Milling had long, difficult history in Eden Mills

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.

For years I have had a fascination with old mills and industrial buildings.

A couple of weeks ago, after I dropped in at the Eden Mills History Day, I had the opportunity for a close look at the old mill at Eden Mills, which is now a residence.

Eramosa Township, in the 19th century, boasted a number of small flour mills, but I knew few details about the one at Eden Mills. When I got home I checked my notes, then started to do a little digging in the old records.

The first milling business at Eden Mills was established by the Kribs brothers, with the appropriate old testament names of Daniel and Aaron, in 1842.

No details of the buildings or equipment seem to have survived, but it is a virtual certainty that these were frame buildings, powered by water from a dam on the Eramosa River, a branch of the Speed.

The Kribs brothers produced flour, but seem to have done a bigger business selling lumber from the sawmill.

The Kribs sold the business in 1846 to Adam Argo of Fergus. Henry Hortop, one of the key figures in flour milling in Wellington County, bought the business in 1850.

The hamlet had originally been known as Kribs’ Mills, but the early official records name it Eden Village. The name of the key business there quickly became the one for the whole settlement, and it has been Eden Mills ever since.

During the early 1850s Eden Mills became a minor commercial centre for southern Eramosa Township and for residents of adjoining Nassagaweya Township. In 1851, when a post office opened, there were two stores and a blacksmith shop.

The Kribs brothers, though, had been bitten by the “grass is greener” syndrome, and had moved on to Elora, where they operated that village’s first major retail business in the early 1850s.

Most sources indicate that Hortop built the earliest part of the stone mill building in Eden Mills in the mid 1850s. The assessment records are ambiguous, but suggest that major additions to the property were made in 1860 and 1866. Nineteenth century mill buildings were prone to fire, so there was nothing unusual in this building activity. As well, milling and water power technology enjoyed continual evolution. By 1869 the main flour mill building was a four storey stone structure, with three run of stone. The wing at the rear was used as a storehouse for grain. As a sideline, Hortop had added an oatmeal mill.

Hortop sold the sawmill operation, located on the south bank across the river from the flour mill, to James Wilson in 1854. It prospered as long as there were pine and spruce trees still standing in the area. Hortop bought it back in 1866, but by then it was in decline, and operated only sporadically.

The flour business, though, was much kinder to Henry Hortop. In time his sons James, William and Henry Jr. joined him in the business. The family acquired mill properties in Everton and Rockwood. Later, in the late 1850s, they leased the Elora Mill, which had more capacity than their other mills combined.

Henry Sr. was killed at the Elora Mill in 1879 when he got caught in the machinery.

Meanwhile, William Hortop was conducting the family’s original milling operation in Eden Mills. To keep up with the demands of the market, which no longer wanted stone-ground flour, the Hortops installed the new steel roller process around 1880. The machinery was very expensive.

To finance the equipment, the Hortops mortgaged the mill for $5,000 to John Hobson of Mosborough (brother of the famous engineer featured recently in this column).

Flour milling became dominated by large firms in the 1890s, and it became increasingly difficult for small operations such as that at Eden Mills to compete. As well as small margins, Hortop had the additional expense of teaming grain and flour to the railway station at Rockwood. Large mills were installing railway sidings beside their mills.

The small mills that survived did so by doing custom chopping of grain for cattle feed. This is what happened at Eden Mills. It appears that the Hortops phased out flour milling at Eden Mills around the turn of the century, moving that part of the business to their mill at Everton.

The Hortops sold the mill to James Barden in 1917. After 37 years they had reduced the $5,000 mortgage only to $1,900. The milling business had become a tough grind.

James Barden continued the custom milling work. In 1935 he began purchasing woodworking machinery, including several large saws and a planer.

Soon the mill was turning out skids, usually made of cedar, and crates made of poplar and pine. Some of the logs came from local sources, others from the north, as far as Penetang. The milling business continued until 1950.

Power continued to be provided from the river, through a turbine and a lineshaft system in the building. A flood in 1947 caused major damage to the dam. The Bardens replaced it, using some 1,500 bags of cement in the project.

The mill remained in the Barden family for the rest of its existence as a business. Four generations of the family worked there. Ted Barden, James’s grandson, ran the business in the 1960s. Around 1968 he added a diesel engine for power in times of low water. The workforce at most times consisted of two employees in addition to himself. This mill is one of the few in the county that never used supplementary steam power.

The old nemesis of mill buildings, fire, was to strike again. A blaze in the late 1960s caused major damage. Ted Barden removed the top storey and a half and changed the roof line when he made repairs.

Another more severe fire broke out in 1979. The Rockwood firemen arrived on the scene quickly, but could not save the structure. This time the walls appeared to have suffered too much damage to support a rebuilding.

The burned-out mill stood vacant for five years. It is now a residence.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on March 22, 1999.



Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015