No stone unturned - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
The hardy people who came to carve out their homes in the primordial forest used all the resources available. The soil produced crops for sale and food to eat. The forests provided building materials and fuel used to heat homes and to power machinery. Even the stones in the ground were employed. When properly cut, granite stones were solid building materials. As one looks around the rural landscape in the 21st century, many fine examples of stone houses can be seen several decades after their erection.
Of course, when stones were used in construction, a material was needed to bind the elements together. That material was mortar. The basis of mortar is lime (calcium carbonate CaCO₃) which is produced from limestone. Limestone is a sedimentary rock containing the minerals calcite and aragonite. Limestone forms when these minerals precipitate out of water containing dissolved calcium. Over millions of years, these layered materials form rocks.
For a description of the lime-making process, we turn to the July 7, 1938 issue of the Seaforth News, which carried an article about Jane Sclater, the wife of William who once operated a lime kiln. Jane reminisced that limestone was quarried along Silver Creek on the east side of Seaforth on the property which is now the Seaforth Lions’ Park. The Sclater kiln was located across the road from the quarry on the north side of the Huron Road (now Highway 8). The kiln was dug out of the hillside and faced with stones with a door at the base. The kiln was filled with limestone from the quarry and below the chunks of limestone was a fire pit.
During the night, a fire was kept burning for 12 hours. The resulting fine powder called lime would be “drawn” or removed from the pit the next morning. Immediately, the kiln would be filled up with more limestone and firewood and the process would be repeated. It was discovered that limestone of the kind to make the best lime did not go deep into the quarry and, after a few years, it was abandoned. Tom Town and his sons had looked after the kiln and later went to Brussels where they operated a lime works for a number of years. In 1885, the Brussels Lime Works advertised first-class lime for sale at 14 cents a bushel at the kiln and 15 cents if delivered.
It appears that there were many small lime kilns in operation in late-19th-century Huron County. At one time, Cranbrook had two kilns in its vicinity. The larger one was erected by Mr. Valentine Gramm. It was 25 feet high and was located on Lot 13. The smaller kiln, operated by George Beattie, was located on Blind Line on Lots 31 to 35 and operated in the 1870s. In Hullett Township, kilns were located at Harlock (north of Constance) and on the Hogsback, which was “two miles east of the gravel road on the 9th Concession”. This kiln was operated by Hy Livermore.
In Morris Township, a kiln was situated at Bodmin and as well, JJ Downey of Belgrave advertised having lime available to be delivered to Londesborough, Clinton and Goderich. In addition, West Wawanosh had lime kilns on farms located at Lot 13, Concession 9 and at Lot 27 Concession 12.
There were many of these small batch kilns dotted throughout the landscape and not all have been recorded for posterity. They provided a valuable resource for the earliest homesteaders. Lime was incorporated with cement and fine sand to bind stones together to make foundations for barns and sheds. Lime was used to make whitewash, a liquid that was brushed on the walls of rooms in the homes to brighten them and give them a nice, fresh smell. Barn walls were whitewashed to make the structure more sanitary. Lime was touted as a good additive to soil to amend sour or alkali soil. Unfortunately, without reliable soil analysis, often the application of lime to soil for this purpose did not always remedy the problem. When there were diseases in animals, lime was added to the buried carcasses to contain the spread of disease.
Eventually, access to lime produced in larger industrial settings meant that the small batch kilns were no longer feasible. However, as late as 1949, the Teeswater Lime Works was advertising “lump lime” suitable for whitewashing, spraying and building.
There are a few examples of kilns still in existence. One of them can be found just east of Saltford, near Goderich, beside the Maitland Trail, which meanders along the riverbank. This kiln was likely the one run by Messers Baechler and Baeker and was capable of producing 300 bushels a day. The location is significant, as the limestone for the kiln would be taken from the riverbank.
The limestone bedrock of the Maitland River Valley was a great source of building stone when Huron County was being settled. Many local buildings were constructed with it, including the Huron Historic Gaol and the foundation of the CPR station in Goderich.
Stories about lime kilns are more examples of the ingenuity and hard work of the first settlers who used all available resources, even the stones, to make their lives more livable.