rules. Baptism of adults by immersion was important for them and the congregation walked down the river for ceremonies, even in mid-winter.

“The river Credit, a rarely beautiful stream, was a great interest to me,” wrote William Henry. “I early learned to swim, and to fish, and supplied our table with many a meal with the prince of fishes, my speckled namesakes.”

When he was eight years old, William Henry witnessed a big summer meeting of Ontario Disciples, which continued at the river. As an old man, he wrote this:

“The big hills and immense tall pine trees that in the valley tried to equal their companions on the hillside, and that completely shut out the sunlight, the clear flowing wide river showing dark in the restricted light, and the people on the bank who seemed like bright pigmies in the greatness of the place.

“It impressed my childish mind with awe, and enabled me to since understand the feelings of our great American poet [William C. Bryant] who wrote, ‘The groves were God's first temples’. In this sublimely beautiful place seven or eight were baptized.”

The congregation had been founded by John Menzies, who initially held services in members’ homes in the 1830s. William Trout arrived about 1838 and became an elder and preacher.

About 1840, they built a small round-log meeting house on the Tenth Line of Esquesing Township on a parcel of Menzies’ land. The congregation was prosperous and influential, sending William Trout to Ohio for a major conference and as a missionary to Prince Edward County near Belleville to help promote the “simplicity of apostolic times”.

Eventually the congregation declined. The church building was dismantled in 1880 and reassembled on the property of Robert Noble, at its current location on Winston Churchill Blvd. just south of Norval. It became a residence with the addition of a dirt floor kitchen and a sleeping loft.

The building was slated for demolition in 1914 to make way for the Toronto Suburban/Radial Railway, but the route was changed to save the building. In 1920, the roof was extended to create a Craftsman-style front porch.

In 2013, the Norval landmark was again saved from possible demolition when the Town of Halton Hills designated it under the Ontario Heritage Act, as a valuable remnant of local history, and they plan to install a plaque there. 
The Norval church building where Henry Trout preached.
“The building is of cultural heritage value as one of the few remaining log structures in the province,” said Patricia Farley, author of the Designation Report. The logs are covered with stucco on the exterior, and pine in the interior of the building, which is now used as an art studio.

As for the Trout family, they continued to have their troubles in the early 1840s. William rented a small workshop where he built sleighs and took on home-building contracts. But just when he had almost paid his debts from his first mill bankruptcy, a fire destroyed his workshop, tools and supplies, plunging him into debt again.

His congregation took up a special collection and provided him with $50 towards new tools. He made a trip to Toronto to purchase them, and while there made a crucial connection with a Mr. Connell, who wanted to invest in mills on Georgian Bay.

Trout left his family in Norval, travelled with crews through 60 miles of virtually unbroken forest and worked on mills at Hurontario (Collingwood), Meaford, Owen Sound and Sydenham Falls. He was also a founder of the Meaford Disciples of Christ congregation.

There was no regular mail route or rail road to Georgian Bay, so letters had to be carried by incidental travellers. Catherine could not write, so William Henry was her scribe for messages to her husband.

Within two years, William Trout was able to move his family up to the Meaford area. They became prominent and prosperous in that pioneer community, but they always cherished the memories of their adventures in Norval.