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Valuing Our History

by Stephen Thorning




Arsonist set fire to Peoples Mills in Guelph in 1864

Flour mills were the key industries in Ontario’s towns and villages during the middle part of the 19th century.

Compared to other industries, they represented a huge investment in equipment and working capital. After 1850 or so, flour mills paid cash for their grain, and all that money sustained many businesses in the towns where they were located. Mills indirectly supported other industries, particularly freighting and barrel making. They were the key factor in sustaining towns and villages.

Mills were also dangerously susceptible to fire. Overheated bearings could cause a blaze, and the dust in the mills, under certain conditions, could be explosive. Mills using steam-powered equipment were particularly vulnerable to fire. Few mills escaped fire, and at least one, the Elora Mill, was destroyed three times.

Most feared of all was the arsonist. Several mills were deliberately set ablaze in this area. One, the People’s Mill in Guelph, was torched twice.

The People’s Mill, as it was known for much of its active life, has the distinction of being the oldest industry in Guelph and Wellington County. David Gilkison, the son of the founder of Elora, William Gilkison, established the business on a modest scale in 1829, at what was then the northern edge of the settlement, on the Speed River. The younger Gilkison was no businessman, and he lost his shirt on the venture.

Over the next 15 years the operation, known originally as the Wellington Mills, passed through a number of hands. In 1845, medical partners Dr. Henry Orton and Dr. William Clarke purchased the business and expanded its capacity.

By the late 1840s Guelph Township’s farmers were producing large quantities of wheat, making the mill a potentially profitable business.

Dr. Clarke spent most of his time and energy on his business ventures and his political and social ambitions, rather than medicine.

Outspoken and contemptuous of others, he made enemies easily, particularly so in the heated political atmosphere of the late 1840s. He was a Protestant, and quickly earned the contempt of some of the Irish Catholics in the community. Dr. Orton would later confess that the greatest regret of his life was to become involved in business with Dr. Clarke.

In 1847, a Catholic Irishman, inflamed at some of Dr. Clarke’s pronouncements, set the mill ablaze. Afterward, Dr. Orton carried on the business alone after rebuilding the mill in 1849 and renaming it the People’s Mills. Orton had no taste for business, and sold out in 1852. The mill passed through several changes of ownership during the 1850s, and eventually wound up in the hands of W.P. McLaren and Adam Brown, Hamilton businessmen who held the mortgage on the property.

McLaren and Brown leased the mill to Charles Whitelaw, of Paris, in 1858. Whitelaw was a most interesting character.

He owned his own mill at Paris, and in the 1860s he built up an empire by leasing a number of mills up and down the Grand River Valley, including the large mills at Elora and at Salem. For a few years during the 1860s he was the second largest producer of flour in the province.

On the evening of June 8, a Wednesday, manager Andrew Gay was working late in the office of the People’s Mill. The mill itself had been shut down since the previous Monday, but the men were still on the job that week, attending to maintenance and cleaning, and moving grain between bins. That day they had spent most of their time in the bran house, in its own building about 20 feet from the mill itself. There were no fires lit that day in any of the stoves in the office.

Gay locked up the office and departed from the office at 7pm. Soon after, James Arkell, the head miller, finished his duties and locked up the mill.

A few minutes before 10pm Jim Butler, an employee of William Hockin’s barrel making shop, and who was working late that night, noticed a glow coming from the mill, which was across the river. He ran at once to the building. There he met a teacher named Morrison, who was out for a walk, and who also had noticed the flames.

The men ran downtown and turned in an alarm. Guelph’s volunteer fire fighters were on the scene in less than 15 minutes, but by then the fire had advanced considerably, burning not only the barrel house but also the main building. Residents of the neighbourhood appeared before the fire brigade arrived, as did Andrew Gay, who directed volunteers in taking papers and records out of the office.

The volunteers hacked a hole in the side of the storage wing, and removed barrels of flour as the firemen played a stream of water on the roof of the building. Then they turned to the mill itself, dragging out furniture and even some of the milling stones.

The flames rose through the main building, then burst through the roof, producing a spectacular sight visible all over the town as the flames rose 40 and 50 feet into the sky. All the firefighters could do was step back from the heat and keep the flames from spreading to other structures.

At the height of the fire it seemed that Hockin’s barrel and stave factory was in danger, as the flames spewed a continuous stream of wind-driven burning embers across the river.

Fortunately, there had been a shower earlier in the evening, and the shingles on the roof were damp. Even so, the roof caught fire a couple of times. Some of the volunteers, standing on the roof and armed with buckets of water, extinguished the outbreaks at once.

There was no hope of saving the main building of the mill. Also lost was a shed containing 16 tons of bran. Though the volunteers saved most of the flour from the flames, some of it was lost when the barrels broke as a result of rough handling when they were removed from the mill.

The fire had started in the storage wing of the mill, a wooden structure which had contained about 1,000 empty barrels. All were lost. Also consumed were some 4,300 bushels of wheat in the mill.

Unlike most millers, Charles Whitelaw carried fire insurance on the inventory he had in the mill. His loss was slightly more than the $4,000 value of his policy. McLaren and Brown, who owned the building, did not reveal the amount of their loss, but they were also covered by fire insurance.

The loss of the People’s Mill struck a severe blow to the Guelph economy. The mill itself had been rebuilt in 1849 after the first fire, and was 15 years old, but most of the equipment was newer. The owners and mortgage holders, W.P. McLaren and Adam Brown, were astute businessmen and realized that the property needed the most up-to-date equipment to be viable.

In 1864, the operation was slightly smaller than Allan’s Mill, located downstream. Nevertheless, it processed a huge volume of grain and employed 18 men directly. An even larger number worked for Hockin’s barrel and stave factory.

Also affected were teamsters, who hauled the barrels of flour to the Guelph railway stations.

Even as they fought the blaze, the firemen and citizen volunteers began speculating on the cause of the fire. Few doubted that it had been set deliberately. There had been no fires in the stoves that day, and no bearings could have overheated because the mill was not operating that day. There could be only one explanation: the fire was the work of an arsonist.

Next week: the aftermath of the fire.

 

Vol 44 Issue 21

 
 

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