Downtown Fergus flour mill was burned down in 1911

Today there is a good sized parking lot in downtown Fergus, located at the rear of the library and along the edge of the Grand River.

Over the past few decades that area has received many improvements, including a retaining wall along the river, a number of horticultural plantings, refurbishing the old Templin Gardens, and a footbridge across the river.

Most people are unaware that the area was once an industrial site, containing a good-sized flour mill and several associated buildings. Fire consumed the complex or parts of it on several occasions.

There was a major blaze in the early 1890s, when Andrew Semple, a businessman, farmer and MP owned it. Semple rebuilt the mill, but as cheaply as possible, using the old foundations and a new superstructure of wood.

The new five-storey building looked like a ramshackle firetrap, which it was. Semple continued to produce flour, but sold the complex shortly after to James Wilson and Sons, the firm operating the much larger Monkland Mills at the eastern edge of Fergus.

The Wilsons specialized in oatmeal, but also processed wheat and barley. After the purchase of Broomfield Mills they concentrated flour production there, devoting Monkland Mills exclusively to oatmeal, much of it for the export market.

In 1910, the Wilson brothers sold their firm’s Fergus holdings, which included the two mills and a grain elevator at the railway station grounds, to the Canada Cereal and Milling Company, a newly-organized conglomerate that was buying up mill properties across southern Ontario.

The new owners tried to make the most of Broomfield Mills. In the fall of 1911, the mill operated with round-the-clock shifts, processing western wheat and shipping out flour.

The clock had just turned over to December 6 when the three men who were working the night shift discovered a fire in the mill. One of them immediately turned in the alarm. The Fergus volunteer brigade was on the scene in less than 15 minutes, but by then it was obvious that the main building was doomed.

The turnout of firefighters was small, because the fire alarm was a weak one and could not be heard in much of the town. On the other hand, dozens of volunteers showed up, eager to assist in any way possible.

The fire seemed to be concentrated along the wall nearest the river, which was wooden above the masonry foundation and clad in galvanized metal. The men believed that an overheated bearing on the turbine or some of the line shafting from it had started the blaze.

Before the arrival of the firefighters the mill employees had attempted to turn back the flames with buckets of water, but thick smoke and heat drove them back, and soon forced them from the building. Minutes after their arrival, the firefighters had two hoses pouring water onto the flaming parts of the structure, but they made no progress.

The fire continued to advance until it threatened a building on St. Andrew’s Street that was home to Woden’s Harness Shop.

There were fears that the entire south side of the street might go up in flames.

Fire Chief Munro decided to call for reinforcements. He phoned the Elora chief, who quickly rushed to the town hall to ring the Elora fire bell. In about a half hour the Elora men were on the scene with their pumper and a reel of hose. Bystanders cheered when two additional streams of water began dousing the blazing mill.

Fortunately, there was only a slight breeze blowing that night, and it blew the smoke and embers away from St. Andrew’s Street. That was the good news – the bad news was that the wind blew sparks and heat across the river and into the lumber yard of the Beatty factory.

A couple of the firefighters, reinforced by a group of volunteers, rushed to the Beatty property and put out embers before they could ignite either lumber or the building.

Gradually the firefighters gained he upper hand, and managed to keep the fire contained. There was no hope of saving the mill. All then paused occasionally to wolf down sandwiches and hot coffee prepared by Andy Foote and a group of volunteers he had rounded up.

A few minutes after 5am the Elora men packed up their equipment and went home. The Fergus firemen remained on the scene another 90 minutes, dealing with hot spots and bursts of new flame. At 6:30am they went away briefly for an ample breakfast, but most returned and continued to monitor the site until noon.

Canadian Cereal and Milling carried $22,000 of insurance on Broomfield Mills, a large amount for a small mill, but probably a requirement of the firm’s bankers. Canadian Cereal carried a huge debt load.

One curiosity of the fire was that a crew of mechanics had begun work in the mill the day before the fire, making some mechanical changes and improvements to raise the efficiency of the operation. Reports about the fire gave no indiction of what work the crew had done in the building, or whether the activities might have been related to the fire. The crew lost all the new materials it had brought into the building, along with its own tools and equipment.

In the aftermath of the fire, Canadian Cereal and Milling hinted that it would rebuild the mill, but nothing came of rumours. By the standards of the early 20th century the site of Broomfield Mills was an inconvenient one, with an awkward access to the main street of Fergus, and no hope of direct rail access such as Monkland Mills enjoyed. As well, the water power was not a reliable source of power. It would make much more sense to expand facilities at the Monkland Mills site rather than rebuild.

The fire renewed agitation in Fergus for a municipal water system. Firefighters were able to use water from the river to fight the blaze, but that source was not a convenient one to fight fires elsewhere in Fergus, and for some areas of town the river was not a viable source of water at all. A waterworks system had been contemplated for a generation, but council always balked at the cost.

Much easier to correct was the Fergus fire alarm. It was a weak one, and could not be heard in parts of Fergus. Another problem with it was that it sounded like some of the freight locomotives on the Grand Trunk Railway.

On the night of the fire many residents, including a number of men on the fire brigade, did not hear the alarm. Some who did hear it thought it was the sound of a train passing through town. They rolled over and went back to sleep. Many residents were unaware of the fire until the following morning.

On the positive side, Fire Chief Munro received much praise for his handling of the battle against the blaze and for his wise deployment of men and resources. Though hampered by a partial turnout of men – some members of the force did not hear the alarm – he made the best use of the trained men who did turn out, and proved adept in organizing and directing the dozens of volunteers who stepped forward to help. Despite the severity of the fire, there were no injuries.

James Wilson and Sons reacquired the Broomfield site in 1915, when they took back their Fergus holdings with the demise of Canadian Cereal and Milling.

The Broomfield site remained a collection of crumbling ruins until the revitalization of the area as a parking lot and public area.

A few portions of the old stone walls are still visible for those who know where to look, as is the drive shaft of the turbine that powered the equipment.


Stephen Thorning