‘Leechville’ – a village on the Maitland

By Stephen Cook in Places, Events, & History

The Maitland River, which powered both mills and pioneer settlements in Midwestern Ontario, may soon have an official Heritage River designation. The Maitland Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA) is investigating the designation, but to those familiar with the river’s lore, it’s historical significance is already beyond doubt.
The Maitland River pushes through Ontario’s “west coast” country for 150 miles. In its inland ventures, the river crosses many miles of pristine agricultural land and soft, to-gently-rolling, hills. The river changes its character many times along its watercourse, from a buffered headwater resembling a “misfit stream” to broad flat expanse. The river terminates at the Port of Goderich about the half way point along the Huron Coast’s 700 km of shoreline which spans from Sarnia to Tobermory. As with many river valleys, the rise and the run of the rivers and streams within in it, fostered early settlement development and challenged those of enterprising spirit,
In pioneer times, river valleys like the Renfrew, in Eastern Ontario or the Grand River Valley, in Southern Ontario, developed quickly with the manufactories of a growing young nation. The Maitland is also such an important river valley. The North Maitland region is a catchment watershed from Lakelet in the north to Harriston in the east and westward to Gorrie. As its headwaters move still westward, it encompasses Fordwich and Bluevale. Within this river valley in about 1854, a site for a settlement enterprise was developed by the Creer brothers. A mill powered by the Maitland. A few years later, in 1856, James and Nathaniel Leech purchased the site and its mills.
Within the Leech family there were ten brothers. James convinced eight of those brothers to journey to Maitland for a milling enterprise. A convincing argument it was, for the brothers did journey to Maitland, the mill and mill site being the most important in the area. Like many ‘mill villages,’ of the time, the site took on the persona of the Leech brothers themselves.
In 1857, the Leeches further developed the site plan. The name on the plan was evidently Howick Village – but everyone called it “Leechville” – still later to be known as Gorrie. The story of the Leech Brothers can only truly be told with reference to original diaries or manuscripts. Suffice to say that the true account of the lives within these documents can only be expounded upon with knowledge of the experiences found within the pages of such documents as “The Ten Brothers” by J. Hillyard Leech and Ernest T. Leech, complied in 1951. However, two secondary sources, the Toronto & Grey Bruce Railway travelogue of 1872 and references to the village of Gorrie in 1885 from a Goad map of that time, provide some details of the town once referred to as “Leechville.”
In 1872, the following description of the village of Gorrie is reported by the Toronto & Grey Bruce Railroad. “Leaving Harriston south-westerly to Gorrie is a distance of 12 miles. Gorrie being a thriving village. It is built on the ridges, slopes and intervening hollows of rolling land, skirted on all sides with wood and having the Mailtand River flow through it’s centre. Near the village the stream gathers considerably to give power for mills and other works. Being in the Township of Howick, water power is abundant, affording ample opportunity for making a sound manufacturing township. There is one of the largest sawmills throughout all this section doing a business of one million feet of lumber annually, a large carrying trade from this station, especially when co-joined with the output from another local mill in Wroxeter producing itself three-quarters of a million feet annually. From the large wooden expanses comes the building materials of pine, hemlock, beech, maple and elm. Further to the local manufactories are a shingle mill and a flour mill, two tanneries, a foundry, a carriage maker and a cheese factory. Gorrie stands on productive all good loam soil.”
Similarly, the Goad Map of Gorrie from November, 1885, provides a glimpse into this village on the Maitland and its surroundings. Walking down Victoria at George Street looking left we would see the planning mill and what was described in the Goad key plan map as “various scattered wooden dwellings.” Walking further south down Victoria street, crossing the bridge over the Maitland would shortly reveal on the left the Carriage-maker’s property.
Proceeding still further down Victoria Street passing Mill Street first on the right and still further on the right, is the American Hotel. It is at the American Hotel that we would turn left and proceed down Mill Street proper passing storage sheds and general merchandisers. At the end of Mill Street stands the Leech Grist Mill, which in 1885 contained a smutting machine and four run of stones. At its peak production the mill produced 150 barrels of flour per day.
The Maitland mill site was purchased by the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA) in 1962. Restoration of the site was further ensured by the Maitland Mill Association who championed it’s rejuvenation during the late 1990’s. At the MVCA Annual General Meeting held in Wroxeter on February 15, 2012, a meeting attended by Lisa Thompson, MPP for Huron-Bruce, a short presentation based on a recent publication was shared by John Hazlit and Rhea Seeger titled “The Power of the Maitland” – powering pioneer settlement in an Ontario river watershed. During the discourse, a suggestion was made to study the feasibility of applying for a Heritage River status designation for the Maitland River. It was felt that much of the foundation for such an application was already begun and could be found in the book.
Stephen Cook is a freelance heritage writer with interests in early Ontario pioneer diaries and Ontario’s industrial history. The author acknowledges Counsellor Linda Henhoeffer and fellow local writer Rosemary Rognvaldson for information on the Maitland Association and the role of the MCVA. Linda and Rosemary’s article on the Gorrie Mill may be found within “The Power of the Maitland” by historians John Hazlit and Ted Turner.

 

Leechmillfrontage

The tail race at the Leech brothers grist mill. Stephen Cook photo

The tail race at the Leech brothers grist mill. Stephen Cook photo