Few details survive about Glenlamond saw mill

Valuing Our History by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

The Centre Wellington area experienced a speculative land boom in the 1850s, driven in part by the water power potential of the Grand River.

By 1860 seven dams had been constructed across the Grand in the Fergus and Elora area.

At the upstream extremity of this water power development was Glenlamond, bordering Fergus in West Garafraxa. Speculative landholders in this development included Charles Allan of Elora, Hamilton-based merchant James Mathieson and J. Lamond Smith, who gave his name to the aspiring village.

Smith constructed a dam across the river about a half mile upstream from Gartshore Street in 1855 or 1856. Initially, he used the water to power a sawmill on the south side of the river.

It was extraordinary to construct such a large dam solely for a sawmill: the return on the investment could not justify the cost. Smith had bigger plans. He intended to sell additional industrial lots on both sides of the river. The sawmill would be the first, offering a convenient supply of lumber from logs floated down the river.

Smith showed a degree of ingenuity in locating the dam and sawmill. The river bed narrowed slightly at the site, permitting a shorter dam, and the water backed up in such a way that logs could be hoisted directly into the sawmill from the water.

Soon Smith had between $4,000 and $5,000 tied up in the mill and dam, perhaps three times the typical investment in a sawmill of the time. The building was unusual in that it was built of stone. This was probably a precaution against floods and ice jams, which might float a wooden building away or smash it to splinters.

Unfortunately, Lamond Smith got into the land speculation business a little late. Although he held a great deal of property, everything was heavily mortgaged and he had to do much juggling to keep afloat when the expected land sales did not materialize.

Two or three years after he built it, Smith made an agreement with William Grain for the sale of the sawmill. This was one of several business ventures for Grain, who was a civil engineer and surveyor. Grain may have operated the business, but it is more probable that he rented it out.

It was a usual practice to rent out sawmills throughout the 19th century, often for one season only. The operators might be men looking for a short-term opportunity, or those with a quantity of timber to place on the market. Sometimes contractors would lease a sawmill to provide lumber for a major building project.

Hugh Black, who was renting the mill in 1866, suffered a misfortune when flood waters broke the boom he had placed across the river. In short order 600 saw logs went over the dam. Black’s employees and some volunteers managed to catch some of them at the lower dam at St. David Street, but more than 200 were lost, to Hugh Black at least.

This flood, the most severe of the decade, also did some damage to the sawmill.

Sawmills did not produce huge profits, and after the completion of the railway to Fergus in 1870, margins became slimmer with competition from larger mills. Grain decided to sell. The purchaser, John Wilson, held the property only two years, but lost more than $1,000 in that time. Early in 1876 Wilson resold the mill to its original owner, J. Lamond Smith.

Smith made only a small down payment, and was never able to get the business out of debt. He managed to remortgage the sawmill with the Confederation Life insurance firm in 1876, but was never able to pay down the debt. Confederation Life took over title to the property in 1886.

The Glenlamond sawmill probably operated through the 1890s, but few details have survived. Large quantities of logs were floated down the Grand in the 1890s, but the major sawmill operator by this time was James Wilson, whose more modern facility across from Monkland Mills boasted more efficient equipment.

William Shortreed, the cattle buyer and butcher, sawed some lumber at Glenlamond in 1900 for a barn. Two years later, he removed all the remaining equipment and the wood components of the building, leaving only the stone shell. We do not know how long the dam survived.

Confederation Life sold the property to John Mitchell in 1906. Mill sites had certainly declined in value over a half century: Mitchell paid $125 for the sawmill property.

So ended Lamond Smith’s dream of an industrial complex on the east side of Fergus.

Perhaps the most significant remnant of the Glenlamond sawmill is this week’s photograph. I believe the date is the spring of 1886. The pond is full of logs floated downstream from Luther, and the mill is busy turning out railway crossties, a high- volume, low profit commodity. The wood is probably cedar and hemlock.

The lessee of the mill is uncertain, but the most probable men are Hugh Cameron, William Gerrie or W.C. Reid.

The view looks northeast from the south side of the river. The dam is on the left. The water wheel is on the far side of the building, beside the dam. The river banks show the desolate landscape of mud, debris and stumps typical of the 19th century, though there is a significant grove of second growth spruce and cedar on the far side of the river.

The large openings were usual on sawmill buildings. They allowed material to be moved in and out easily, and also provide ventilation in a very dusty and hot environment. Most important, they were the only source of light.

The sawmill is set up for a high-volume production line. The man at the rear of the building is pulling the logs inside. There was probably a powered winch to assist with this chore. For crossties, the logs were cut only on two faces, then trimmed for length. After cutting, the ties were moved out on a four-wheeled truck, and piled for later loading onto wagons, and a trip to one of the Fergus railway stations. The wagon at the right front has a load of slabs for firewood, perhaps destined for Gow’s lime kiln.

The small wagon at the right is the delivery rig for Steele’s general store, with Herb Harwood at the reigns. I suspect it was borrowed or rented by the photographer to get his bulky equipment to the site.

Most of the men can be identified. Standing in the row, from the left, are John Demmans, John Gerrie Sr., John McLean, Hugh Milloy, ?, Adam Halliday, ?, ?, James Clark, Allan McQuarrie, three Gerrie boys sitting on the car of ties, Tom Mullen and Joe Lillie. The first man in the middle doorway is not known; the other two are W.C. Reid and William Gerrie. Jim Gerrie is at the rear of the building with the pike pole. Jim Gow is standing on the empty wagon, and Billy Hodge is on the load of slabs in the foreground. On the row of wagons are Billings, McBride, Tom Wilson, ?, Harry Hamilton and ?.

The work was dirty, dangerous and backbreaking. The photographer’s visit provided a welcome pause for these men. I’m sure none realized that the picture would be a valued historical document more than a century later.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on March 27, 1996.

Thorning Revisited