Down by the mill stream - Karen Webster editorial
One of the prime reasons for the placement of a settlement in the early days of our area was the proximity to a dependable stream or river. As people took up their farm lots, they had a need for the timber on their land to be sawn to make their buildings and their grain to be ground for animal feed and flour for household use.
At first, mills were quite scarce. From Bush Trails to Present Tales 1980 comes a story that represents the tenacity and resilience of original settlers who would shoulder a bag of grain and walk through forest paths to a mill and then return home with the bag full of flour. A farmer set out thus with two bags of grain from the Ripley area. By carrying one a distance then leaning it by a tree, this pioneer would retrace his steps, pick up the second bag, pass the first bag and continue to where he would set the second bag and then head back for the first bag and in this way travelled both to and from the mill at Cranbrook, near Dungannon.
Malcolm Lamont, in his 1933 memoir Bush Days recounted that his father, John Lamont of Zetland (just west of Wingham) set out with a sleigh and oxen, bags of grain, as well as hand tools because the trail was rough and repairs may have been needed on the way, to the grist mill at Bluevale. Once there, he was told that his grain could not be ground until the following day, so he returned home with the sleigh and oxen. When he set out the next day, he took with him only his hand tools and set out walking. Once at the mill, he constructed a crude raft, loaded his bags of flour on it and floated down the Maitland River until he reached a spot about three-quarters of a mile from his home. It was a risky move, but one that saved him a rough trip overland.
In 1855, one of Blyth’s earliest settlers, Kenneth McBain (also spelled McBean and Bain), set up a saw mill on a stream, located near the northwest corner of what is now Drummond and Mill Streets, that ran north into Blyth Brook. He would provide a service to those who were erecting houses and outbuildings.
McBain was born in Scotland and had immigrated to Nova Scotia before arriving in what would become Blyth. Kenneth and Elizabeth McBain’s 11th child, Ronald, was the first child born in Blyth in 1852. By 1862, the call of the west took this family to Manitoba by covered wagon, where McBain died in 1898.
It is documented that James Wilson had a saw mill in the 1880s.
In 1854/1855, Joseph Whitehead built the first grist and flour mill, which was run by his son, Charles, located on the south side of that same creek.
In the book, The Power of the Maitland, authors John Hazlitt and Ted Turner documented around 78 mill sites on the Maitland River and its tributaries.
Dams would have been erected to divert the stream or river into a race into which was positioned a large water wheel. The water movement over or under such a wheel would cause it to turn on a shaft that went into the mill itself. Onto this shaft, pulley belts would then transfer the power generated to the equipment that would either saw the wood or turn the large stones and rollers to grind grain.
The operation of water-powered mills was dependent on the amount of rainfall and on the seasonal fluctuations of the river or stream. In addition to the scarcity of water at times, flooding was also a problem to be dealt with. Often, mills ran around the clock, using shifts of workers to make the best use of the power the water provided. In time, other sources of power than water were used in the mills. Some used wood to fire steam engines. Once the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) came to Blyth in 1907, coal was available to fuel the area mills. Eventually diesel power was used. In each decade, continual modernization brought innovations causing reliance on rivers and streams to be no longer needed.
Through the early years, many names were associated with the business of milling in Blyth. Some of these are: Wilson, Kelly, Taylor, Elder, Tiernay, McKellar, Ireland, Gibson, Finnemore, Beese and Boehmer. Many of these operators only stayed in Blyth for short periods of time. In some cases, fires destroyed the wooden buildings. Because of the nature of the products manufactured there, fires were a constant hazard.
During the construction of the CPR in 1906, Blyth Brook was diverted north from its original course to allow the erection of the rail’s main track and several sidings. Evidence of early dams was destroyed at that time and no trace can be found of the source of power for the original saw mills and grist mills that aided the settlement of Blyth and surrounding area.
Today, Blyth Brook continues along its eventual way to Lake Huron, not powering equipment to serve the needs of the people there, but rather providing a place of peace where a pleasant walk can be taken along its banks. What tales that brook could tell of days gone by and the role it played in the development of Blyth.
Some material gleaned from the files of the Blyth Repository of History. Located at 405 Queen Street, Blyth.