Watson's Mill: The Heart of the Community
by Christine Peets
It was true in 1860 and it's true now: the mill in Manotick brings people together. Built by industrialists Moss Kent Dickinson and Joseph Currier, the mill has had different names but since 1946 it's been known as “Watson's Mill”, named for Harry Watson, its last private owner. It is now operated by the Watson's Mill, Manotick, Inc.(WMMI) board of directors.“The grist mill was the heart of the community, bringing villagers and farmers together and now it brings locals and visitors together,”says acting manager Peggy Smyth. “More than 25,000 visitors come to the mill and the area each year. People come to learn about the mill, or to just enjoy the atmosphere surrounding it, including the Village of Manotick, Dickinson Square, and Dickinson House.”
Dickinson House, built in 1875 to house the millers and their families, once provided post office and banking services for the village. Today, given an opportunity to see how the Dickinsons lived in the 19th Century, visitors are shown around the house by period-costumed volunteers from the Rideau Township Historical Society (RTHS) and students working with them. The adjacent Carriage Shed houses collections for the Used Book Sale, which runs until October 10. There are many activities throughout the season at Dickinson Square including Dominion Day celebrations.
“Yes, it's Dominion Day, not Canada Day”, says Peggy, as Canada was still very much a part of the British Empire in 1860 and the mill proudly flies the Union Jack, not the maple leaf flag. During the day Union Jack flags are given out to children and there is a grand old-fashioned 1860s family celebration featuring games, picnics, and the Manotick Brass Band. The square is a gathering place during the season and the mill is its hub.
Rental of Watson's Mill is becoming very popular for private functions including weddings. Many couples use the mill's grounds for their photos. It can be difficult to get a booking on the weekend, so Peggy says the WMMI board encourages mid-week events. “It's a unique place to have any kind of event and we work with local caterers and decorators to make the function really special,” she adds. When there isn't an event booked on Sundays, visitors can observe wheat being ground into flour, and they can see corn ground into “chow” that can be purchased and fed to local ducks. Grinding the feed corn became the work of the mill after 1900. Wheat was more readily available and cheaper being brought in by railway from western Canada, so local farmers needed more of a feed & seed operation than a mill. Now however, grinding wheat into flour is a mainstay of the mill.
Six turbines originally powered the mill and three are still in operation, making Watson's Mill one of very few operating grist mills in Ontario. Another unique feature is that it does not have an outside water wheel. All levels of the mill are open: people can watch the turbines powered by the rushing waters of the Rideau River in the basement, continue to the third floor where the grist is cooled before it falls down to the second floor where it is separated from the chaff. Then the flour is sent through a large chute back to the main floor for bagging.
Once bagged, it is sold in one, two and five pound bags. Bread made from this special stone-ground flour is made by a local baker and sold on Saturdays at the Farmer's Market in the village. “There are 50 loaves of bread made every week, and we usually sell out,” Peggy says, “but there may be some left to sell at the mill on Sundays.” The milling and grinding activities are likely the most popular but there are others.
Those activities include a trio of events around Halloween: a Paranormal Investigation, Haunt Nights and a children's party where the mill comes alive with ghostly stories, including that of mill co-owner Joseph Currier’s second wife Ann Crosby Currier, who was tragically and instantly killed when she was thrown against a pillar after her dress became entangled in a turbine. After his wife's death, Currier sold his share in the mill and moved away, but Ann has not. Many say her ghost can be heard, or seen in the windows of the mill, on a stormy night.
Whether you are coming to see a working grist mill, or just enjoy the atmosphere of this elegant village, you are most welcome. To find out when grinding will be taking place, call the mill at 613-692-6455.
“We encourage everyone to come and find out more about the milling process, and life in the village in Victorian times, and then to enjoy a walking tour of Manotick that begins and ends at the mill,” Peggy says. “Watson's Mill still is the heart of this community.”