Sunday, 11 April 2021

Hanlon Creek, Horace Mack and the Kortright Waterfowl Park

("The only breeding pair of Whistling Swans in captivity in the world. These birds are among the more than 2,000 waterfowl on display to the public year around at Kortright Waterfowl Park located in Guelph, Ontario. Photo by Paul Ferris." Published by Peterborough Airways Ltd., ca. 1970. Courtesy of the author.)

In 1948, Horace Mack purchased a property at the mouth of Hanlon Creek in Puslinch. There, he set up what he called the "Niska Farm" with a specific mission (Aviculture Magazine 1951, v. 57, n. 5):

Here at Niska (Niska is a Cree Indian word for Canada Goose) Farm, we keep a collection of approximately a hundred wild geese of fifteen species, as well as some ducks, swans, pheasants, and peafowl.
The object of the Niska Farm was to find out how to breed wild geese for, as Mack pointed out, this process was not well understood and, "the more experience one has, the more one realizes how little one knows."

The term "Farm" was something of a misnomer. It is true that part of Mack's plan for the property was to continue his interest in breeding geese, swans, ducks, and other fowl, often for sale other zoos or collectors. However, he had a broader, more public purpose in mind: To prevent threatened birds from following the Passenger Pigeon into extinction. The purpose of the Niska Farm was focussed on conservation of waterfowl throughout the region.

Protection of wildlife was a novel concept in the use of this farm. Its history began over a hundred years earlier with Felix Hanlon. Hanlon's early life is not well recorded but he emigrated from County Monahan, Ireland, to Upper Canada (now Ontario) in 1825. He arrived in Guelph in 1827, only a couple of months after the founding of the town by John Galt and his party. It seems that he worked in town until 1833, cutting trees to clear up lots and roadways.

(Felix Hanlon, ca. 1860. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2012.45.1.)

That year, Hanlon decided to go into farming. One story has it that he walked down the Speed River looking for a good location. Upon finding a creek that flowed into the River and tracing it to its source, Hanlon purchased the surrounding 500 acres. In due course, the creek was called Hanlon's Creek in his honour.

Roads were not plentiful in Puslinch in those days, so early settlers had to walk a great deal. One story that Hanlon was known to recount involved venturing out alone on foot (McPhatter 1897/1991, p. 23):

... when carrying flour home from Guelph, and how the wolves overtook him in the bush and treed him up a tree and kept him there till the next morning, leaving the flour at the bottom of the tree, and the wolves trampled and destroyed the flour so that it was of no more use.
Accounts of settler life in Puslinch are replete with similar stories. Wolves were constantly in pursuit of people's sheep and cattle, not to mention their owners, while bears seemed to favour pigs. There are also several mentions of Indians in Puslinch, both passing through the area and living in it. Deer and trees combined to provide plentiful food and lodging, as recorded by Martin Cassin (McPhatter, p. 8):
I can remember when the Indians would camp in the district and I have seen as many as 65 deer laying dead in their camp, on their return from a hunting tour and we would trade a loaf of bread for a whole carcass of deer after the hide was taken. The Indian wigwams were very large that I can remember. Where the hole in the centre went out was built of poles and shingled with hemlock brush, and the fire in the centre of the wigwam.
The settlers had a more antagonistic relationship with the bush and cleared trees as fast as they could. The letters make frequent mention of logging bees, in which a groups of settlers would converge at a farm and cut down as many trees as they could. Indeed, "improving" the land in this way was one of the conditions that farmers had to meet in order to assume full ownership of it. As an experienced tree cutter, Felix Hanlon would have done quite a bit of logging himself on his new farm.
(The Hanlon Farm house, ca. 1995, by Fred Dahms. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2013.51.649.)

(As I noted in an earlier post, this is exactly the sort of deforestation that conservationists like Edmund Zavitz tried hard to reverse in the following century.)

In the 1970s, a highway was built across part of Hanlon's old property and named the Hanlon Expressway in his honour. This may be considered a fitting or ironic tribute to a man who so often walked (or climbed) through the sylvan trails formerly located there.

In the early 1860s, the farm lots near the mouth of Hanlon's Creek were sold to a Mr. Ramsey, who operated a sawmill there. The property passed through a few other hands until it was purchased by Horace Mack. Of course, Mack was not looking to cut up any more trees but rather to set up a waterfowl sanctuary and had identified the mouth of Hanlon Creek as a promising place to situate it.

Born in Guelph on 6 December 1895, Horace Mack began his working career in 1911 with the Gilson Manufacturing Company. Located on York Road (across from where the Owens Corning plant now stands), the plant opened in 1907 as a branch of an American firm headquartered in Port Washington, Wisconsin. The company was then noted for its small engines, which it promoted with the motto, "Goes like sixty!" The American manager, Ed Barelman, bought the Guelph operation after the Gilson family sold the firm in 1914, which he ran until his death in 1927.

(Edward Barelman, n.d. Courtesty of Guelph Civic Museums 2009.32.932.)

Although starting out as an office boy, Horace Mack quickly climbed the corporate ladder, ascending to President after Barelman's death. An article in the Globe (28 April 1927) notes that Mack was a "close associate" of Barelman, which is amply affirmed by the fact that Mack inherited $52,399.61 of Barelman's $64,800.61 estate. No doubt, this legacy helped Mack materially with his wildlife protection plans. The Globe article does not provide any comments by the Barelman family on this arrangement.

("Horace Mack stands proudly (about 1922) beside the Gilson car he helped build. All told, three of these cars were built in Guelph: one wasn't finished, one burned in a garage and the third was driven by Gilson executive, Mack" (Coulman 1977, photo 129). Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2009.32.3233.)

The Gilson company itself reflected Mack's pet project. Mack's obituary (Mercury, 26 May 1956) notes that the lawns of the factory were graced by an aviary for many years. Besides rare birds, there is an old photo of "Barry" the white wolf in a pen on the factory's grounds, who shared the zoo with dingos, black bears and other exotic creatures. Who's treed who now!

("Barry the white wolf at Gilson Co.," 1933. Courtesy of Guelph Public Library F5-0-3-2-1-5.)

Up to a point, Mack was following in the footsteps of industrialists like James Goldie, who had an aviary that included two swans that used to swim on Goldie Mill pond. Such animals were kept for pleasure and display. Mack's collection of wolves, black bears, exotic geese, and similar animals can probably by understood in this way.

At some point, Mack's ambitions become too great for the company zoo. He next purchased a property near Eden Mills. It served as a rescue farm, housing and nursing injured animals, as well as a destination for educational excursions for local schoolchildren. It also seems to have been where his breeding program got started in earnest and where Mack began to learn about the challenges of protecting his own flock, not to mention regional bird populations (1951):

In 1927, I acquired a pair of European Gray Lag Geese from a New York importer. Doubtless they were wild caught, and I never expected them to lay. However, in 1938, after 11 years, the female laid in an elevated steel barrel and started incubating. Unfortunately an Egyptian gander escaped from his enclosure and finding the Grey Lag Goose on the nest, promptly killed her. When discovered, the eggs were spoiled.
Two years later, in 1940, I was fortunate in getting another female. She mated the following spring, and has been successful in rearing a brood in at least five of the succeeding years. The old gander, “Clarence,” is not less than twenty-four years old, and quite possibly much older. He is not very nimble any more, but he and his mate “Lizzie” are still inseparable, and I am hoping he will be spared for a few more seasons to father some more fluffy yellow goslings.
In the end, Mack decided that his ambitions required a new farm, specially designed for breeding waterfowl, which became the Niska Farm at the end of Hanlon Creek. There he built a dam to create a system of waterfowl-friendly ponds and protective pens.
(Horace Mack. Detail from "50th Anniversary Booklet & Envelope, Gilson Manufacturing Co. Limited," 1957, p. 3. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1980.1.7.2.)

Mack applauded federal efforts to protect migratory waterfowl and had the Niska Farm declared a federal waterfowl sanctuary in 1952. We learn something about the birds being bred there in descriptions of an attack on them by three boys on 26 August 1958 (Globe). Armed with home-made spears, the boys climbed fences around the bird pens and attacked a number of birds:

In one pen, a Chinese mandarin duck was killed, the leg of another broken and three carried off; four escaped.
A rare South American ashy-headed goose was stabbed to death in another pen; one Canada Goose was killed, two others had their legs broken and another was slashed. The ashy-headed goose is one of a pair believed to be the only breeding pair in North America. Its mate and 12 Canadas survived.
A young swan, one of four being raised by a breeding pair was left with its back broken and another was injured.
The boys carried off at least two dead birds to roast and eat at a nearby campsite. They were located by RCMP officers and charged with violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916. They were fined and placed on probabation.

It will surprise many readers to learn that Canada geese ("Niska") were among the birds whose population Horace Mack sought to increase. By the early twentieth century, hunting and habitat destruction had made the birds uncommon in southern Ontario. Efforts to conserve and reintroduce them in the region were sanctioned under the Migratory Bird Treaty and by conservationists such as Jack Miner, founder of the Jack Miner bird sanctuary in Kingsville, Ontario in 1904, and likely a model for Mack. Efforts to regulate hunting, to breed and reintroduce birds, and to provide migratory sanctuaries bore fruit, allowing Ontarians to enjoy the fulsome flocks of Canada geese that the province features today.

Establishment of the Niska ("Canada goose") Farm contributed materially to that effort.

On 25 May 1959, Horace Mack died. His many contributions to local conservation efforts were summarized in his obituary:

His advice was sought by authorities at Stratford when the now-famous swans were given a home on the Avon River when the Canadian cultural centre was developed.
Mr. Mack represented the city of Guelph on the Grand Valley Conservation Authority since it was organized. He was also a member of the Speed River Flood Control committee, which brought out the great improvement at Royal City Park.
As a member of the Grand Authority he was also prominently identified with the development of the Elora Gorge Park and in planning for the Rockwood Park area now under consideration by the authority.
... His game farms in this area have been visited by most Guelph School children.
The question of how the Niska Farm would continue was answered when it was purchased by the newly-formed Ontario Waterfowl Research Foundation in 1961. Executive Secretary A.T. Crignan, Professor of Zoology at the nearby Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, explained their plans for the new Niska Waterfowl Research Foundation (Journals of the Legislative Assembly 1962, Appendix p. 57):
This will serve as the Foundation’s physical headquarters, and will be developed to support a wide range of research activities. A library, a laboratory and demonstrations of waterfowl management, all essential to the organization’s ultimate objectives, are planned for the future.
As a non-profit organization, the Foundation depended upon donations for its funding. In addition, it planned to further develop the site as a tourist attraction, with proceeds to support research. To this end, it maintained a sizeable stock of exotic birds and designed parking and other facilities for visitors (Globe, 22 September 1962).

On 21 October 1965, the Foundation renamed the farm as the Frank Kortright Waterfowl Park (KWP). Francis Kortright was founder and President of the Toronto Sportsmen's Show. The popular annual exhibition generated a substantial amount of money, which Kortright was keen to spend on waterfowl conservation measures. So, the Niska Farm was a good match.

("Geese bathe in spring-like weather at Kortright" 1968. Courtesty of Guelph Public Library F45-0-15-0-0-37.)

Kortright's friend, former Ontario Premier Leslie Frost (the "Silver Fox") helped to cut the ribbon and explained the need for systematic waterfowl study (Globe, 22 October 1965):

In this day of mechanization, of planes, outboard motors, new types of fire-arms, and in view of increasing water pollution, the question is whether wildlife can survive.
Prospects for the survival of the Park seemed good. Research undertaken there began to appear in academic journals. Writers began to publish favourable accounts of the KWP and to recommend trips there to others. For example, the Hamilton Naturalists' Club commented on how much they enjoyed their tour ("The wood duck" 1967, v. 20, n. 9, p. 126), despite a recent flood. The tour was led by none other than Robert Bateman, the noted naturalist and painter, who was a supporter of the Park.
(Robert Bateman, 2014. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

On 12 June 1971, Guelph Mayor Norm Jary officially opened the new Royal City Kiwanis Club Lookout Tower at the KWP (Daily Mercury, 14 June 1971). Feeling more optimistic than Premier Leslie, Jary commented that the existence of Parks like the KWP expressed a "great vote of confidence" in the ability of people to preserve the environment and its denizens. He added that the city, which had encompassed the park in a boundary extension, planned to preserve the KWP itself:

“I hope that his Kiwanis Lookout Tower will stand as a warning to those who would desecrate the environment that they had better look out.”
Unfortunately, tensions that surrounded the Park since its inception could not be denied indefinitely. One such tension was the use of the KWP for research and as a public attraction. Gate receipts provided crucial funding but the needs of visitors for space and exotic birds to gander at competed with room and calm needed to conduct local waterfowl research.

In addition, the expansion of the City of Guelph intruded more and more on the KWP. In 1966, the city annexed a section of Puslinch that contained the KWP for construction of more housing and roads. In preparation, the city made plans to install a storm sewer system that would empty into Hanlon Creek (Globe, 12 November 1969). Such a system would increase the already troublesome risk of flooding there (such as 22 May 1974), rendering the site unusable. A letter-writing campaign disuaded the city but development in the area could only bring more environmental woes to the Park.

An engineering report for the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA) on the Hanlon Creek watershed proposed that much of the watershed should be incorporated into the city as a conservation area with the KWP serving as "a general nature or zoological park," an attraction rather than a research facility. The city and GRCA agreed to acquire lands in the area with this sort of scheme in mind. It seemed that the change was in the air for the waterfowl.

On 11 June 1975, Chairman R.T.D. Birchall announced that the Ontario Waterfowl Research Foundation could no longer operate the KWP (Globe):

He said the Canadian National Sportsmen’s Show, which provided two thirds of the park’s operating costs last year, has announced it can not continue its extensive support of the park. The show has provided more than $550,000 to the park since 1965.
Birchall said the foundation would like to sell the park to a public organization such as the Grand River Conservation Authority.
The GRCA did acquire the property while the KWP was operated by the Niska Wildlife Foundation (NWF), a citizens' group supported by grants and donations.
("Kortright For Sale—Foundation Can't Afford To Operate Sanctuary," featuring Mrs. Eileen Hammill—Horace Mack's daughter—Executive Director of Kortright Park, 10 June 1975. Courtesy of Guelph Public Library F45-0-15-0-0-55.)

To raise money, the Foundation continued to operate the KWP as an attraction. It continued sales of waterfowl to other zoos and conservation groups. It also sought grants and held regular art auctions, which frequently included prints donated by Robert Bateman, among other artists. It also sold postcards such as the one heading this post. This approach sustained the KWP for many years, during which the Park played host to picnickers, school trips, and bird watchers.

(Map of Kortright Waterfowl Park, ca. 1980. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1997.16.17.)

However, attendance tended to drop off through the 1990s. On 23 June 2005, the Park closed its doors. Long-time Park manager Rick Ortlieb explained that he was no longer able to operate the facility. Decline in his health made his job difficult. Also, intruders were attacking birds in their pens. Although two men were caught attacking geese with a home-made spear, apparently to feed them to their pet iguana, attacks continued that Ortlieb was unable to stop (Mercury; 24 April 2014).

It was hoped that the KWP could be re-opened the next year but Niska Wildlife Foundation was unable to do so. Control of the property reverted to the GRCA in 2014. At that time, Rick Ortlieb and his wife Jeane Kannenberg left the site. Buildings and other structures were removed in 2016 with the object of "re-naturalizing" the property. In 2018, upon an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, the GRCA agreed to a robust public consultation about the future of the lands, after an inventory of the property.

The GRCA Niska website provides a map of their Niska land holdings.

There the matter stands today. What public purpose the old "Niska Farm" might next serve remains to be seen.


The following works were consulted for this post:

Sunday, 7 March 2021

Edmund Zavitz, the OAC, and the reforestation of Ontario

In the afternoon of 31 May 1985, a tornado outbreak swept through southwestern Ontario and neighbouring US states. Known locally as "the Barrie tornado outbreak" after the big one that hit Barrie, the system spawned twisters from Wiarton south to Grand Valley.

Although no twister struck Guelph, high winds caused extensive damage. Some of the casualities included a number of mature white pines in the University of Guelph's Arboretum. These were sometimes known as the "Zavitz pines" or "the Zavitz Pine Plantation" because the trees were the work of Edmund John Zavitz, the OAC's first professor of forestry and a pioneer of reforestation in Ontario. The plantation was part of a project to assess and promote the suitability of white pines for the purpose of reforesting the province.

Edmund Zavitz was born on 9 July 1875 on a farm near Ridgeway, Ontario. From an early age, Zavitz was much influenced by family who lamented deforestation of the land. For example, he spent some time in his early years at the farm of his maternal grandfather Edmund Prout in the Ganaraska region. His grandfather and uncle John Squair had grown concerned about the consequences of comphrensive deforestation of the region, including soil erosion, flooding, and fires. Young Edmund came to share their concerns and developed his interest in understanding what had been lost.

In early days, settlers in southern Ontario had adopted a somewhat adversarial relationship with the region's forests. In order to make their farms more productive, settlers removed woodlands as quickly as possible. This goal was accomplished sometimes by logging but also by simply setting large fires.

Although these measures produced results in the short term, they also had harmful consequences. Removal of trees encouraged soil erosion, which reduced productivity. Forest removal also had the effect of reducing the capacity of the landscape to store water, resulting in springtime floods and summer droughts. By Zavitz's day, forest cover in southern Ontario had been reduced to about 15%, with many townships reduced to about 5%. Zavitz would later estimate that about 30% forest cover would be ideal.

It occured to young Edmund that reforestation would be an appropriate and constructive response. While attending McMaster University (then in Toronto) in 1903, Zavitz read a biography of Gifford Pinchot, head of the US Division of Forestry and an instrumental figure in the professionalization of forestry. This encounter inspired Zavitz to follow in Pinchot's footsteps and become a professional forester. He transferred to Yale, whose forestry program had been founded by Pinchot, and then to graduate studies at the University of Michigan.

In 1904, Zavitz arrived in Guelph to direct establishment of a tree nursery on the grounds of the Macdonald Institute. Trees including ash, maple, white-wood, black locust, and elm were planted (OAC Review, 1904, v. 16. n. 7, p. 39). The goal of the nursery was to provide seedlings for farmers to employ for reforestation. This idea had been promoted, in part, by Charles Zavitz, a cousin of Edmund, who was a professor of crop science at the Ontairo Agricultural College (OAC). Charles Zavitz had recognized the importance of healthy woodlots to farm productivity and promoted them to farmers whom he taught and collaborated with.

(Edmund Zavitz portrait, OAC Review, 1905, v. 18, n. 1, p. 1.)

The OAC set up a Department of Forestry, in part to help direct work in its tree nurseries and to improve instruction in the subject. In 1905, upon his graduation from the University of Michigan, Edmund Zavitz joined the faculty in the new department. Zavitz immediately organized an outreach program to the province's farmers (OAC Review, 1907, v. 19, n. 9, pp. 449):

The chief problem confronting the Forestry Department is that of waste land planting. It is desired to demonstrate throughout the Province the practicability of reforesting waste land which may exist in various forms as sandy, gravelly or stony soils, steep hillsides or other untillable soil.
...
The department will furnish free the planting material, but the person receiving such shall pay cost of transportation.
The owner, on his part, must prepare the soil, plant and care for the trees, and do all the actual work in connection with the plantations in accordance with the directions of the officer of the department. The owner shall also agree to provide reasonable protection for the plantation against [live]stock or other harmful agencies.
No fruit or ornamental trees will be sent out by this department, and all trees must be used for protection or wood producing purposes.
Zavitz also mentions the establishment of a nursery for evergreens such as white pine and Norway spruce. Perhaps this refers to the white pines found in the Arboretum.
(Edmund Zavitz portrait, Canadian Forestry Journal, 1913, v. 9, n. 2, p. 28.)

Zavitz taught courses in forestry and related areas such as entomology. A postcard apparently featuring Zavitz is likely connected with his work as an instructor.

This real-photo card features an oval framed picture of a group of men in a forest, many carrying notebooks and binoculars, arranged somewhat carelessly for the event. Postmarks show that it was mailed from Guelph to Hamilton on 3 December 1907. The message on the back reads:
Exams begin a week from Monday. Plugging is the order of the day and most of the night. How about Xmas holidays? K. B. C. // box 163 O.A.C.
I'm not sure who K.B.C. was but it seems likely that he was an OAC student who is included in the portrait.

The card does not identify anyone in the picture but the figure third from the right in the back row remsembles Edmund Zavitz pretty well. Zoom and enhance! See the close-up below and judge for yourself.

As it happens, beside his academic specialties, Zavitz was a keen photographer. This was a skill he regarded as important for his work and sought to promote among his students. Shortly before this postcard was mailed, Zavitz helped to set up the the campus Camera Club (OAC Review, 1907, v. 20, n. 3, p. 159):
On Monday evening, November 4th, a meeting of those interested in photography was held for the purpose of forming a Camera Club. The officers elected are as follows:—President, E.J. Zavitz; vice-president, W.R. Thompson, ’09; secretary, J.W. Jones, ’10.
The organization of this Club is a much needed step in the right direction and will no doubt encourage the use of photography in the procuring of more accurate and reliable results in research and treatise work. We understand that Mr. Zavitz has kindly consented to deliver lectures upon photography to the members. Arrangements are now under way for the provision of a commodious and up-to-date dark-room, to be fitted with all the requirements of the camera enthusiast. A constitution is being drawn up and it is expected that by the commencement of the winter term, the “Camera Club” will add one more to the sum total of active and effective student organizations.
It could even be that the postcard photo was one of the first photos taken by members of the Club.

Zavitz's keenness on photography was much on display in his report on reforestation to the Ontario Parliament in 1909. Entitled "Reforestation of waste lands in Southern Ontario," the report describes the state of southern Ontario's forests, the problems stemming from it, and his recommendations for reforestation. Zavitz's photos of the sometimes severe consequences of deforestation are a compelling part of the presentation.

Figure 2 of the report shows drifting sands that resulted from deforestation in Charlottesville Township in Norfolk County. Zavitz points out that attemtps to farm in the area resulted in desert conditions due to the unsuitable nature of the soil (p. 8):

These lands originally produced splendid white pine, oak, chestnut and other valuable hardwoods. Where the land was cleared for farming purposes it gave at first, in many cases, good returns. As soon as the vegetable mould or old forest soil disappeared from the sand, it became a difficult matter to keep up the fertility and we find conditions as in the following illustrations...
Figure 5 shows the stumps of a white pine forest in Walsingham Township that were not removed after logging. Subsequent soil erosion left the sizeable stumps perched in mid-air, like markers commemorating the departed topsoil.
The report goes on to describe similar regions in Lambton, Simcoe, Northumberland and Durham, the latter featuring the Oak Ridges Moraine.

The report proceeds to recommend a concerted, provincial reforestation program, pointing out the benefits for soil conditions, flood control, fire suppression, recreation, and what we would today call sustainable logging.

Zavitz continued his educational and organizational work at the OAC but the scope of his amibitions for reforestation clearly could not be realized as a professor. In 1912, he left the OAC to assume the role of Provincial Forester for Ontario and Provincial Fire Inspector for the Board of Railway Commissioners. In 1926, the Provincial Department of Forests was created with Zavitz as deputy minister.

Zavitz's struggles and accomplishments are discussed at length in Bacher's "Two billion trees and counting" and are too extensive to be laid out in detail here. However, it is worth noting that Zavitz was key in the establishment of the Agreement Forest Program, which assisted municipalities in reforestation, numerous tree-control bylaws, which regulated cutting on private lands, and the creation of conservation authorities, which manage natural resources in Ontario watersheds. It is no exaggeration to say that Zavitz had a profound effect on the landscape of Ontario as we know it today.

Shortly before Zavitz's death in 1968, Premier John Robarts planted a sugar maple sapling at Queen's Park, the one billionth tree in the province's reforestation campaign (Bacher 2011, p. 218). The campaign has continued, through ups and downs. However, Zavitz's goal remains elusive. In 2010, then Environmental Commissioner of Ontario Gordon Miller (a Univerity of Guelph graduate), issued a report to the provincial legislature estimating that about a billion more trees must be planted in Ontario to reach the goal of about 30% forest cover.

In 2011, Edmund Zavitz's grandson Peter gathered with University of Guelph president Alastair Summerlee, Prof. Andy Gordon, School of Environmental Sciences, and Robert Gordon, dean of OAC, to unveil a plaque dedicated to Zavitz and his work. The plaque is situated in the northeastern corner of the Arboretum, where some of Zavitz's white pines stand to this day.

Below is one of the surviving Zavitz white pines standing near the plaque.

For more information, see:
  • Bacher, J. (2011). "Two billion trees and counting: The legacy of Edmund Zavitz," Toronto: Dundurn Press.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

The Old Mill kept Guelphites swimming for decades

On 2 June 1932, the Mercury conveyed some welcome news:
It is the intention of James L. Simpson, the owner [of Simpson's Mill], to lay out a complete private park, with all the usual facilities of such playgrounds, including swimming pools, camps sites, dance hall, dining room, tourist accommodation and other similar facilities.
With Guelph in the depths of the Great Depression, the arrival of a new amusement facility must have been welcome news to many.

The news also concluded the efforts of James Livingstone Simpson to sell his property to the City of Guelph, which proved, perhaps also due to the Depression, not to be receptive to the idea of buying the land to add to Riverside Park. Rebuffed by the city, Simpson decided to set up in the recreation business for himself.

Simpson's Mill sat on property along the Speed River, on the north side of Speedvale Avenue just east of the bridge then often known as Simpson's bridge. Today, the property houses the Speedvale Fire Station and the John Galt Garden. However, the site had a long history as a mill.

In 1859, Mr. John Goldie bought 17 acres of land along the east bank of the Speed from William Hood as an inducement for his son James to immigrate to Canada from New York and become a miller. The property was already the site of a sawmill and barrel-stave factory operated by Samuel Smith, a former Reeve and Mayor of Guelph. A dam constructed across the Speed about 200 yards south of what is now Woodlawn Road fed water into a raceway that led to the sawmill and factory, situated near the east bank about where the current footbridge is located.

(James Goldie (1824–1912); photo courtesy of William Weston.)

James Goldie took the bait and brought his family to the new site, which was accessible only by a footpath from the Elora Road (now Woolwich Street). The family lived in Smith's old stave factory while they built a new mill complex. They built a new dam next to the sawmill (where the current dam stands) and constructed a large raceway down to their new flour mill further south near Speedvale Avenue.

The new mill consisted of two sections. The first section was the mill proper, built of local stone, and housed the water wheels, grinding stones, and other equipment for a flour mill. The second section was a frame building made for storing grain. By the end of 1861, the new mill was in operation and the old sawmill repurposed as a stable.

The site also incorporated a cooperage, as flour was usually shipped in barrels rather than bags, and several coopers employed.

James Goldie bought the People's Mill (now known as Goldie Mill) in 1867 and sold the old place to Mr. John Pipe, a local farmer. It was therefore known as Pipe's Mill until 1883, when Pipe sold it to G.P. Tolton. Mr. Tolton installed a new-fangled roller system from the US known as "The Jumbo" (doubtless after the famous elephant), which locals honoured by dubbing the mill "The Jumbo Mills."

(Speedvale Mill, ca. 1870. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2014.84.1025.)

With water levels falling in the Speed, the mill's water wheels had difficulty supplying Jumbo with enough energy to work properly. Mr. Tolton introduced a steam engine, which supplied the necessary power. Like its namesake, Jumbo had bad luck with steam engines and was disposed of in favour of steel rollers. Perhaps with some disappointment, the mill returned to being "The Speedvale Mill."

After passing through other hands, the mill was sold to James Simpson in 1901, thus becoming "Simpson's Mill." Finding that flour could no longer be produced profitably, Mr. Simpson converted the mill to grinding animal feed. This he did until his retirement in 1926, at which time he moved to a house on Wellington Place (now Riverview Drive) leased the mill to Joseph Lang, who continued the operation.

Besides the mill, the grounds also became an attraction connected with Riverside Park. The Park had been opened in 1905 as a place for Guelphites and others to find wholesome, outdoor entertainments and to get people onto the city's streetcar system.

One of the attractions was the opportunity to swim (or "bathe") in the Speed River at the dam belonging to Simpson's Mill. In fact, Mr. Simpson obligingly erected a new dam made of stone and concrete, which rose a couple of feet higher than the old one, in order to create a deeper reservoir that would make for better boating and bathing opportunities for park patrons (Mercury, 25 May 1905).

(Swimming in Riverside Park, from a postcard by Charles L. Nelles, ca. 1905.)

As a part of his mill operation, Mr. Simpson's property included the "water privilege" for the section of the Speed river adjacent to his mill. In short, he had the right to use the water to power his mill and to exclude others from using the water there. As a result, the city paid Mr. Simpson a monthly lease so that Guelphites could splash and swim in the water at Riverside Park. At first, the lease was $50/year, although it was later increased to $100 (Mercury, 2 June 1932).

All went well until fire, that ancient foe of millworks, struck at Simpson's Mill. On 17 July 1930, city firemen responded to a report of flames at the mill (Mercury, 16 April 1947):

A full turnout responded, and a long line of hose was laid from Elora Road, then split to two lines near the mill. Horses were taken from the stables and led to safety, while water was poured into the blazing building. Firemen fought the blaze for three hours before it was brought under control.
The cause was deemed to be spontaneous combustion of hay in the loft.

It turned out that this blaze was only a prelude. A year later, another fire caused a conflagration that finished what the first fire had begun. Despite all efforts to save the structure, nothing but smoking walls were left of Simpson's Mill in its aftermath.

Apparently, 70 years of milling on the site was enough. Rather than rebuild, Mr. Simpson tried to interest the city in purchasing the property, for provision of a recreational facility added to Riverside Park. This offer sparked serious interest, as at least a few citizens thought that Guelph should have a bona fide public swimming pool. Yet, the culture of the "swimmin' hole" remained strong, as evidenced by this letter to the editor of the Mercury pointing out that citizens of the Royal City yet enjoyed many swimming locales, many outdoors (4 July 1931):

Dear Sir:—I noticed in Thursday night’s Mercury somewhat of a cyclone of agitation for a municipal bathing and swimming pool in Guelph, and, Mr. Editor, I confess that I fail to see the great urgency claimed by the agitators. We have the large pool in Riverside Park, which is well patronized, the Y.M.C.A. swimming pool, which is also an important adjunct, and if we walk for a quarter of a mile from the eastern end of the York Road street car line, we can get any quantity of accommodation in the swimming pools on the Reformatory grounds, which are free to city bathers. Furthermore, the Kiwanis Club have a site for bathing between Norwich Street Bridge and Goldie’s Dam, which is unsurpassed for a bathing pool for children. ...
To the mind of this writer and many others, the city of Guelph is wondrously well equipped with bathing pools and “swimmin’ ‘holes,” and ... could have right near the heart of the city abundant accommodation for all classes of bathers and swimmers.
In the end, the city declined. Simpson then demanded an increase in the water rights lease to $150/year. After further controversy, this too was declined.

In 1932, Mr. Simpson took matters into his own hands. He decided to turn Simpson's Mill into a recreation centre on his own account. He began by erecting a fence between Riverside Park and the Speed River (Mercury, 2 June 1932). The fence ran the length of the Park, cutting off the river walk, the dam, the bathing huts, and the pavilion from the riverbank. Park patrons would no longer have any access to the water. As the Mercury writer put it:

There will be no river at Riverside Park this year.... Visitors to Riverside Park who wish to see the water this year will be compelled to do so while looking through a fence.
Alternatively, Guelphites could make their way to the new recreational facility that Mr. Simpson was building on the old mill site. The main attraction of the new facility was to be a pair of swimming pools, one for adults and one for children. Both pools would be fed by the mill race with a constant stream of river water.

At the south end of the race, the adult pool would be the most ambitious installation:

It will be 430 feet in length and 90 feet wide with a sand bottom, six inches in depth. The depth of the water will be nine feet at the peak, but is will be possible to drop it as low as two feet. It will be built in the form of a bowl, with a shore line around it.
Immediately upstream and separated by a floodgate would be the children's pool:
This pool for the youngsters will be 100 feet long and 26 feet wide and will be paved with brick, while the water level will be kept at a safe height.
The whole scene would be illuminated by lights attached to a 40-foot tower, allowing for nighttime use.

Besides the swimming pools, walking paths and picnic sites would be provided. In addition, part of the old mill structure would be renovated and converted into a dance hall with a dining hall upstairs.

(Car park at Old Mill Swimming Pool, ca. 1935. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1985.59.2.)

Mr. Simpson's concept turned out to be a popular one and the "Old Mill," as it came to be called, was well patronized for many years. For example, the city swimming championships were held there in 1933 (Globe, 8 August 1933). Thirteen-year-old Kathleen Sinclair won the girls' title while "Peewee" Brandon won the mens'.

(Children swimming at Simpson's Mill, ca. 1935. Courtesy of Guelph Public Library archive item F38-0-15-0-0-418.)
(Old Mill Swimming Pool, ca. 1935. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1985.59.3.)

Entitled "The Old Mill Swimming Pool" in local phone books, the facility continued operations for many years. Dickering with the city over water rights continued also, apparently without bearing fruit. In 1940, the city's Public Works committee recommended that the city purchase the property for a sum of about $3000 (Mercury, 7 May 1940). In the view of many aldermen (councilors), the need for the city to have a decent swimming pool was pressing and the property was well-suited for construction of one.

Ald. Wilson stated that ... “We are all agreed this is the right time. For a city of this size, we are all agreed we need a swimming pool. If we buy this, in the near future we will have a swimming pool second to none."
Although only one alderman opposed the measure, the purchase did not go through.
(Six people swimming at Simpson's Mill, ca. 1930. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 1978.38.7.)
(Detail of booklet, "Why we chose Guelph" (1945, p. 19). Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1985.82.119.)
("Speed River near Old Mill," postcard published by Photogelatine Engraving Co., Limited, Ottawa, ca. 1950.)

In 1944, Mr. Simpson died and the Old Mill became the property of Wilbert Nisbet, who had been operating it for Mr. Simpson for some years. After Mr. Nisbet's death in 1956, the city finally completed purchase of the property. It appears that the Old Mill was no longer as popular as it was and that the city did not continue to operate the pool or dance hall. In addition, construction of the Memorial Pool in Lyon Park in 1952 had satisified the city's need for a public swimming pool. Instead, the city began to make plans for a general renovation of Riverside Park and its new addition.

(Pavilion and old house at Simpson's old mill, flooded by Hurricane Hazel 1954. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2014.84.1019.)

Even so, the Old Mill had a second act. It was rented out to the Guelph Little Theatre in 1960 (Globe, 10 September 1960). In January, 1959, the group had rented the dining hall for a party, trying to keep its membership engaged between productions. The hall was decked out to look like a Klondike saloon, apparently to suit the drafty nature of the old building. The party was a hit and the company, on the lookout for a new theatre, convinced the city to rent it to them on an ongoing basis. It was duly painted and repaired for the purpose.

(Guelph Little Theatre building (Old Mill), ca. 1960. Courtesy of Wellington County Museum and Archives A1985.110.)

However, the reprieve was only temporary and, after the city had decided on its plans for the new property, it lowered the curtain on the Old Mill in 1963. In its place were established the John Galt Gardens, commemorating the foundation of Guelph, and the Fire Hall, on the site of the old mill that had been destroyed in two blazes 33 years before.


Sources consulted for this post include:
It is curious that the only postcard to mention the Old Mill is the one above, which provides an image of the old suspension bridge over the Speed River at Riverside Park. Given that the Old Mill was a popular attraction, postcards that show it, and not simply a locale "near" it, would be expected.

On a related note, another run of the same postcard shows the scene a little differently. See if you can spot the difference:

I think that the first view above is correct but I am not a hundred percent sure.

In any event, the history of the Old Mill should be better known. If you have any further information about it, please let us know in the comments below. Thanks!