OAC & Brewsters’ Mill

The History of Brewster’s Mill

    

Brewster’s Mill was located near the Southcott Pines Clubhouse. The pilings are still standing in the OAC today. A charred timber can be seen on display at the Clubhouse. Click on the picture to zoom in

Long before the great hairpin turn of the Aux Sables River gave Grand Bend its name, an enterprise was envisioned. In 1832 a Mr. Benjamin Brewster, popularly known as “Professor”, along with a Mr. Pettis, received patents to form the Company of Brewster, Pettis and Company. They then negotiated the timber rights and sale of adjacent lands from the Canada Company. Such rights were granted from the Canada Co. with the stipulation that a saw mill and mill dam would be erected. This mill would be the beginning of Grand Bend but it was called then Brewster’s Mill.

An 1851 news release claimed “the mill employed 20-30 people with two upright saws and four other saws for lathing and expected to make three million boards per season”. The site chosen for the mill operation begs some questions. The site, we know today, is behind the Catholic Church off Highway 21 and immediately north of the Southcott Pines Clubhouse on what is now called the “Old River”. This would seem a remote location then, and far from habitation and supplies, the nearest neighbour “being on one side eight miles off, and on the other side twelve.” Although The Pinery and surrounding area, at that time, had a great supply of trees, why build this operation ten miles upstream from the only accessible shipping port at Port Franks? Also a great effort would have been required to tow the loaded barges of sawed boards downstream over this long stretch. No convincing answer to this question exists to this day.

Unfortunately, both the Canada Co. and the Brewster Co. had overlooked one other vital situation. It was not taken into account that even under natural conditions, with the winding course of the river and the fact that it flowed almost level with its banks, drainage was extremely difficult. With the erection of the Brewster dam, and the already insufficient fall of the river, this caused much flooding. Thousands of acres upstream in Bosanquet, Stephen, West Williams, and McGillivary Townships were often flooded, creating what was referred to as the “drowned lands”. Some of these lands had already been settled, but the Canada Company found that generally they could not sell vacant drowned and swampy lands.

The existing settlers resented the dam, and in time, so did the Canada Company. The Canada Company, nineteen years after it stipulated the building of the dam, instituted proceedings to force Brewster and Co. to compensate the settlers. They won a favourable verdict in a trial court. Brewster sought equity to restrain this order, was granted relief and offered to destroy the dam if paid compensation by Canada Company. The Canada Company stood defiant. The settlers, caught in the middle of this rhubarb, took action, not legal, but decisive, swift, and emphatic. A mob collected and armed with axe, cap-hook, spade, pick, crow-bar, and pine-knot torches, descended by night upon the mill and the mill dam. The wooden structures were swiftly torn down and everything that would burn was put to the torch. By dawn the Aux Sables was running free past a site of wreck and ruin. In the words of a local chronicler, “After the attack, there remained at Brewster’s not any dam by a mill-site, nor any mill by a dam-site”. The mill was never rebuilt. Today the mill pond is still clearly evident, but not a trace of the old structure remains, save some old timbers captured for history showcased inside the Southcott Pines Clubhouse.

Learn more about Brewsters’ Mill and the OAC here

Here is a bit of the history as told by Andrew Dixon and Sherwood Fox.

An Unpopular Home Industry

Andrew Dixon’s version of “The Burning of Brewster Dam” from his booklet, “What most people don’t see  at Grand Bend”

About 1830 a Scotsman named Brewster built a sawmill just south of Grand Bend, damming the stream to produce power for the saws. This mill continue to operate until the early 1860’s

For many years Brewster’s hands were the only people living in the area and, until the 1840’s when the French people migrated from Quebec, little or no settlement had take place in the immediate vicinity. However, a few miles inland the land was being taken up, especially along the Huron Road which is now known as number 4 highway. Settling gained momentum and by 1870 practically all the land in the area had been purchased and a large part of it cleared.

Quite often would-be settlers came into possession of land that they had never seen and, when they arrived, made the best of their luck. Those that tried to settle the drowned lands were filled with dismay by the frequent flooding. The most obvious cause was Brewster’s dam.

To make the story brief (necessary because of the facts) a group of settlers took matters into their own hands and assembling one night, set fire to the mill and destroyed the dam. This did not stop the flooding, nor did the Canada Cut, constructed for this purpose in 1873-75, stop it. The Haig farms still are inundated with considerable loss and the Parkhill Dam is not being considered as a possible cure. Man does not give up easily.

If you stop at the Catholic Church just south of the bridge on Bluewater Highway, you will be opposite the mill. Behind the church at a distance of about 100 yards, the old river bed can be seen. In it are pilings of Brewster’s mill and some logs that were part of the dam. It seems ironical today, that, while most towns seek industry, Grand Bend burned theirs down.

Indirectly it was this group of men who are responsible for the village being named Grand Bend, for, if Brewsters’ Mill no longer existed why call it Brewsters’ Mill? Of course, in the same line of thought, if the grand bend no longer exists why call it Grand Bend? What’s in a name anyway? We once had a kitten named Henry that became a mother.

The Tragedy of Brewster’s Mill

Excerpt from ” ‘T Ain’t Runnin’ No More” by William Sherwood Fox

Progress always exacts its price. What is one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The dam and mill that brought a boon to its builder and immediate neighbours brought a bane to remote neighbours. Since the days of Noah, as we have already noted, the Aux Sables had its spells of madness. Each spring, despite the retarding effects of the standing forest, in an outburst of generosity its sources would pour into it a greater volume than the channels of its sluggish lower reaches could hold. The overflow spread over the flat lands of the delta lying upstream behind the dunes, magically converting them into much more than nine days’ wonder, a beautiful lake, which after gradual subsidence left behind it on the valley floor a legacy of fruitfulness. In power to produce it was ideal farming land; this the colonists perceived at once an avidly seized plots upon it. But their new and tiny Nile was not as regular as the Nile of the Old Egypt; the vagaries of its floods made men princes for one year and paupers perhaps for the next five years. Upon striking a balance they found that amid riches they were in poverty.

And then to cap their sorrows came the “improvement”, the mill. Its dam pushed the water farther back up-country than ever, raising levels to heights before unknown. Now there were floods every spring, floods that lay stagnant upon the land as long as the miller willed.

Desperate in the face of starvation ever drawing nearer, and stung by a sense of injustice and deprivation, the farmers were sorely tempted to do away with the thief himself. But respect for human life and a shrewd second thought that they could achieve their real end in a humane way, persuaded them instead to destroy the thief’s instrument. So one night after many years of endurance-it was in the early 1860’s-a diminutive army of peasants was secretly mustered in the forest. At a given signal it advanced upon the dam and mill. Armed with the unmartial weapons of the backwoods-axe, canthook, spade, pick, crowbar and flaming pine-knot-in a few minutes the attackers tore the flimsy makeshift down and set fire to all that remained above water. The liberated stream dashed through the breached towards its goal as though exulting in its freedom from regimentation. Nature was left as the sole arbiter of success or failure in the tilling of the valley lands above. Another improvement of Man upon Nature had been sent down river and up in smoke!