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The First Mills

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larger_mills.jpgThe first settlers who were granted land in the Eastern Townships promised to build grist mills and roads within the first two years of settlement. There were few people more important to a settlement than the miller. The village mill was the link between farm and industry.

Grist Mills:
The grist mill was the place where people brought their grain and corn to be ground. Most grist mills were built beside streams, where dams were built to regulate water flow, or by a waterfall, where the flow of water could turn a huge paddle wheel which was connected to the mill stones. Grain was put between the two millstones, crushed and ground into flour.

The heart of the mill was the waterwheel - a beautifully simple and cheap source of power. The wheel itself was continually being experimented with and improved upon.

As late as 1850, A. D. Cole, of Sherbrooke, patented a "new and improved Sampson wheel" which was eventually installed in the Magog mills. Steam, however, was beginning to replace water power.

Grist mills were among the first, and most important, mills to be built. Heavy iron castings and millstones (huge, round, flat stones) were needed to operate the mills. Before these mills were built, settlers had to grind their grain and corn by hand. Since hand-ground meal made for very lumpy porridge and bread, settlers were probably relieved when grist mills came into being, even if this meant travelling considerable distances to have their grain milled.

One of the earliest grist mills in the Eastern Townships was built in 1793 by Nicholas Austin at the outlet of Lake Memphremagog, at the entrance of the Magog River. In the next forty years, with the coming of steam power, more and more mills were built throughout the Townships. During this time, the process of grinding grain became more sophisticated, and grist mills became known as flour mills. With electricity, the old grist mills became obsolete. Today very few remain in the Townships. One survivor is the Cornell Mill in Stanbridge East, a three-storey brick mill dating to 1830, which is now home to the Missisquoi Museum. Other examples are in Frelighsburg and Kinnear's Mills.

A sawmill was usually the second mill to be built. Before sawmills, settlers usually constructed their buildings out of logs and hand-hewn planks. Once sawmills were in place, however, the boards and planks they produced were in great demand as people were eager to improve their hastily built log cabins. By 1830, there were over thirty sawmills in Sherbrooke County alone. One of the earliest, at Huntingville, was built on the Ascot River around 1815. The largest mill in Canada was the C. S. Clarke Company's "St. Francis Mills" at Brompton.

In some early sawmills, planks were hand-sawn by means of a two-handled pit saw. One man would stand on the log above, the other in a pit below. In time, most pit saws would be powered by waterwheels. In the absence of a stream, however, a horse on a treadmill could be used to drive a saw. Sawmills changed with the use of steam, combustion engines, and electric power, but some old-style mills stayed in operation until the early 1900s.

Many towns and villages in the Eastern Townships owe their origins to early saw and grist mills. Kilborn's Mills (Rock Island/Stanstead), Hyatt's Mills (Sherbrooke), Conroy's Mills (Frelighsburg), and Ruiter's Mills (Cowansville) are a few that come to mind. Some communities, Denison's Mills, Way's Mills, and Baldwin's Mills, for example, owe their very names to the original mill owners. In fact, almost every village that existed in the region before the arrival of railways owes its existence to the presence of water power.