While a section of the Harris mill ruins is now closed to the public, a GRCA spokesperson says there are no plans to remove the historic structure in the Rockwood Conservation Area.
“At this point, no – there is no intention of tearing it down,” said Cam Linwood, the Grand River Conservation Authority’s communications coordinator.
In mid-January the rear portion of the site was closed to the public, but Linwood said rumours that the structure will be condemned and removed are not accurate. He said the GRCA received an engineer’s report near the end of December and after some internal review, officials decided to close the section of the ruins that posed a risk to public safety.
“It was deemed unsafe by an engineer strictly because of structural deficiencies of a back wall,” said Linwood. He added GRCA staff personally contacted about 16 couples who had 2009 weddings planned at the remains of the woollen mill, and only two have chosen to cancel.
For the last several years, the GRCA has charged about $600 for a daily rental of the ruins.
Linwood stressed only the rear portion of the ruins, where the water wheel was once located, is closed. The front is still open to the public. However, he said tents can no longer be set up inside the mill, only outside the perimeter of the walls.
“I believe there are a number of different courses of action we’re considering,” Linwood said when asked what will happen to the ruins. Engineers are currently reviewing the situation and will offer several options, but it is unclear when that follow-up report will be completed, he added.
Guelph-Eramosa Mayor Chris White said the municipality has not received any calls about the closure of the ruins, but the GRCA has approached the township’s heritage committee about a solution.
White has since contacted MP Michael Chong’s office to enquire about possible funding to restore the mill ruins.
“These ruins are critical, in terms of the tourist draw and economic development and they are a huge cultural identifier for Rockwood and the conservation area,” White said, adding the site is often used for movie and TV shoots.
“There’s a history there … As a municipality we want to partner with the GRCA to do whatever we can to protect the ruins for everyone’s benefit.”
Today, a stone shell is all that remains of the once prosperous woollen mill, which was founded by John Richard Harris. The mill became operational in 1867, producing wool fabrics known famously as the Harris’ Homespun’s.
John Harris died in 1899 and his four sons inherited the property. Harris & Co. Ltd., the new name assumed by the brothers, enjoyed its best years during World War I, when the firm secured huge orders for blankets for the Canadian army.
The labour force swelled to more than 70 and for a time, the mill operated in round-the-clock shifts.
The road led steeply downhill for the firm after the 1918 Armistice.
Cut-throat competition, inflation, and rising labour costs wiped out the profit margins and a flood of cheap woollens and cotton goods, marketed under national brand names, saturated the market. There was little room for a small operator like the Harris firm.
The mill operated sporadically after 1919, and closed in 1925. It opened again for a brief period during the Depression, but closed for good in 1933.
The GRCA purchased the property in 1962 and the following year officials talked with a Toronto developer about converting the mill into a restaurant, but the project fell through.
Arsonists torched the long-neglected structure in 1967. Following the fire, the GRCA recognized the heritage significance of the mill and reinforced and stabilized the remaining stone walls in 1968.
For decades the ruins have served as a unique and popular venue for photos, weddings and other functions.
with files from Stephen Thorning