Harris mill ruins officially re-open

ROCKWOOD – Michael Bradley calls the 194-acre conservation area here “an oasis with a far-north feel in the very midst of urban southern Ontario.”

The Rockwood Conservation Area annually hosts thousands of visitors – 43,000 day use visitors in 2010 –  and one of the big attractions is always the historic Harris mill ruins.

“Along with its unique natural history, [the park] also contains a piece of southern Ontario’s human story,” said Bradley, the Grand River Conservation Authority’s (GRCA) director of operations. “Sitting along the banks of the Eramosa River, the ruins of the Rockwood woolen mill provide our visitors with a link to Ontario’s industrial past.”

Bradley was the MC at a ceremony to officially re-open the ruins after an $855,000 restoration project. In 2008 the ruins were closed to the public after an engineer’s report deemed one of the back walls structurally deficient.

The mill restoration included rebuilding the back wall, repointing the walls and capping the tops of the walls, among other items.

The project was covered mainly through a $755,000 Community Adjustment Fund grant from the federal government, as well as $50,000 each from the GRCA and the Grand River Conservation Foundation.

“The mill ruins have become the centrepiece of the Rockwood Conservation Area and are a major destination for history lovers throughout the province,” said Bradley.

“For the village of Rockwood and the Township of Guelph-Eramosa, the mill is both a link to its vibrant industrial past and a benefit to local tourism.”

The Harris mill became operational in 1867, producing wool fabrics known famously as the Harris’ Homespun’s. Its most successful years came during World War I, when the firm secured huge orders for blankets for the Canadian army. The mill operated sporadically after 1919, but closed for good in 1933.

Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong told the crowd the mill restoration is important for two reasons: preserving the past and serving locals and tourists in the future.

“We’re happy that we were able to do this,” Chong said of the federal government’s contribution. “I’m delighted to be here. Congratulations on this work.”

Guelph-Eramosa Mayor Chris White said the township is “absolutely thrilled” to have the conservation area as part of the municipality.

He praised the hard work of those who helped secure funding for the ruins restoration.

“This is about the future,” White said. “This will help to keep this park a central hub in our township and it certainly drives the economy [and increases tourism].”

Jane Mitchell, chair of the GRCA, commented on the beauty of the old structure.

She then acknowledged the irony in the term “beautiful ruins,” and followed up with a joke.

“As anyone who’s travelled the world knows, people love ruins and they love them just as they are – as long as they’re not going to fall on them,” she quipped.

Mitchell thanked Chong, who she said “went to bat for us” and made sure the GRCA “didn’t fall through the cracks.” She explained the Community Adjustment Fund was originally intended just for municipalities and not conservation authorities.

Mitchell also thanked Grand River Conservation Foundation and Gilbert MacIntyre and Son Funeral Home for its contribution.

Over the last 13 years the funeral home has donated over $200,000 to the foundation, all of which is used at the Rockwood park, including $50,000 that was put towards the ruins project.

“They saw a need to restore this, so we said, ‘Use whatever you need’,” said Mike MacIntyre, current owner of the funeral home. “It’s a great project.”