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.