August 26, 2009

New booklet tells story of master mill builder

As published in The Erin Advocate

The recent Doors Open event in Erin was not only a great way for people to learn about the community, but an opportunity to start conversations about how we got here and where we are going.

In that vein, may I recommend a little booklet, just 16 pages, written and published by Tim Inkster of The Porcupine's Quill, called A Brief History of McMillan's Mills. It celebrates the work of Daniel McMillan, a "compulsive entrepreneur" who shaped the industrial design of Erin village between 1829 and 1849.

It is published to mark the third annual Hills of Headwaters Doors Open, a concept started in Europe, encouraging people to enter and learn about places they may not normally visit. The Ontario Heritage Trust – the agency that has replaced our aging historical sign on Main Street – now coordinates the Trails Open and Doors Open programs.

"Erin is one of the places it has been most successful," said Inkster. "It is a way to help the local populace appreciate what we have here. The historical walking tours have been hugely popular." A Brief History of Erin Village, by local historian Steve Revell, was published for the first local Doors Open. The booklets cost $2.

This year, people visited Century Church Theatre in Hillsburgh, the Pioneer Cemetery, All Saints Anglican, Burns Presbyterian, Erin United, Devonshire Guest House, Woollen Mills Conservation Area, the Mundell Mill and The Porcupine's Quill, where the booklet was actually on the press.

It should be required reading for local students and anyone who cares about the village. It brings together the story of McMillan's seven mills and places it in the context of Ontario's population growth and the evolution of industrial technology.

It includes historic photos, maps of the raceways cutting through the downtown, and photos by George Beshiri of the mill-driven nineteenth-century woodworking machinery used to make windows and doors in the Mundell Planing Factory.

The 1838 mill is not being used now, but is still operable, the last intact mill in the Credit Valley watershed. It uses water diverted from the Charles Street dam, built with a sawmill in 1826 by Henry Trout, eight years before the first house went up. The water drops seven metres and generates 30 horsepower through a horizontal waterwheel.

Conducting the tours at Mundell's was Brian Oates, who once operated the mill. When I introduced myself, he asked me if I was the one who had suggested that Erin's dams should eventually come down. We had a good conversation.

He said the mill ponds create an environment that people enjoy, with plants and animals we would not otherwise see here. He values the heritage aspect of the dams, and their usefulness for flood control. He sees the dam and mill not only as an educational resource, but as a potential source of energy.

He agreed that sometimes the pond water is not very attractive, but would like to see it improved, not drained away. The lower pond has 183 years of sediment, which traps nutrients from waste, and who knows what else we have dumped in there. I am sure the folks downstream do not want it.

Tim Inkster, who enjoys the view of water lilies and turtles where his back yard meets the pond, said that even a slight lowering of the dam could create huge mud flats in the shallow areas outside the centre channel. That could lead to an expanse of bullrushes, like those in the upper pond near the Dundas Street bridge. He said water quality has improved since farmers were encouraged to stop grazing cattle near the river.

What else is being done, or could be done to improve our ponds? Is there a long-term strategy for the dams? Trout's 1826 sawmill was already in ruins by 1880, a reminder of the temporary nature of human endeavour. The Credit River flowed a long time before we started building dams, and will flow a long time after we are gone – or at least until the glaciers return, re-organizing the hills and scouring the land clean once again.

August 19, 2009

Forks of the Credit Park combines hiking & history

As published in The Erin Advocate

Just a few minutes east of Erin is one of the most interesting places to learn about the Credit River, and how its power was harnessed to build up the local economy more than 100 years ago.

Forks of the Credit Provincial Park is a protected oasis in a section of Caledon along Charleston Sideroad that has been virtually stripped bare by aggregate mining.

Quarries are part of the local history, since they were key to the settlements at Credit Forks and Brimstone, east of Belfountain. The maroon sandstone used to build the Ontario parliament buildings and Old City Hall in Toronto was extracted in this area.

A drive along Forks of the Credit Road will take you past the south end of the provincial park, where the West Credit, flowing from Erin, meets the main Credit River, flowing south from Alton, then on to Inglewood, Cheltenham and Terra Cotta. The main entrance to the park is at the north-west corner – along Charleston, just past Cataract Road (Coulterville), turn south on McLaren Road.

Forks of the Credit is a "natural environment" provincial park, open all year, covering 282 hectares. There are no staff at the gate, but parking will cost you $3 for two hours, $5 for four hours, or $11 for the whole day. There is no camping or intensive recreation – just picnicking, fishing, cycling, hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

The network of trails takes you through rolling hills, past Kettle Lake (created by glaciation), and into wooded areas near the river. It can take an hour to hike to Cataract village, including some steep grades.

The most direct route to the park from Erin is the Elora-Cataract Trailway, part of the Trans-Canada Trail, the remains of a branch rail line of the Credit Valley Railway from 1879. It was later bought by Canadian Pacific, and the main track still runs up the valley to Orangeville.

You can also enter the park from the south along the Bruce Trail. It winds from Belfountain, past the Forks, up Dominion Road through Brimstone, then along the river to Church's Falls – one of the region's scenic highlights, where the Credit tumbles 45 feet down from a rocky shelf.

Originally developed in 1820 as a salt mine and saw mill, the nearby village was originally called Gleniffer. It lay abandoned for 20 years before Richard Church re-established it as Church's Falls in 1858. The name was changed to Cataract when the railway arrived. The village is just outside the park, to the west of the river.

In the late 1800s, Cataract had a saw mill, grist mill, a woollen factory, barrel-head manufacturing, a large general store and two hotels. In 1885, John Deagle bought the mill at the top of the falls, and converted it into an electrical generating station that powered Cataract.

Eventually, he approached Erin (eight kilometres away) with a business plan, and in November 1899, the village enjoyed the glow of streetlights for the first time.

A Boston Mills Press book called Cataract and the Forks of the Credit, by Ralph Beaumont, tells of Deagle's pioneering electrical design work. He was also building a huge tunnel from Cataract Lake (his mill pond), to a point downstream, in hopes of doubling his energy output.

That project was abandoned after heavy rain and melting ice burst the Alton dam on April 6-7, 1912, sending a surge of water and debris down the Credit that destroyed the dam for Bell's Flour Mill (near Charleston Sideroad), and not only wiped out Deagle's Dam, but a section of Dominion Road that has never been replaced. The Erin Advocate reported that another dam and a bridge were destroyed near Credit Forks.

Deagle rebuilt his dam, and sold the operation in the 1920s for $50,000. Ontario Hydro eventually bought the plant, power lines and rights-of-way in 1944, then closed the plant as uneconomical in 1947. There were plans to make Cataract Lake a tourist area, but the CPR feared the water might undermine its rail bed, so the dam was dynamited in 1953 and the lake disappeared.

The ruins of the mill were heavily fenced off after a number of hikers lost their lives in the falls. It is just as well, for while the ruins may be interesting, they are not attractive. The grafitti-decorated plant walls and the reinforced riverbank below the rail line are concrete scars on an otherwise spectacular landscape.

August 12, 2009

Yoga helps focus energy for busy Erin artist

As published in The Erin Advocate

Emma Bramma Smith has cast a wide net in her quest for inspiration and enlightenment. She brings together many influences in her paintings, blending images of nature with symbols from Celtic, Christian and Buddhist traditions.

Using India ink, watercolour, oils, acrylics and pencil, she creates a surreal quality, infused with a mysterious energy.

Merging with this work is her passion for yoga, which helps people discover and take advantage of energy within themselves. For Smith, that has helped both her spiritual growth and the channeling of ideas onto paper.

"Everything I am is in these pieces – I love what I do," she said. "Yoga has helped me become a better artist."

She exhibits at various shows, but the best way to get an idea of the range of her work is to visit her on-line gallery and store, at She is also in the process of moving to a new home at 176 Main Street in Erin village where she will be leading a new series of yoga classes on September 22.

Y'OM – Yoga on Main includes Kundalini Yoga, which focuses on channels of energy through the spine and employs mantra and meditation throughout the postures. She also does Tibetan Yoga, which promotes relaxation and letting go of burdens, and Flow Yoga, which develops graceful movement between postures. There are also meditation and youth classes. Email her at for more details.

Her art swirls with feminine imagery, and has echoes of medieval illumination. She is influenced by Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite painting from the 1800s, which embraced the exotic and rebelled against realism, scientific rationalism and the restrictions of classical art forms.

While positive energy dominates, there are dark hints woven into many pieces. "I feel sorry for evil," she said. "Love is a much stronger power."

In the fall of 2007, she completed a painting called Universal Heart, which combines many strands from her life. It is based on a vision she had in 2000, and on the spiritual connection she has experienced with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.

It has a Celtic border and elements of plant and animal life, including lotus flowers, fish, doves and a heron, which represents the Dalai Lama. At the centre is a Buddha figure in a seated meditation posture, merged into a Christ figure with outstretched arms. The two opposite triangle shapes of these figures combine to make a six-pointed Star of David.

When the Dalai Lama visited Toronto's Tibetan-Canadian Cultural Centre in 2007, Smith was there, hoping to present the painting as a gift. She happened to meet the Indian Ambassador to Canada as he was going in to see the Tibetan leader, and persuaded him to take the painting in and present it to His Holiness. She was not able to meet him in person, but she hopes to be able to travel to India to make that dream come true.

In the meantime, as if meditation, painting and teaching yoga were not enough, she is designing costumes and sets for the InMotion Dance Company in Oakville and for the pilot of a CBC TV show. She has just finished teaching art and self-awareness at Olympia Sports Camp in Muskoka and will be teaching Tibetan chanting as part of a weekend workshop in Alton on August 29. She does illustrations for Mandala Magazine, an international Tibetan Buddhist Journal, is working on two yoga books for children and developing a sketchblog for her website.

She feels fortunate to have had friends of many different faiths when she was a child. With support and encouragement from her parents, she was able to develop a broad range of interests. Her father, Ron Smith, who Emma calls "my first hero, artistically", has a show of his own coming up. His striking landscape photography will be on display at The Teak Barn near Ospringe, as part of the Hills of Erin Studio Tour, September 26-27.

For more on the 21st annual tour, with 30 artists at 15 locations in the Erin-Hillsburgh area, go to

August 05, 2009

New trail signs reveal history of Woollen Mill

As published in The Erin Advocate

It may be hard to imagine downtown Erin as an elaborate industrial complex, but in the mill-driven economy of the 1800s, that's exactly what it became. A new series of signs being erected on the Woollen Mills Trail is designed to bring that part of Erin's history to light.

The trail starts at the end of what was originally called Factory Lane. Now it is Woolen Mill Lane, off Millwood Road, just across the West Credit River behind Mundell Lumber. The trail runs between the river and the St. John Brebeuf schoolyard, which in the 1850s was the Erin Fairground.

As the trail enters a thicket of eastern white cedar, it crosses a large ditch. This is one of three major flumes, also called millraces, built between 1838 and 1849. They enabled millers to divert water from ponds, created with dams on the river, to the drive wheels of their mills.

The first was a flume from the Charles Street Dam to the Oat Mill, which later became the Mundell Planing Mill. The longest flume in the county runs from the Church Street Dam (behind the current Busholme Inn) to the Grist Mill (behind the current Budson Farm & Feed).

The West Credit flows south, then turns sharply north, where it would receive water back from the two upstream flumes. Then it flows into Woollen Mills Conservation Area, and turns east. The modern trail loops through this bend, where a dam, flume and grist mill were built in 1840. Ten years later it was converted to a carding or woollen operation, where wool was combed and prepared for spinning.

Daniel McMillan, with his brothers Charles and Hugh, was the driving force in this series of ventures, with seven mills serving the rapidly growing farm community in Erin Township. Before 1852, the village was known as McMillan's Mills.

"It was a wild and woolly time," said Erin history buff Steve Revell, who helped write the text for the trail signs. "I am amazed at the strength and ingenuity of our pioneers."

Also working on the signs was Amy Doole of the Credit Valley Conservation Authority (CVCA). She coordinates WeCARE (West Credit Appreciation, Rehabilitation & Enhancement), a project to clean up and restore the river, and educate the public about it.

On Saturday August 15, as part of the Erin Doors Open event, Revell and Doole will be conducting guided walking tours of the Woollen Mills Trail, at 11 am and 2 pm. Meet in front of The Porcupine's Quill, 68 Main Street.

The Town has spent $5,000 on the five signs, while the CVCA is providing labour, including trail pruning and cleanup by students with the Credit Youth Corps. The signs, created by As the Crow Flies Cartography, are also sponsored by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

The project has been promoted by Bill Dinwoody of the Town's Recreation and Culture Advisory Committee, and the Trails Subcommittee. If you would like to be involved in trail planning and improvement, call the Town office at 519-855-4407.

Revell is hoping that the success of the Woollen Mill project will spark interest in improving other village trails, such as the Height of Land (Water Tower)Trail.

The Mundell mill was still in occasional use up to the 1980s, but as technology and the economy evolved, most water-driven mills were left behind much earlier. The Woollen Mill was abandoned before World War I and the dam removed. Many Erin residents had hoped that the ruins of the mill could be preserved, but in October of 1995, with the walls disintegrating, the Village decided to bulldoze the site. It had become a safety hazard, and restoration was considered too costly.

The land around the mill, which had been stripped bare in the 1800s, is now forested, but the natural river ecology has not fully recovered from the damage caused by milling. Through WeCARE, sediment traps have been placed in the water, to narrow the channel where the Woollen Mill pond once was.

Sooner or later (probably later) the other dams in the village should come down too. How much benefit do we get from our mill ponds? Should we preserve them forever, as historical artifacts from the Victorian era, or should we return the river, as much as possible, to its natural state?

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