Inspire Me! blog

Local adventures — Morningstar Mill

I was asked by a friend the other day if I’m itching to travel abroad, and I couldn’t really say that I am. Yes, I definitely miss traveling further afield than the province we live in, but I can wait until the effects of the pandemic have all shaken out.

I’ve been keeping an eye on what’s going on in the industry while my hubby and I did our part to limit the spread by staying local. There have been many tales of attempted trips that haven’t turned out well, purveyors who’ve refused to honour refunds, issues with mixed vaccines that haven’t been recognized by other countries, etc. To be fair, I’ve also read of travelers who’ve had a great time enjoying destinations almost entirely free of other tourists.

Staying closer to home, though, has given us the opportunity to explore parts of Ontario we never bothered with before, and we’ve had a great time doing it. When the time is right and we can travel with more confidence, we’ll start up again, but in the meantime we’re making the best of things in our own neck of the woods.

One of our local sights includes a vintage and unusual grist mill, sawmill and 19th century homestead. My hubby and I have visited many mills powered by classic large water wheels, but Morningstar Mill is one of the rarer type powered entirely by water turbine.

Vertical water wheels, which are still in use today, date as far back as the first century BC; their predecessors go back at least two centuries before that. The Greek philosopher Archimedes described a screw pump in 234 BC that took on his name, but there’s evidence that such a device had been used much sooner in ancient Egypt. Water wheels were used for industrial purposes throughout the ancient world — they may even have been used for sawing slabs of marble.

The earliest turbine mill was constructed by the Romans in Tunisia in the late 3rd/early 4th century AD. It’s harder to find historical samples of turbine mills, so Morningstar Mill offers a look at how this different technology worked.

The original set of mills on the site were built by an early settler of what was then the Province of Upper Canada, which included all of modern-day Southern Ontario and some of Northern Ontario. His name was John DeCou, or John DeCew — the spelling is uncertain, but the latter version survives in local place names to this day. DeCew was a United Empire Loyalist and fought in the War of 1812. After the war he acquired a site on Beaverdams Creek with a waterfall in 1788 and built one of the first saw mills in the area. Later he added a grist mill.

DeCew had stiff competition from William Hamilton Merritt, the catalyst for the construction of the Welland Canal system (the third Canal was covered in a post just a few weeks ago). The Canal diverted water away from DeCew’s mill, and in 1894 he sold it. The new owner, Robert Chappell, who built a new turbine-powered grist mill and renamed it Mountain Mills. After surviving local political shenanigans for a few years, the mill was sold to Wilson Morningstar, who lived on the site with his family and operated the mill until 1933, and it’s his name that remains.

The mills and other buildings are now operated as a heritage site that has some excellent volunteer docents. There’s far too much to see to include in this post — for sites like this, you’re far better off visiting in person for a great interactive experience. Take the time to devote at least half a day to get the most out of it.

Caveat: The mill houses all of its original equipment, much of which isn’t safe for children to play with. Please be mindful of what the docents tell you when you visit.

In the photo above you can see the stone grist mill, i.e. flour mill, on the right, and the saw mill in the red building on the left.

The water flows into the site through culverts that run under Decew Road:

Inside the turbine shed you can safely view the turbine itself, a remarkable piece of 19th-century engineering:

On the exteriors you can see quite a bit of the mechanisms that closed a set of gates to collect water into a millpond. A drum and crank inside the mill were then turned by hand to feed the collected water through horizontal and vertical penstocks and into the turbine itself (visible in the photo above). The water flowing through the turbine then powered every piece of equipment in the mills.

The equipment included things like a lathe:

…with some of its original parts stored in a crate underneath.

The grinding stone for milling flour was a French burr stone, made from sections of quartz cemented together. This type of burr stone was used for finer grinding. Morningstar Mill still grinds flour today, although post-pandemic production hasn’t resumed yet. I’d recommend visiting when you can see the grinding in action and take home some stone-ground flour for yourself.

There’s a great deal of early Ontario history housed in these buildings.

One of Morningstar’s original paper flour sacks is framed and on display — a small piece of memorabilia from the days before big grocery store chains and mass-produced foodstuffs.

You can view Decew Falls themselves safely from above the falls.

The 1895 Morningstar family home is currently being refurbished. It has a lovely position atop a small hill overlooking the mills and falls.

It features wonderful gingerbread architecture on the exterior:

A friend of mine is one of the docents and kindly arranged for me to be able to look inside the home. The kitchen contains a classic wood-burning stove with a water-heated oven, and a hand-pump to draw water up from a reservoir below.

The pantry/larder contains a lot of vintage cooking equipment, like the meat grinders in the top left of the photo below, and numerous earthenware crocks for food storage.

You can even see a genuine vintage ice box, the progenitor of our modern refrigerators. Since cold air is heavier than warm air, the block of ice would have been inserted in the top compartment, allowing the chill to sink down and help preserve foodstuffs in the bottom part of the box.

The living/reception areas of the main floor are still being worked on, but I was able to see the spacious rooms and gorgeous woodwork, something that modern houses are sadly lacking.

On the upper floor you can see beautiful examples of early Ontario bedsteads and coverlets.

Imagine laundering clothes using this vintage tub and washboard. I’m unfortunately rather accident-prone, so I imagine plenty of skinned knuckles trying to do this.

When volunteers, including my buddy Terry, were working on restoration of the upper floor, they found the original bathroom, hidden behind walls erected to cover early damage. The volunteers were able to find all of the bathroom fixtures and paneling elsewhere in the house, and using an old photo, reconstruct the bathroom to its former beauty. They did a remarkable job!

In one of the children’s bedrooms, you can see delightful vintage books and toys.

There’s so much more to the site that I couldn’t possibly fit into this post — including the sawmill, for which we ran out of time. I’ll visit it another day and post some photos.

This type of site is a local treasure, a window into a simpler, more arduous but incredibly ingenious past. Places like this are a reminder that our fast-paced, overly technological world that’s buzzing with electronics and noise isn’t the be-all and end-all of life. We can take little breaks from the hubbub and enjoy the quietude of our historical heritage while we wait for the larger world to become safely available again.

I’ll continue to post our local adventures from time to time, and if you begin embarking on your own, I’d love to hear about it!

Stay safe and healthy.

All photos are by me and all rights reserved.

Reflections

Apologies, folks — I was busily working on the final handful of chapters of my first novel and neglected to post my blog last night!

It’s now been about nine months since I took that first step in creating a book out of the ideas floating around in my head for years. I embarked on the NaNoWriMo November event last fall just to see if I could actually put together the first 50,000 words of a book. For many years there was one thought that held me back: what if I put a lot of time into a writing project and it goes nowhere. In other words, could I actually produce something cohesive to begin with, and see it through to completion?

The answer to that, of course, is that I would never find out if I didn’t try. So last fall I decided that I’d make the attempt — one month wasn’t too much to devote to it, and if I didn’t get anywhere, at least I would have given it a shot. But if I did get somewhere…

I joined one of the NaNoWriMo writing groups; there are hundreds of them in all kinds of configurations, for like-minded writers to chat and support each other. Mine was a small group, comfortable for sharing ideas and questions, and for cheering each other’s progress.

I had a very rough outline for the first novel of what will someday become a published trilogy, I hope — just the Inciting Incident, a few key points of the protagonist’s journey, and the climax. On November 1st I began writing.

When you announce your project on the NaNoWriMo site, your profile allows you to record your progress towards the ultimate goal of having written 50,000 words by the end of the month. I calculated how many words I’d need to write each day (on average) to achieve that goal — to me, that would be a measure of whether I could produce an entire book. And every day, I stuck to it.

You receive badges for a variety of milestones, including whether you write every day, and I wanted that badge to appear, because it meant that I was staying on track. Some might dismiss this approach as gamification, and it is, but as a novice novelist, I found it to be a great motivator.

Soon I had one full chapter under my belt, then a second, then more and more. As I wrote about my protagonist and the challenges she was facing, the story began to flesh itself out. More and more ideas kept popping into my head: what’s going to happen next, how will she react, what if this twist took place? The garden of my book kept growing, often in ways I didn’t anticipate.

My protagonist has taken me along on her journey, not the other way around. One of the things I discovered, and have enjoyed the most, is that the characters in the book have to a large extent taken on a life of their own. They are complete beings in my head, who often say and do things that surprise me, and that’s been one of the things that has kept me writing — I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next!

I can’t speak for everyone who’s tried to write a novel, but for me there’s only been the odd day or two of what I might call ‘writer’s block’, and that’s just been when I wasn’t sure how the next scene should start. When that happened I let the story stew in my head for a couple of days, and soon an idea would pop to the surface.

Our subconscious mind is powerful, if we give it a chance to participate. My best writing has come when I let it flow instead of trying to force it into submission.

My biggest problem, to my mind, has been the flood of ideas, not the lack of them. The novel has become so much larger than I expected. Each chapter sows a bumper crop of possibilities, and very often I have to consider whether that patch of unusual but interesting flowers will add to the story or detract from it. Usually I include them anyway, figuring I’ll leave the weeding and pruning to the first edit.

So in a week or so, after months of challenging but really enjoyable work, I’ll be typing the words “The End”. I plan to uncork a split of champagne. After decades of jotting hundreds of ideas, writing and discarding, and numerous aborted starts, I will have finally written a book. Whatever else happens from there, I will be able to check off that item on my bucket list.

Of course I hope to publish it, even if I decide to take the self-publishing route on Amazon. I think I’d like to try and find an agent, though — but that’s still months away. First, I’ll post to my NaNoWriMo group that I’ve finished it. Then I’ll put the book aside for a month, as per the organization’s instructions — we are to just leave it be for a while. I have a few other things to catch up on in the meantime (like weeding my actual garden in our backyard).

In September, instead of going back to school, I’ll be hauling out the book and doing my first edit: I’ll read the whole thing en masse, and fix things. I’m sure I’ll be tweaking some of the wording, and I’ll spot discontinuities — something I wrote in one chapter that either doesn’t match or wasn’t followed up on in a subsequent chapter. Hopefully there aren’t too many weeds, mostly beautiful flowers.

Once that’s done to my satisfaction, I have a crew of enthusiastic beta readers who are eagerly, I’m happy to say, waiting to read the book and give me feedback. I’m really looking forward to that part — I hope they enjoy the story, but I want to hear what parts of it aren’t working. I’ll need to know where the story might fall flat, where a scene doesn’t make sense or is hard to follow, where the plot has bogged down or dropped the ball, and certainly if the climax is exciting enough. After I review their feedback and make the necessary changes, I hope to have a book I’m proud of, one that will attract an agent.

While all this furious writing has been going on, my hubby and I have gotten our second vaccination, as have most of our friends. The second shot left us a little under-the-weather for two to three days, but nothing that wasn’t manageable, and now we’re confident that we can hold up well against any bugs.

The fact that the world’s researchers were able to come up with a viable vaccine in such a short time is almost miraculous. By contrast, researchers have been trying to develop a vaccine against malaria for decades. I know a lot of people worry about the short timeline, which necessarily means that testing was minimal, but in Ontario alone the number of cases has dropped from over 4,000 a day in April to less than 200 a day now. That’s a massive decrease, partly enabled by the lockdown to contain the spread, but in greater part because of the vaccinations.

In a week or so, I’ll be able to go to see the new Jungle Cruise movie with friends. Our little movie group hasn’t been able to get together in over a year. I consider us all very lucky — we lost one Christmas out of the pandemic, and spent a few months holed up in our homes. Aside from unrelated illnesses, which surely were a challenge during the past year-plus, those of us who took the precautions have stayed safe. Now we can begin looking ahead again, cautiously for now, until Covid-19 becomes a historical footnote, like smallpox.

I dream of finishing my complete trilogy, and maybe one day signing a copy for you in person at Comic-Con, where we can safely shake hands and chat. Wouldn’t that be a fabulous denouement to this grand writing adventure I’ve been on?! For anyone who’s had a long-time dream and been too afraid to start it — too worried about whether they’re worthy, or have the stamina/perseverance, or rich-enough soil to germinate their idea — there really is only one way to find out. You’ll likely surprise yourself with the result!

As always, all photos are by me unless otherwise stated, and all rights reserved.

My alternative to Christmas in July

The first hole of Royal Portrush, where the Open Championship was held in 2019, on a typical damp, chilly day

My hubby and I were in New Zealand on October 31 several years ago, and it was one of the oddest Halloweens we’ve ever spent.

October is a Spring month below the equator, and flowers were blooming all over the place – lots of white or pink flowering trees on front lawns. There wasn’t a pumpkin or anything orange in sight.

In Christchurch on the South Island, our overnight stop, Halloween was pretty much a wash. There were a couple of perfunctory Halloween events, which were sold out, but nothing public was decorated – no glowing jack-o’-lanterns on front porches, or corn stalks, or string lights, or anything for us to drive around and enjoy.

The local grocery store had some cute themed signs at the entrance, but it soon became obvious that trick-or-treating is not a thing in New Zealand: we couldn’t find a single package of Halloween candy on the shelves. Rather dejected, we bought a box of marshmallow cookies and went back to our Top 10 holiday park unit to watch vintage horror movies on the telly.

In the New Zealand media there was some talk of moving their Halloween celebration to the end of March, and we could see their point: at least there would be cool weather, fall colours, and the opportunity to grow pumpkins for pie and jack-o’-lanterns. I’ve never seen anything come of that, however.

Christmas, too, is a little topsy-turvy ‘down under’, taking place smack dab in the middle of their summer, when it’s hot and people go to the beach. So apparently it’s quite a thing in both Australia and New Zealand to celebrate “Christmas in July”, taking advantage of their cold season, and possibly even some snow, to celebrate a second time more atmospherically.

We’ve been to a ‘Christmas in July’ party here at home, where the host strung Christmas lights along the pool fence and served barbecued turkey, but it’s never really caught on in Canada – except on the Hallmark television channel.

My hubby and I have our own version of Christmas in July, and it’s called Open Week – as in the July week when the Open Golf Championship is played somewhere in Great Britain (it rotates through several different courses in England, Scotland and Ireland).

I love Open Week – this very week, as a matter of fact – for several reasons.

Number One is watching the golfers battle some of the nastiest golf weather on the planet. It’s rare to see the sun out during the tournament; more often than not it’s chilly and overcast. Sometimes there are gale-force winds and pouring rain.

I enjoy this because our summers here in southern Ontario are usually unbearably hot and humid, so I spend Open Week sheltered inside the house, not with a fire in the hearth but with the air conditioning blowing, and pretending that I’m in the cool damp of the tournament.

Number Two is the golf. The Open is always full of drama – at least in part because of the wild weather, but also because the courses are challenging and the players can’t just pound it down the fairway. They have to use every ounce of strategy they can devise, often trying to rescue themselves from a pot bunker that’s deeper than they are tall or thick fescue grass that will ensnare their club as they try to hit out of it, all of which makes for great golf.

Number Three is the British food that I make all week long. This is where the ‘Christmas in July’ part comes in.

There aren’t really any decorations to put out, but there’s slow-cooked oatmeal with cream and brown sugar, along with a slice of buttered toast and a cup of tea, for breakfast. For afternoon tea there might be fresh-baked scones with crème fraiche and strawberry jam, shortbread cookies, Eccles cakes and Hobnobs (round oatmeal wafers with a top coat of chocolate). At dinner, while we watch a replay of the day’s rounds (which were played in the wee hours of the morning by Eastern Standard Time), we’ll have hearty food that makes me think of cold weather and my favourite season, Autumn – maybe Shepherd’s Pie, a good curry dish, Sausage and Cider Stew, and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding.

Just like at Christmas, we enjoy a little license to have extra desserts – Raspberry Trifle, or perhaps layered deep-chocolate cake with thick chocolate frosting, sliced and sitting in a creamy pool of pouring custard. I could be an honorary Brit just based on our shared love of sweets, of which they make some of the best.

When you combine the 149-year history, tradition and atmosphere of the tournament with great food and a little break from our day-to-day lives, you get something special. If you’re a non-golfer, it might not be your idea of an alternative to Christmas in July. But if you need a break from a long hot summer, find some excuse to chill out for a week, literally and mentally. And if you’re one of the people who love summer and everything about it, well, to each their own 😉

Hidden by time – the old Welland Canal

How much do you know of your area’s history? Probably not as much as you should.

So much of the landscape has changed in the Niagara Region through modernization that we’ve literally lost sight of the centuries of history here. But, like temples in the Central American jungle, remnants of our past peek out of the trees and brush that have overtaken them — we have only to put on bug spray and hiking boots to find them. A knowledgeable guide is a great asset, and my friend Terry has been showing me some of our old treasures on days when the scorching summer heat has abated and the skies aren’t emptying their contents on our heads.

The modern-day Welland Canal is such a technical marvel that it’s difficult to envision its origins in the early 19th century. The first version of the Canal was completed in 1829.

In 1824, nine “freeholders of the District of Niagara”, including a man who would become a local notable, William Hamilton Merritt, petitioned the Province of Upper Canada to build a canal to transport boats between the two local Great Lakes, L. Ontario and L. Erie. Merritt owned two mills on the Twelve Mile Creek, a natural waterway running through the current city of St. Catharines. In the summer, the water supply to the mills often ran low, and his original idea was simply to divert some water from the Welland River about 18 miles away to help. That idea was expanded to create a navigable canal to transport goods.

The geography of Niagara threw several wrenches into this plan, but eventually, utilizing as many natural waterways as possible to save costs, the first canal was built, with wooden locks. On November 30, 1829, two schooners made the inaugural journey from Port Dalhousie on L. Ontario to Port Robinson on L. Erie, and the Welland Canal was open for business.

As you’d imagine, the lifespan of wooden locks swimming in water all the time was short. The Second Welland Canal was built along the same route, but replaced the wood with limestone. It had a string of 27 locks, and continued to be used until 1881, when it was replaced by the Third version, shorter and straighter (reducing travel time) as well as wider to make room for the bigger ships coming into use.

The Third Welland Canal featured water siphons built into the walls to fill the locks (and empty them).

Bollards were added along the edges of the canal with which to tie up the ships while they were being lowered or raised.

Bollards are still used today along the modern Fourth Welland Canal, but now ships use them to tie off while they’re waiting outside of the locks. One of the most interesting features of the Third Canal was that in places it ran over top of the landscape, in one place over a sunken section of a road, and in another over a railway tunnel built for the Grand Trunk Railway Line between locks 18 and 19. That tunnel still exists today — it’s called the Blue Ghost Tunnel, as it’s apparently haunted; look for a feature on the tunnel this October!

A hike along sections of the Third Canal is an exercise in patience and fortitude. If you’re not fond of heights, the hike might not be for you, and ticks are prevalent in the bush through which a hiking path has been maintained, so you’ll need long pants tucked well into hiking boots, a bug shirt, and plenty of insect spray (and even then you’ll still need to check yourself for the nasty little critters before you get back into your vehicle to return home). But the hike is a great look at a bygone era when the only previous way to get between the two massive lakes was a hazardous portage.

Today these are some of the extant sections of the Third Canal:

Lock 13, just beyond Glendale Road
Discovering deformed bollards along the thickly-wooded hiking path
The crumbling walls of Lock 14. On the left you can see where the gate was attached and swung open/closed on a curved track
The other end of Lock 14
Most of the canal is shallow now, with a series of small rapids
CN Rail tracks run over an old haulage road
Remnants of an old weir between Locks 17 and 18
Vivid orange ditch-lilies pop out of the brush
An old double-tracked Grand Trunk swing bridge still springs out of the landscape. The apparatus that allowed the bridge to pivot no longer exists.
The old tracks across the bridge are walkable
Rust has coated the metal supports
At the edge of the bridge, you can see the wide flat section on the lower left that is a remnant of one of the reservoirs used to hold back water from the canal.
On the outskirts of Thorold, a spillway releases water from a reservoir for the Fourth Canal
The reservoir itself, looking towards Thorold
Looking down at the low water of the spillway
Some of the remarkable landscape of the Niagara Escarpment
A Pearl Crescent butterfly on the path

To give you some idea of what ship travel would have looked like in the Third Canal’s heyday, this photo was posted on the Historic Welland Canals Mapping Project website. I wasn’t able to find any source or permissions info.

c. 1904, ship at the 17th lock

While we all recover from the pandemic, this is a great time to explore parts of your regional landscape that you never thought you’d have time for. If your area is like ours, there are likely all kinds of interesting things to discover!

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights reserved. E. Jurus

Canada Day Reflections

Today is a difficult day for a lot of Canadians. It’s our national holiday, which is fair enough, but our day of celebration is tainted by the horrors of the past.

I grew up in northern Ontario in a small farm community tucked well out of the way of public notice. We had a party-line telephone system and a one-room schoolhouse, which I realize makes it sound as long ago as Little House on the Prairie, but more recent generations don’t realize how simple things still were just a few decades ago.

There were two Indigenous families in the community, whose kids we went to school with. One of the families lived on the farm next to ours, so I was over there regularly hanging out. We knew nothing of residential schools, and I suppose our community was remote enough to escape the government’s notice, to our friends’ great fortune.  

I was also raised as a Catholic, and judging by media comments from other Catholics, a lot of us are deeply unhappy about the Church’s reticence in both admitting their role in the residential school trauma and in offering compensation. There’s simply no excuse for not doing these two basic items of reparation.

My current local community is one of many who’ve chosen to forego Canada Day celebrations. While we can acknowledge that there are benefits to living in this country, those benefits still aren’t equitably distributed, especially for Indigenous people.

This year I think it’s more appropriate to mourn the terrible wrong that has been done to the original inhabitants of this land. After that, it will be time to create a better Canada, one that will be worthy of celebration.

You touch many lives

Life is precious, and fleeting. If nothing else, the pandemic has made that really clear.

If you’re a regular reader, you’re aware that I recently lost a family member, through the saddest of circumstances — this person had been in pain for quite some time but, for a reason known only to them, refused to see a doctor. Maybe it was fear. When they finally did seek help, their cancer was already at stage 4 and there was no way of stopping its spread. From diagnosis to loss was only a matter of weeks.

We can only guess how different the outcome might have been if treatment had begun earlier.

I saw the same scenario play out a few other times when I was working as a pharmacy technician. Heartbroken family members would come in the store to share their pain and anger with us.

None of us ever want to hear the “C” word, or the name of any other dreaded illness, but many people have survived by getting treatment as soon as possible.

All of our choices have consequences, and not just for us alone. When we avoid treatment for an illness — or, in our current situation, refuse to get a vaccine to prevent the most serious versions of the Covid-19 virus and its variants — it impacts our loved ones and friends as well, and potentially thousands of other people.

Every day that we get to spend with those who care about us is a gift, so let’s not squander it. Be kind, be considerate, be diligent about your health. Enjoy the world around us and help take care of it. Help make the world a better place, and impact someone else’s life in a positive way. Then, when you draw your final breath, you’ll know that you’ve lived life well, and that’s all we can ask.