Saturday, December 28, 2019
Utopia is a few minutes west of Highway 400 near Barrie and on a recent trip to see the family in Gravenhurst to celebrate Christmas I made the side trip to see the old grist mill that stands in the local conservation area. Eugene Smith was the first settler in the hamlet of Utopia and he arrived with his family in 1845. By the 1870s there was a hotel, blacksmith shop, general store with post office a school and two churches along with a saw mill and grist mill. The town served the local farmers in Essa Township.
Church was often the focal point for early communities. The rural farmers would often see each other once a week when they got together for worship services. Sunday shopping hadn’t been invented yet and so Sunday was a day of rest when people would hang around after church to discuss the crops or catch up on the news. In Utopia the faithful started meeting in homes and the school with services being held under a large tree at the corner of the 5th concession and 25 side road. In 1873 John Jennet donated a parcel of land to build a permanent church for the Anglican parish in Utopia. Reverend W. Bates was the first to hold services in the new church building. It was originally known as All Saints but changed its name to St. George’s in 1874.
I parked at the entrance to the Utopia Conservation Area and went for a walk. The road to the old mill has been blocked by several truck loads of fine gravel which has been dumped there. This will likely be spread out on the trails in the spring. Beyond this a gate across the road bears a sign indicating that the area is closed to the general public. I carried on in the interest of photographing and reporting the current condition of the old building. The original mill lane runs between rows of cedar trees.
At the bottom of the lane the mill pokes out from behind the trees. James Pink had built the original mill on this site in 1864 and soon added a saw mill down stream soon after. The water flow in Bear Creek was insufficient to run both mills at the same time so the saw mill was operated during the day and the grist mill at night. Richard Bell had worked at the mill for three years when he bought it in 1879. His brothers John and Manuel operated it until it burned to the ground on May 29, 1903.
The mill was rebuilt and opened again on January 1, 1904. The mill sits on a foundation made of stones that is four and a half feet thick. It is claimed that quicksand forced the foundation to be set 30 feet deep.
The mill had its own brand of flour including Gold Coin which was intended for baking bread. Snowflake was milled with pastry in mind. They also chopped grain for feed for the local farmers and by the 1940s this was the sole business of the mill.
On October 14, 1954 Hurricane Hazel caused Bear Creek to rise to the point where the front porch of the mill was washed away. The water ran through the building and out again without causing any structural damage. The mill dam was destroyed and rather than replacing it Harold Bell decided to install a diesel generator. The mill operated like this until it closed in 1965.
The Nottawasaga Conservation Authority obtained the property soon after this and have been slowly restoring the mill as funds have become available. New windows have been installed and the front porch replaced. Although the siding is coming off in a few places it still looks like the building is being protected from excessive deterioration. Inside, many of the old shafts, pulleys and belts that operated the mill remain in anticipation of possible future use as a working mill.
The dam was replaced with a new concrete one in 1969 to help control the flow of water in times of flooding conditions.
Grain was shipped to the mill from the prairies via a grain shed on the Canadian National Railway Line just north of the mill. The rail line is abandoned today and clearly marked as no trespassing.
It will certainly be interesting to see if the mill will continue to be restored to a fully functional grist mill.
For our earlier story on The Barrie Light Company click on the link.
Google Maps Link: Utopia Conservation Area
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