Milling – and its spinoff activities – were big business in the 1860s

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.

Stable – This photograph, taken around 1930, looks northwest across the Grand River in Elora. The John C. Mundell and Co. Factory No. 1 is visible at left. The Elora Mill is on north side of the river at right. The stone mill stable on north side of the river can be seen in the centre of the photograph. This building was originally meant to be a stable, but it has had many different uses over the years.  Wellington County Museum & Archives ph. 10396

One of Elora’s more interesting buildings is the old stable at the rear of the Elora Mill property.

This structure was built about 1860 to shelter the draught horses and wagons that were needed to transport the flour produced at the mill to the railway station in Guelph.

Through the 1860s, mill owner J.M. Fraser usually had three wagons on the road. These were heavily-constructed vehicles built to carry flour in barrels with a nominal weight of 196 pounds each.

Fraser’s usual load was 20 barrels, and four heavy horses were hooked to the front end. At busy times, Fraser hired additional independent teamsters and often had five or six wagons on the road.

Teamsters were only one class of workers who depended on the milling business for their livelihood. Flour milling itself did not employ a great number of men.

In 1871, when the industry was at its peak in Elora, the payrolls of the two flour mills (the North Wellington Mills and J.M. Fraser’s Elora Mills) consisted of 11 millers and a half dozen labourers.

Though employment was small, the investment was huge. J.M. Fraser sunk about $50,000 into the Elora Mill, a trivial sum in the inflated currency of 1990, but a fortune in 1860, when a store clerk earned $200 per year and a skilled workman pulled down $400 if he had a good year. On the basis of investment per employee, milling required about ten times the investment of other manufacturing ventures.

The real impact of milling on the local economy came through spinoff activities, and teamsters with their loaded freight wagons were only the most visible of these. The wagons had to be built and repaired, as had the harnesses. This work was all done locally.

The making of barrels alone employed more men than the mills did. Barrels were manufactured by several small shops, employing a total of ten skilled coopers and as many common labourers. The coopers even had their own union, and went out on strike on several occasions.

A factory in Salem provided most of the staves used locally, and Elora’s blacksmiths manufactured the hoops needed to hold the barrels together.

Barrel making was a labour-intensive, low-investment business, and the coopers often picked up shop and moved when they saw greener fields elsewhere.

Larger mills usually had a distillery as an adjunct to their operations, and this was the case with both Elora mills until 1870. Through spoilage and imprudent purchases, mills acquired quantities of wheat that were unsuitable for flour, but could be converted, with alternative processing, into whiskey. This accounted for a qualified distiller and another couple of labourers at each mill.

Surprisingly, the whiskey business was not profitable. There was a perpetual surplus of local whiskey, and the quality was inconsistent at best.

This part of the business was in decline through the 1860s, and by 1870 the industry had become dominated by names that are still familiar: Walker, Corby, Adams, and Gooderham and Worts.

Distillers cut their losses by engaging in yet another activity: feedlots. The spent mash proved to be a nutritious feed for livestock.

The North Wellington Mills favoured pigs; J.M. Fraser’s distiller normally fed 70 or 80 head of cattle in a lot that is now the parking lot of the Elora Mill. Most of these cattle were sold to out-of-town buyers, but some were processed and sold by local butchers.

Meat packing was a minor industry in Elora in 1870; there were ten butchers employed in the village.

We may marvel at the blend of odours that must have come from the area of the Elora Mill on a hot summer day in the 1860s: wood smoke from the boiler in the distillery, mingling with redolent vapours from the fermenting vats, sometimes overpowered by zephyrs from the feedlot, spiced by the minor fragrances of the stable, and the dust from the mill itself.

The heyday of milling in Elora was brief; it began with the construction of the Elora Mill in 1856; 20 years later the industry was on the skids – the North Wellington Mills closed forever and J.M. Fraser went bankrupt.

But while it flourished, it provided the economic backbone of the village.

The mills themselves employed fewer than 20 men, but when we take into account all the spinoff activity, between 60 and 70 men – out of a labour force of about 450 – derived all or a major part of their incomes from milling.

Its demise was a major blow to the village economy.

The stable at the mill is one of the few reminders we have of the businesses that depended on milling. Built to last for centuries, it was used for its intended purpose for only a decade – until the railway reached Elora.

For a brief period in the 1870s, it was Elora’s fire hall, but for most of its existence it has been a storage building.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Oct. 2, 1990.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015