Timeless Tradition: History of the Holstein Mill

By Willa Wick in Community, Places, Events, & History


Like all original grist mills, the mill at Holstein was first run by water power – but not with the big vertical paddle wheel you normally picture. Instead this mill had a horizontal wheel made up of many small flanges and wooden cogs. The turbine spins horizontally rather than vertically. Although it’s over 100 years old, an original “Little Giant Turbine and Water Wheel Instruction and Parts Manual” still sits in the desk drawer of the present day office.
The 80-horsepower turbine is no longer in use, but it was quite an education to go down into the depths of the mill and view the dungeons of the old waterworks. An underground headrace ran from the dam to the mill into a deep cistern-like cavern. The pipes continued to another ’well’ where turbine flanges produced the power.
If any maintenance work had to be done, one of the men had to shut off the water and go down into the hole. Many stories were told of men being down the headrace making repairs, and hearing a noise that quickly grew to a roar. Initially, they assumed the door had given way and they were about to be flushed down the system. Then they would realize that it was just the steam engine and train from the Grand Trunk railway passing over the dam. Imagine their relief!
The first grist mill burned in 1918, but was rebuilt the following year. They were able to use the original foundation in the reconstruction.
One fine spring day in the early 1920s Nelson McGuire, local farmer, drove into town with his wagon load of grain. Leslie Nicholson said “Nels, why don’t you buy the mill?” Nels pondered the situation during his ride back to the farm, and then asked his wife.
“Sure,” she said, “let’s.”
And so it came to pass that Nelson McGuire, a farmer and father of six girls, purchased the mill in 1923. To the right of McGuire’s mill stood Buller and Brebner’s Saw Mill. Mr. McGuire moved his family to a brick house north of the grist mill.
During the spring of 1929 high rushing waters smashed the dam and the entire lower part of town was under water. Logs from the saw mill were swept into the bottom of the grist mill. Brebner’s were also manufacturers of handles and baseball bats and these items not only floated into the mill but were strewn along the river all the way to Hanover.
Interesting objects, still in the lower depths of the mill, are two wooden cases, fully packed with handles for garden shears. The cases, labeled as a shipment headed for England, floated into the mill. The boxes were not retrieved as the handle factory never reopened. Now, 92 years later, dried out and covered with dust, they form part of the cellar’s museum.
All of the McGuire girls helped in the mill in one way or another with mother, Emma, doing the office and book work. Two of the sisters were Aura, (Mrs. Clarence Hargrave), and Des (Mrs. Roy Murphy) both of Harriston. A third daughter, Olive (Pat) married Murray Greenwood. When he retired from the armed forces after the war, they built a house right next to the mill and went into partnership with the family. The company then became known as McGuire and Greenwood. This arrangement continued until McGuire’s death in 1971. The Greenwood’s managed the mill for the next decade.
Early on, grains came in from the west by rail. It was shoveled onto wagons for the trip to the mill and then shoveled off into the bins for storage. After the war trucks took over the job of bringing grain down from the Owen Sound elevators. Local produce was always accepted. The seed cleaner was in a separate building behind the McGuire house and someone had to be there to run it at all times during the spring season.
With the original elevator, farmers brought in their oats and peas, and filled the rail cars to be shipped out to the cities (usually Toronto).
In 1955 the tall centre tower was erected. The inside of the tower was one of the last to be made of wood – all pine, but the elevator legs were fir. This gave 21 bins on the second floor and made a thoroughly modern addition to the 1919 structure.
Fortunately the McGuires, Greenwoods and now Stevensons, protected the heritage treasures. In addition to the 80 hp wooden turbine, (replaced by 120 hp hydro in 1965), the cellar of the mill sports the original coal scuttle. Coal came in by rail and was delivered to village customers. A reserve was poured into the basement holding bin. It wasn’t used by the mill but rather stored and sold to homeowners. Also in a dusty corner rests the ice hook trundle, used to move large blocks of ice cut from the nearby river. In the time before electricity, many pioneer families supplemented their income by harvesting ice from the Holstein dam, loading it on rail cars for shipment to the city.
One time during a visit, a young OAC graduate, John Stevenson, said to Greenwood, “If you ever have any notion of selling, please let me know.” Stevenson purchased the mill in 1980.
One of the highlights for the new owners was that they were the sole supplier of feed for the Moscow (Russia) Circus when it came to Ontario. This was a full circus with many animals and birds which required a variety of feed. The Stevenson’s had front row seats nearly every night because they often had to deliver a specialized ration for the next day.
A few years ago the building was stripped of its Shur-Gain and other identifying signs, and photographs were taken for advertisements for General oods. The picture of the plain building appeared in an ad for Cheerios breakfast cereal… (but naturally everyone in the area recognized it as the Holstein Mill).
As agricultural practices have changed over the years with bigger and better equipment, the mill manufacturing systems have had to keep up. Rail car delivery and shipment is long gone. During the ‘80s trucks went to Owen Sound elevators for barley – now it’s taken straight from the field to the mill.
Stock feed mixtures are all done by computer, which nutritionally balances every ration and matches it to each farm’s animals. From the mill, you can obtain a complete line for small animals (rabbit, cat, and dog), fowl (ducks, chickens, and geese), sheep, goats and pigs, as well as the larger cows and horses.
Milling is an extremely dusty business – picture shaking a cloth bag of flour around your kitchen for a few minutes. Cleanup is done on a daily basis but it soon looks the same.
Obviously in this rural community the mill has served the local population well, growing, and adapting to all the many changes in the industry, a tradition that, with local support, will continue.