The McCrae Lumber Mill, Mountsberg, East Flamborough Township

Originally Published in Heritage Happenings, January 2007
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Settlement in the northern part of East Flamborough was very slow in occurring, partly because of its isolated location, but mainly because so many of the lots between the 10th and 14th Concession had been set aside by the Crown as Clergy Reserves or Brock Grants. Some settlers did become squatters on the unoccupied lands in the hope that property deeds would eventually be obtained, but several lots were still empty fifty years after the township was opened to settlement.

In 1850, the 200 acre lot of Lot 5, Concession 13, East Flamborough Township was assessed as uncleared land under the names of George McLean and George Clark. During the 1840s, these two men operated a water-powered sawmill on the 12 Mile Creek, near the 14th Concession and the Puslinch Townline. On 1 August 1855, before it appears he had any legal rights to the property, Clark sold the lot to John Thompson and Thomas McCrae, together with a transfer of the timber rights arranged earlier in January for the sum of £4,000. Later in August, through the assistance of John Hillyard Cameron, a Toronto lawyer, acting on behalf of the Brock family of Guernsey, England, Clark obtained the deed to this Brock Grant property at a cost of only £400!

In 1859, Thompson and McCrae were listed as in partnership, operating two sawmills, one water-power and one steam. Later the same year, Thompson sold his share of the property and timber rights and for the next fifteen years the property was the site of the McCrae Lumber Mills. The early years were very busy. WhitePine was the most dominant species on the higher land, mixed with hardwoods such as Sugar Maples and Oak. Of these, pine was the timber most in demand and on the McCrae tract, some of the trees were magnificent specimens, 4 feet or more at the stump, over 100 feet tall and as many as seventy trees for felling per acre.

All the timber that was cut in Mountsberg was slatted for Ontario’s domestic market. By the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century, the demand from overseas markets, such as Britain for ship masts, had declined, so this, and the isolated location of the McCrae mills made the export of lumber difficult. During the early years with the water-powered mill still in use, the two mills turned out the lumber for all the principal businesses that were being constructed in Guelph, notably those on Lower Wyndham Street.

At the height of its operation, the lumber mill complex consisted of several buildings. Besides the main house, there were three or four houses for the twenty or more employees and stables for the horses. The 1861 Census Returns for East Flamborough Township lists William Moffatt as Superintendent with 20 employees. Two of them were women, probably cooks. The men were all young; five were married and only two were over 30 years of age. The listings of employees during the decade reveals that few of the men stayed very long and few remained in the area – the one exception being John Borer who came from Guelph in 1860 and then moved to West Flamborough Township to operate his own lumber mill at Rock Chapel.

With gruesome fascination, a neighbourhood story, handed down in foundling families, illustrates the harshness of life in an isolated community like Mountsberg. Near the end of the lumbering business, a workman fell on a circular saw and was so horribly injured that without medical attention, he lived only a few hours. He managed to get to his nearby house, and knowing full well that only moments were left to him, he made and signed a will. Later, a witness to the tragedy was giving an on-the-scene demonstration of how the accident happened. He was too graphic and too accurate and suffered the same fate!

McCrae’s woolen mill as it appeared ca.1890 in a newspaper clipping, Wellington County Museum & Archives

By 1866, as the pine, for which the demand was greatest began to give out in East Flamborough, Thomas McCrae turned his interests to manufacturing and purchased interests in a woollen business in Guelph, known first as Armstrong, McCrae & Co. and later as the Guelph Woollen Mills. David McCrae, Thomas and Jane McCrae’s eldest son and father of Col. John McCrae, stayed on the Mountsberg property. As the timber cutting and mill operations ended, the family re-invested in the property and it became a stock-breeding farm, famous for its Galloway cattle, the oldest herd of the breed to be established in North America.

Today a tall chimney stands alone in a grassy meadow, south of the 14th Concession, not far from the Mountsberg Conservation Lake. The obelisk of faded brick is the only remaining evidence of the once-busy site of the steam sawmill and its complement of buildings which once covered the area between the McCrae Lumber Mill and the 14th Concession.

© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 2007, 2024.


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