Historical water mill still at work in Ontario

The water-powered mill still cuts lumber and grinds flour, but tarts and doughnuts are the main attractions now

TYRONE, Ont. — Like the prairie grain elevators in Western Canada, the grist mill was a main centre of economic interest in the early days of settlement in rural central Ontario.

Grist mills or flour mills were situated on or near waterways in the mid-1800s because there was no electricity. On this waterway a dam would be built and a water wheel or a water turbine would be installed to transfer the power generated by the drop in water level to turn the big grinding stones and run related equipment in the grist mill.

In 1846, James McFeeters built a grist mill powered by a wooden overshot water wheel at Tyrone, about an hour east of Oshawa, Ont. During the next 50 years, the grist mill reached its peak production of 40 to 50 barrels of flour a day.

In the production of flour using grinding stones, the top stone rotates while the bottom stone is stationary. The top stone can be adjusted for clearance and speed of rotation and the quality of the flour is determined by the experience of the miller.

Grooves carved into the grinding stones help spread the wheat over the surface area of the two stones. The abrasive action grinds the individual grains into flour and residue or chaff. Other machines refine the flour and make it suitable for baking. It is a lot of work to make good flour so in 1908, Thomas Goodman bought the mill and turned it into a feed mill to service the needs of all the neighbouring mixed farms.

In the late 1950s, John Thornnbeck bought the mill and added a sawmill as the principal business.

These stones, which are the heart of the flour mill, have been grinding grain for many years to produce the different types of flour that can be bought at the general store. | Duane McCartney photo

The most recent owner, Robert Shafer, has owned and operated the flour and sawmill mill for the past 40 years.

The facility is one of the oldest working water-powered mills in Canada. He has installed an apple cider mill and press, which was originally built in 1950 and made apple cider at the New York State Fair in Syracuse over a 30-year period. Come apple harvest season in this part of rural Ontario, the cider mill is a great tourist attraction because Shafer and crew can produce 300 gallons a day.

The flour mill, wood-working shop and saw mill haven’t changed a lot over the past 170 years. There is still a scenic mill pond behind the mill and this water runs a turbine, which supplies the power to the facility.

All the machines are powered by a wide selection of belts pulleys and line shafts. All the wood working equipment, including the band saw, table saw, thickness planer and wood-turning lathe, are all powered via belts from the water turbine. The Tyrone mill cuts lumber on a custom basis with its 48-inch circular saw.

The wood shop specializes in producing different types of mouldings and siding and wainscoting designs, which were the norm in rural Ontario homes in the early 1900s. These products are now used to restore the many century homes in the region.

These are some of the tools used in the wood working shop. | Duane McCartney photo

In the wood shop, Shafer has a large selection of hand-use moulding planes. Before the invention of electric routers and shapers, wood craftsmen made all the intricate moulding shapes using different types of wood planes. Often, it would require the use of several different shaped wood planes to get the desired profile of the piece of moulding. It was tedious work and only the most skilled craftsmen could create the unique moulding designs.

Today, the Tyrone mill features a rural Ontario general store highlighting local products including its home ground flour, apple cider, maple syrup, jams and jellies and related products. The mill can produce 350 pounds of flour an hour from a variety of different grains.

The main attraction in the store for tourists tends to be its famous fruit tarts and apple cider doughnuts.

There is a huge tourism promotion in central rural Ontario called the Butter Tart Tour, where people can go on a road trip to about 50 different bakeshops in rural areas to sample butter tarts and related pastries.

The promotion features rural Ontario products and encourages city folk to make the tour to get a taste of rural Ontario life. Shafer and staff use the promotion as one way to display the mill’s past to the many folk that visit.

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