From Otter Creek to Aunt Jemima it’s a long way to the grist mill

By Stephen Cook in Community, Food

Bruce County, Ontario was the last region within Upper Canada to be settled. It was known as a place of residence for many First Nations people. The region was secured for settlement by a large surrender of lands proposed at Manitawaning in 1836 and again by a large tract surrender of the Saugeen (Sauk’ing) Peninsula in 1854. In the mid 1800s it was termed “The Queens Bush.” Today we know it geographically as the Bruce Peninsula, or “The Bruce,” famous for its escarpment and fresh water archipelagos.
In early spring 1852, as the lands opened after the tract surrenders, a settler by the name of William Sutton built a small log shanty. Along with the shanty he possessed the necessary machinery for the milling process and prepared to construct a mill in Kincardine, Ontario. That summer began operations of the first grist mill in Bruce County. Others were soon to follow. The next grist mill founded, in what was to be Walkerton, Ontario, was erected by Joseph Walker, beginning operation in November 1853. Again, in the following year, Reverend William Fraser built a mill at Lorne, Ontario. It was these three mills that were to supply the milling requirements of the southern part of Bruce County for several years.
Rivers, creeks and streams with advantageous water rights were made the most of as sources of power. Otter Creek drove the mills at Mildmay, and the Saugeen Valley Roller Mill. The Saugeen Valley Roller Mill was originally built in the 1870s, by William H. Clendening and William Brown. It failed to make a profit and the mill passed into the hands of the Merchant Bank, which later sold it, in 1886, to a Mr. Jacob Steinmiller. Coming to Ontario from Germany in 1867, Steinmiller had over fifty years experience as a miller. It was under Steinmiller’s management that the Saugeen Valley Roller Mill gained a wide-spread reputation for the high quality and grade of the flour it produced. Accolades were many and his efforts were rewarded with a Bronze Medal at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. As the end of the 19th century approached, however, Steinmiller and other millers like him would face increasing competition as the milling process continued to modernize.
It was about this time, in 1889, that Charles Rutt and Chris Underwood founded The Pearl Milling Company. They created the first ready-mixed pancake flour. Charles Rutt chose Aunt Jemima as advertising’s first living trademark. In 1890, “The Aunt Jemima Manufacturing Company” replaced “The Pearl Milling Company.” In 1893, Aunt Jemima debuted at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, the same year that The Aunt Jemima Manufacturing Company was sold to ‘The R.T. Davis Milling Company.”
Jacob Steinmiller continued to mill. He successfully carried off the Grand Prize at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, which commenced in April, competing now against companies such as Pillsbury. There were many exhibitors during this event, which attracted people from many countries. According to an article in the May, 1900, issue of Overland Monthly, although the ‘United States was not allotted any more space than the European nations, one goal of the American exhibit was to display for the first time the raw products, manufacturing processes, and finished products side by side.’ A further accolade came to Steinmiller in 1901 as he was awarded a diploma at the International Exposition in Glasgow of that same year. Pillsbury was awarded a gold medal similarly in 1901.
In 1914, the image of Aunt Jemima was so popular that the company was renamed “The Aunt Jemima Mills Company.” In 1926, The Aunt Jemima Mills Company was sold to “Quaker Oats.”
Steinmiller’s mill site continued to support the local gristing requirements of his county, as did many other local millers in Ontario, until it was impractical to do so. Just as water wheels had given way to steam powered mills and single runs of millstones had given way to the roller mill, the manufacturing process and mass production of raw products into finished goods hastened the closure of the first factories of our pioneer settlements.

 

Cogs at the Paisley Roller Mill

Cogs at the Paisley Roller Mill