The Grist Mill at Bedford Mills

n.d. Bedford Mills. Grist Mill & Grain Elevator Parks Canada, Rideau Canal Headquarters (Smiths Falls), Library Photograph Collection Photo # 1958

Undoubtedly one of the most well known and picturesque landmarks in the Devil Lake region is the stone grist mill at Bedford Mills. Over the years, it has been sketched, painted, and photographed by a number of artists in a variety of media. This segment will give a brief history of the origins of the mill and of its operations.

When George Chaffey entered into partnership in 1848 with Benjamin Tett Sr., a part of the lease gave the Chaffeys the right to build a grist mill at the northeast wharf on Mud Lake (currently Loon Lake) for their sole use. In 1848-49, the grist mill, a 2½ storey stone structure, was constructed at that location. Since the Chaffeys did not retain detailed business records, it is not certain who was the builder; most likely it was either George Chaffey’s brother William (a master builder in his own right) or Richard Barker, a stone mason from the Township of South Crosby. The carpenters were James Stanton and his nephew Joseph Stanton, also from South Crosby, who were frequently employed by the Chaffeys.

Similar to other grist mills found in the area, the mill was driven by a wooden wheel, which was housed in a wooden frame (called a “wheel house”) attached to the side of the building. The wheel was powered by water, which passed down the waterfall through a wooden flume. Water gates were placed at the dam and at the waterwheel; they were opened and closed as necessary, thus controlling the rate of flow of water to the wheel. Through a series of gears and other mechanisms, the turning of the water wheel supplied the energy to turn the mill stones housed inside the mill. The grist milling operations themselves were located on the second floor. The mill initially had one run of stones (together, a pair of stones was called a “run”), and it could produce only coarse whole wheat flour. The grain would be ground between the two stones, and the newly-ground flour would be sent by conveyor back to the third floor to be cooled. Once the flour left the millstones, it was necessary to cool it, as the stones generated heat, and the flour leaving millstones was often hot, damp, and sticky. After cooling, the flour was returned to the second floor, where it was separated into its components (middlings, shorts, bran and flour) by a process known as “bolting”. The various components would then be sent to the first floor to be barreled (flour only) or bagged (middlings, shorts, and bran). Middlings and shorts were typically sold for animal feed.

During the period of operation by the Chaffeys, flour was produced mainly on consignment for local farmers who would supply the grain. The Chaffeys would grind it, keeping a portion of the flour for themselves for sale, possibly in the store at Bedford Mills. In 1862, the Bedford grist mill was remodeled, with the installation of two runs of stones and the addition of an improved separation reel (bolter), allowing for the separation of a finer grade of flour, and for the production of greater quantities. The 1871 census revealed that two men were employed for six months of the year at John Chaffey’s grist mill at Bedford Mills, suggesting that the mill was not operational during the winter.

In 1872, the lease for Bedford Mills, including the grist mill, was transferred to Benjamin Tett’s sons John Poole and Benjamin Tett Jr., operating under the company name J. P. Tett & Bro. For the first several years, the mill was operated in much the same manner as had John Chaffey. Changes in milling practice were occurring, however. In 1879, the Government imposed duties on imported goods, including an import duty of 15 cents per bushel on American wheat and 50 cents per barrel of flour. This measure prompted greater production of flour using Canadian grain, from both local and other sources within Canada. The total production of wheat in the area was insufficient to produce the volume of flour the Tetts wanted to produce in their “merchant milling” business (merchant milling is the grinding of grain for resale). Kingston was a trans-shipment point for wheat, allowing the Tett brothers to import large quantities of grain from the west, which was then shipped to Bedford Mills by Kingston forwarders. The profits from merchant milling apparently more than offset the cost of importing wheat from the west. Flour and animal feed were both sold locally and to merchants in nearby communities. In addition to wheat, other grains were milled on consignment. During the era of J. P. Tett & Bro., an average of more than ten thousand bushels of wheat, buckwheat, rye, and corn, in addition to provender, were milled each year between 1872 and 1890.

Encouraged, perhaps in part by the tariffs which supported the use of Canadian grain, the Tetts embarked on a number of improvements to the mill, which would permit increases in both the volume and quality of flour produced. At this time, consumers were demanding a more refined flour for baking and cooking. In 1886, two more runs of stones were installed to complement the existing two, and a new three-storey grain elevator was added to the grist mill to store the large amount of grain needed to keep four runs of stones running. Grain was unloaded at the second story level of the elevator, and then transported to the hopper and duster on the upper floor. As it was required, the grain would pass from the elevator across the road, through a chute, to the second storey of the mill. The monthly returns for custom milling, available for most of the decade from 1880-1890, showed that October to March was the busiest time at the mill, indicating the mill now remained operational in the winter months.

In 1898, the stones were removed and replaced with a completely new metal roller mill, which was able to produce much greater quantities and a better quality of flour than was previously available using millstones. The technology employed in roller milling was completely different from that previously used with stones. Roller machines did not demolish the woody hulls of the grain or get as hot to the degree that millstones did. They required less power, required less surveillance, increased the yield per given amount of wheat, and made a whiter flour containing fewer fragments of grain hull and germ. The Tetts sold “choice family flour” in various quantities: ¼ barrel in paper bags, ½ barrel in cloth sacks, and full barrel in wooden barrel. Most likely the paper bags were sold in their store, while cloth sacks were sold to local farmers or other retailers in the area. The barrels would be shipped to markets through the Rideau canal using their tig and barges.  Changes were afoot, however, much of it beyond the control of the Tetts. The opening of several freight train lines in the area made shipment throughout the Rideau Canal using the Tetts’ tug and barges increasingly less profitable. Even after importing thousands of bushels of western Canadian wheat annually, the Tett brothers were increasingly unable to compete with large western milling corporations with their ready access to rail transportation. The mill reached its peak production in 1911, with production falling dramatically over the next four years. The mill was closed completely in 1915. It was written off as a loss, the miller, Thomas Eagle, was let go in January of 1916, and the roller machinery was sold that same year.

John Gray