One of the main ambitions of Philip Strickland, owner of the Almonte Flour Mill is to prevent his business from becoming too ambitious. Within reason, of course, he’s as interested as the next man in making a profit But he’s also a firm believer that the margin of diminishing returns in living environment inevitably begins to make itself felt when business expansion is permitted to get out of hand.
“Bread may be the staff of life and all that,” says the miller of Almonte, coining a neat phrase, “but if a man doesn’t know where to draw the line in business, before he knows it he’s just working for his ulcers.” Strickland, who is remarkably ulcer-free, has owned his 100-year-old mill since 1951, and wild horses wouldn’t move him out of the charming town where it’s located.
Through Almonte cascade the waters of the Mississippi river less mighty than the river Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer drifted and dreamed on, but mighty enough to provide the power for Strickland’s mill and two others in Almonte, as well as many more above and below it. It also provides fishing, boating, swimming, skating and something to sketch for his family and the town’s inhabitants.
It would be hard to find a prettier river to settle beside. On summer nights the falls are illuminated, and in the still, deep places below them willow trees droop romantically and fish jump a far cry from anything the average city dweller encounters, short of an expensive two-week vacation. In fact, Strickland believes he has found the good life and the ideal village so many people are seeking – and he firmly intends to keep it.
In 1934, when he graduated in law from the University of Saskatchewan, jobs in law firms were scarce. “Those were the days in the West, he recalls, “when fellows just out of law school had to pay a lawyer for the privilege of being articled to him. And if any of the clients ever paid the lawyer, it would be with something like half a pig or a sack of potatoes. As a result, not one member of my class is practising law today: we all got into something else.”
After a year’s post-graduate course in business administration at Columbia University in New York, Strickland got into the flour business in Chatham, Ont. He stayed there until he joined the army in 1939. He landed with the Third Division on D-Day and by the war’s end had received the D.S.O. and the O.B.E. and had reached the rank of brigadier. He went back to Chatham after the war, and within a few years became president of his company and of two subsidiaries. His mill superintendent was Charlie Merilees, who came from the vicinity of Almonte. Charlie happened to mention one day in a nostalgic mood that Almonte was a wonderful town, with a flour mill that could really go places, since it was, he claimed, the only one between Peterborough and Montreal.
Strickland went to investigate and stayed to invest. He fell in love with the town, its people and its river, and he bought the mill lock, stock and sifters. He also bought himself a fine old stone house. He got Merilees to come down on a temporary basis and bring the mill’s capacity from 600 bags a day up to 1,000. Today, he ships flour to such far-away places as Ceylon, the United Kingdom, and the West Indies. He also supplies four of the six Ottawa bread companies, innumerable small bakeries in other parts of the district, hospitals, including the large mental hospitals in Smiths Falls and Brockville, and Kingston Penitentiary.
Hard wheat from the West comes from Fort William and the Great Lakes down the St. Lawrence to Prescott. Twice a day two trucks make the run to Almonte, hauling the wheat to the mill, where it is dumped, sifted of chaff, stones, corn, etc., cleaned, wet and warmed, and then allowed to sit for 16 hours, when the whole process is repeated. (This mellows it and improves the colour of the flour.) Next it is cracked, rolled, sifted again and again, artificially aged, shaken, vitaminized, sifted some more, and finally bagged.
Of any batch of wheat, only about 70 per cent comes out as flour. The rest includes bran, wheat germ, shorts, middlings, screenings, and farina. Bran, broken wheat and wheat germ are sold with no further processing. Shorts, middlings and screenings go into animal feeds, of which the mill turns out 400 bags a day, while farina is sold over the counter as “breakfast treat.” “Where that name came from I don’t know but that’s what it’s always been known as here so that’s what we call it,” he says. Strickland makes no attempt to place any of his products in stores and sells over the counter to anyone who happens into his small, jumbled office.
Since he only delivers to commercial establishments, many people who make their own bread drive miles to buy his whole-wheat flour pure, aged to perfection for baking, and without added preservatives.
Flour is made to rigid specifications, and in his tiny laboratory off the main office, Strickland’s superintendent, Ernie Armstrong, tests samples for their bread-making qualities. He has an extensive library on milling in his new house built upstream from the mill on a pretty stretch of the river. After flour, his greatest passion is fishing, and he wouldn’t go back to the city again for all the tea in China.
“When I finish work here, I’m home in five minutes and then it’s over the bank and into the boat for me,” he says. FIVE o’clock rush hour holds no terror for Strickland, either. His house, set in a broad garden, is just three blocks from the mill. Almonte has many splendid examples of the magnificent stone work left by the Rideau Canal stone-cutters in this area over a century ago and some of the most beautiful private tulip gardens in Canada.
The river splits and branches as it rushes through the town, and some of the older houses have private waterfalls in their gardens. The miller’s house has huge rooms, lofty ceilings and so many bedrooms that even with the entire top floor closed off, each of the four Strickland children has a large bedroom with room to spare for even the most space-consuming toys and hobbies. As well as being a grand house for a party, it is the best house in town for hide-and-seek, according to seven-year-old Susie Strickland.
The Stricklands golf in summer, curl in winter and play bridge enthusiastically in both. Entertaining goes on constantly in this town of 3,000 with 600 of whom have come within the last five years, many of them city people revolting against split-level, suburban living.
Last December, the Stricklands thought they would have a party. They found out they had only one free night between Dec. 15 and New Year’s Eve, and in the end they scrapped the whole thing. The potential guest list totalled 87. Mill workers, farmers, civil servants and professional people give a diversity to the population of Almonte unusual in a place of its size. Many retired people also live there. “I’m sure glad I didn’t have to wait that long,” says the miller.