Museum Musings: Prince Albert and area grist mills

Daily Herald photo. The UGG elevator and mill located at 339 16th Street West was the last large grist mill in Prince Albert. This photo was taken Feb. 26, 1964.

Prince Albert Historical Society

I recently read an article debunking the myth that Louis de la Corne grew wheat at his fur trading post in 1754.  There is considerable literature suggesting that at his fort on the Saskatchewan River, La Corne was the first to grow wheat in what is now the Province of Saskatchewan.  Whichever is true, the article started me thinking about those who grew wheat in the Prince Albert area, and how that wheat might have been ground into flour.

Undisputed is the fact that wheat was grown at Fort Carlton beginning in 1815, and when James Nisbet arrived there in 1866 he was encouraged to investigate establishing his mission down river near the Isbister Settlement rather than heading upriver to Fort Pitt.  He was told that the soil in this area was highly suitable for growing grain, as indeed James Isbister had been growing wheat in what is now the west end of Prince Albert since 1863.  Upon establishing the mission locally, members of the party began growing wheat, and the field where the Arts Centre now stands provided a very bountiful crop in 1867.

In the early 1870s, the Hudson’s Bay Company followed suit and began growing wheat on its reserve land located east of the current 6th Avenue East.

It was thus proven that wheat could be grown locally, but milling that wheat into flour proved to be another matter.

We know that James Isbister had hauled the wheat grown on the Isbister Settlement all the way to the Red River Settlement to have it milled, but this was certainly not sustainable; nor was it profitable.  We also know from the memoirs of Margaret Miller McKenzie that she was often reduced to grinding small amounts of wheat in a hand operated coffee grinder in order to make pancakes.  It is little wonder that she went to that effort as we know that in 1874 her father had to pay $15 per sack of wheat (nearly $375.00 in today’s money) that he bought from the Hudson’s Bay Company.

William McDonald, who arrived at the Prince Albert Mission in 1867, suggested in his writings that the first wheat harvested from the Mission fields was carted to be milled in Springfield in what is now Manitoba.  Again, such a practice was not a good use of resources.  As a result, a small, horse-powered grist mill was purchased for the Mission.  It was, perhaps, a better use of resources, but the nature of the animal harnessed to power the mill meant that it was a rather erratic stop and start business.

With the influx of farmers, and their increasingly cultivated fields, there was a greater production of wheat year by year.  In 1874, William McDonald and George McKay established a partnership and built a wind-powered grist mill, erecting it on or near the property now known as 133 – 22nd Street East.  The machinery was purchased from John Fraser of Kildonan, Manitoba, and transported by wagon and ox cart to Prince Albert.  Although it is undocumented, it is believed that the grist stones were also purchased from Kildonan and transported in a similar manner.

Although situated on the hill in order to best catch the wind, this mill was also sporadic in its output.  Farmers were apt to arrive at the mill with a large load of grain on a very calm day.  As a result, although Jacob Beads, the operator of the mill, was diligent in his duties, grinding wheat continued to be a source of concern.  McDonald eventually sold his share of the business to the Reverend John McKay who, in turn, sold his share to Jacob Beads sometime after Beads had bought George McKay’s share.  Again, it is not clearly documented when the mill ceased operation or where the equipment ended up.  There is some suggestion that Beads moved it to Lily Plain, although this might be confusion with respect to a mill established there by the Hodgson family.  Another suggestion is that Beads sold the machinery on to Mr. Turner at Fort a la Corne who, in August 1884, had a water grist mill operating on his claim.  There is also a suggestion that Beads might have transferred his equipment to the mill which Henry S. Moore built on land supplied by William Miller.

After spending the winter of 1874/75 in the Prince Albert settlement with William Miller, Henry Stewart Moore headed east to Galt, Ontario, where he purchased two runs of mill stones, a saw carriage, a shingle machine, an engine, and a boiler.  The machinery was transported by rail to St. Paul (the nearest rail line end point) and from there by steamer to Winnipeg.  The fact that the equipment was transported to St. Paul has caused some confusion through the years, as some of the old-timers remembered that the equipment had been bought from the United States.

One old-timer remembered that the transportation of the mill machinery from Winnipeg to Prince Albert occurred via eight wagons and fifteen ox carts, while another recounted the story differently.  He was convinced that the machinery was moved in the autumn, and as a result was bogged down in Portage la Prairie by heavy snows.  This meant that sleighs had to be constructed, and that the crew transporting the equipment faced additional obstacles such as extreme cold and a lack of food for both the men and the animals hauling the load.  In his recollection, the equipment stalled once again, in Humboldt, and Moore had to make a trip into Prince Albert where he organised a relief party of farmers from the Colleston district.

Regardless, the machinery was eventually installed, although the structure Moore had built was insufficient to handle the weight of the equipment and therefore the structure had to be torn down and rebuilt stronger.  Moore had hired John McKenzie as the manager of the mill, and he supervised the installation of the machinery.  The mill began gristing flour in the autumn of 1876.

The Moore mill continued to mill both flour and lumber until 1881, when Moore went into partnership with Day Hort MacDowall.  They decided to forego the wheat milling and to concentrate instead on lumber.

Another mill was established in 1880 on Mud Creek near Clouston by Albert Hodgson.  This mill was established as a water-powered mill.  Unfortunately, in 1890, the creek dried up, and Hodgson had to move its operation to Miner’s Creek at Lily Plain.  Again, misfortune struck, the dam on the creek gave way, and Hodgson moved the mill back to the Clouston area where he operated it as a gasoline-powered mill.  The engine had a huge fly-wheel and used a glow plug rater instead of a spark plug.  This, however, proved to be an expensive form of power, and eventually the family moved to Cookson.

Other local mills included one operated in the west end of the town by the man who was to become its first mayor, Thomas McKay.  In November 1882, he was reported to be producing 120 sacks of flour per day.  Another mill was operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the east end of the town.  Established on the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River at about 11th Avenue, it opened in 1880.  Fire eventually destroyed both of these mills in 1884.

Between 1884 and 1888, Prince Albert had no flour mill, which meant that the farmers were reliant on the Hodgson mill.  In 1885, a man by the name of van Loouvan built a water-powered mill at the mouth of MacFarlane Creek near the site of what became Stanleyville.  At this time, farmers from as far away as Saskatoon were bringing their wheat to be ground in the area grist mills.

In 1887, the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to build a modern mill on the site of their former mill, and they purchased a steam-powered mill from the Allis-Chalmers Company.  George McGillivray was hired to oversee the transportation and set-up of the machinery.  At each of the three transfer points during its transportation, he insisted on unpacking all the parts, erecting the mill, and ensuring that it was in working order.  The mill operated from the spring of 1888 to at least 1914.

By the early 1890s, there were a lack of grain milling facilities in Prince Albert, and the farmers were having difficulty marketing their product.  However, in 1894, with a grant of $5,000 (over $176,000 in today’s funds) from the town, Joseph Kidd as able to construct a modern grist mill at the corner of 11th Street and 2nd Avenue West.  The buildings also included storage facilities.  In one day in 1896, fifty wagon loads of wheat were brought north to Kidd’s Mill from Rosthern.  Although it appears to have ceased operations by 1919, the mill stood at its site until it was demolished to enable the approach to the Diefenbaker Bridge to be built. 

An anecdote connected with Kidd’s Mill is of some comedic interest.  In the Prince Albert Times edition on January 26th, 1897, the following appeared:

“If the young lady who left some of her apparel at the engine room of Mr. Joseph Kidd’s Mill will kindly call and take the petticoats, etc., away, the bachelor mechanics at the establishment will be greatly relieved from embarrassment.”

Although Prince Albert had the two mills (Kidd’s and the Hudson’s Bay Company) in operation, in 1906 a group of business men determined that there was a need for a third elevator and flour mill in the city.  The Farmers’ Milling and Elevator Company was formed and built at 339 – 16th Street West with a 25,000 bushel capacity and a mill capable of producing 150 barrels of flour every 24 hours.

In 1912, this company was sold to a new company, the One Northern Milling Company.  This company operated until 1929.  In 1932 the same mill operated as the Waskesiu Milling Company.  It operated until 1961 under the management of B.J. Allbright, and later R. Marshall Allbright.  During World War II, the mill operated 24 hours a day.  With improvements in transportation, and the ability for increased capacity in larger centres, the need for local flour mills resulted in the milling industry to virtually disappear from the local community.