When miller Edgar Salatandre halted the Almonte flour mill’s steel rollers in 1987, he closed a 164-year chapter of Ottawa Valley history. Still powered in part by the tumbling waters of the Mississippi River, the Almonte mill was the- last of 18 or so grist, textile and sawmills that once flourished along a 30-kilometre river stretch from Carleton Place to Pakenham.
Its closure marks the end of an era that began in pioneer times and peaked at the turn of the century. The end for one of the town’s oldest industries also meant layoffs for 15 men and office manager Ardeth Brooks, who had worked at the mill for periods ranging from 12 to 36 years. Two men were able to retire on pension while severance payments eased the pre-Christmas crunch for the others, who say they will have to look outside town to find comparable jobs.
Salatandre, one of only about 30 millers in Canada, accepted a transfer to Toronto. Ray Ladouceur and his cousin, Don, at the mill 17 and 20 years, respectively, say they will look for jobs in Carleton Place and Arnprior, or Ottawa if necessary. “There is nothing locally,” said Don. Rick Gladman, who had been mill manager from 1978 to 1983 and is now operations manager at a much larger mill in Port Colborne, returned to oversee the shutdown.
“This is not a happy time for me,” he said moments before locking the mill door for the last time. “I’m losing a lot of old friends.” Economics, the great arbiter of change, had dictated that the mill, which once sent its flour throughout the Ottawa Valley and around the world, was no longer a viable operation. The cost of trucking western wheat from grain elevators near Prescott, a limited market, inadequate storage and outdated equipment made it uneconomical to continue operating the mill, said Lewis Rose, chief financial officer for Maple Leaf Mills Ltd, which owns the Almonte mill.
The Almonte mill’s production will be replaced by Maple Leaf mills in Montreal and Toronto, where grain boats unload at docks alongside. “There was no significant reason to continue having a mill there,” said Rose. “It didn’t make economic sense.” But to pioneer entrepreneurs, the 30-metre drop of the Mississippi River from Carleton Place to Galetta was a potential source for generating rotary power. The river became the catalyst in turning a wilderness into one of the country’s leading manufacturing centres for quality wool cloth. The reputation of the woolen mills built along its shores became international.
Local history buff John Dunn remembers as a youth seeing huge bales of worsted cloth being shipped to, of all places, England, which is famous for its woolens. “I can still remember seeing those bales and reading the labels on them,” said Dunn, who has lived in the town of 4,200 most of his life.
Before the textile industry got started, it was the grist mills and sawmills that created the nucleus around which towns such as Almonte were built. Their place names still dot the countryside Bishops Mills, Oxford Mills and Brewers Mills. Almonte, in fact, was first called Shipman’s Mills, after Loyalist millwright Daniel Shipman, who built a grist mill and sawmill here in 1823. Grist mills were essential for farmers, who hauled their grain to them for grinding into feed for poultry, hogs and cattle.
Sawmills cut the abundant timber into boards and planking for construction. As industry flourished, the early wooden mills were replaced with more formidable stone structures, many of which stand today. The sprawling six-storey Rosamond No. 1 woolen mill built in 1866 for $26,500 and shut down in 1986, was being converted into a condominium. Others have become restaurants, museums, art galleries and homes.
The nearby Mill of Kintail, built in 1830, was an abandoned derelict when rescued in 1930 by doctor-sculptor Robert Tait McKenzie. He restored the picturesque stone mill as his summer home and studio. It is now a museum housing many of his artistic works. The fate of the Almonte flour mill is still uncertain. The building is to be sold after Maple Leaf, which acquired it in 1965, removes the milling machinery, precluding possible resurrection by a competitor.
The original wood-frame structure was built about 1840 by Shipman. It was probably replaced by a second wooden mill, either in 1866 or 1886 but the history books differ here. The second mill was destroyed by fire in 1909. At the time of the fire, the mill was owned by The Wylie Milling Co. Ltd. The name still appears on the large, double-door office safe in the mill office. Wylie rebuilt, erecting a four-storey structure with stone walls more than half a metre thick.
The new mill, by this time evolving more toward flour than grist milling, had storage capacity for 12,000 bushels of wheat. The rebuilding was followed by a series of business transactions and foreclosures that led to the mill being acquired in 1931 by William Reuben Pierce. He eventually changed its name to Almonte Flour Mills Ltd., more accurately reflecting the mill’s main enterprise.
The mill was acquired in 1951 by Philip Strickland, who previously had operated mills in southwestern Ontario. “The mill was in danger of going out of business when I bought it . . .” Strickland recalled from his retirement home in Orillia. “All its production had been for export, which was falling off. I managed to sell flour locally.” He brought in a new generation steel roller mill and business prospered. Production grew from 27,000 kilograms of flour daily to 90,000 kilograms.
In 1968, the mill was again rocked by an explosion and dust fire, which blew out every window, lifted the roof and heaved the huge, three-storey rear stone wall out about a metre. Edna Clement, who worked at the mill for 45 years until her retirement in October 1986, has vivid memories of the 1968 fire. “I was sitting at my desk making up the pay envelopes when I heard a big bang and I thought the men in the mill were making some unnecessary noise,” she recalls. She left her desk to see mill workers fleeing the fire by sliding down a grain chute. She ran back to her desk, grabbed the satchel containing the pay envelopes, and escaped.
There was more excitement in 1974 when a 16-car train derailment rocketed two cars into the side of the mill and five cars into the river behind. “It’s sad, very sad indeed that it’s closing now,” says Strickland, who sold the mill in 1965 to Maple Leaf as part of an arrangement in which he joined the company as a senior executive. “It has a good staff. But the company hasn’t been able to sell all of its production and the land transportation costs have risen to the point where it was difficult to keep it going.”
The Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
07 Dec 1987