Museum Musings: The Mills’ Residence

Mrs. Mills and her sisters. From left to right are Mrs. Christina Mills, her sister Mrs. J.W. Hurd, and her sister, Mrs. W.B. Goodfellow. Bill Smiley Archives Photo.

One of the houses on the recent Central East Hill walking tour has left me thinking about how decisions we make, or decisions made by others, can influence our lives well into the future.  For example, how would my life have turned out had my father taken the transfer he was offered to an Ontario penitentiary when I was sixteen years of age?  After such a move, would I have followed a similar education and career path as the one I have followed here in Prince Albert?  Would I have later, on retirement, immersed myself in the history of Kingston and its surrounding area?

The house in question, 133 – 18th Street East, was home for forty years to Christina Mills.  An original member of the Nisbet party which landed on the river bank near the present-day Historical Museum at the corner of Central Avenue and River Street, Christina married George Mills in 1890.  They had originally started married life in a home which had been built on three lots on the site of the former Central School (now the site of Gateway Mall), later moving to the brow of the hill overlooking what later became the CNR Park, and still later the CNR rail yard.  (We have a splendid photograph in the Bill Smiley Archives of a sports day occurring in the Park in 1925.)

At some point in his life, George Mills made the decision to walk from Fort Garry to Prince Albert, and he chose to follow through on that decision in the summer of 1887.  What went through his mind during that 600-mile walk (over 965 kilometres) we will never know.  How many times he determined to turn back, and why he continued on his way may best be left to our imagination.  However, he did arrive in Prince Albert and, three years later, he was an employee of the town and had married his wife.

In the meantime, young Christina, at the age of 18 months, had very little opportunity to voice her thoughts on the decision made by her parents to move west to establish a Presbyterian mission.  Her mother was a sister of James Nisbet’s wife, and Christina’s parents (Mr. and Mrs. John McKay) had determined that they would work alongside the Nisbets wherever it was determined that they would go.

As for the Nisbets’ destination, even that was out of the hands of the party which set out from Old Kildonan.  James Nisbet had set his sights on establishing his mission further upriver from where he eventually settled, somewhere near Fort Pitt, closer to the present-day Alberta/Saskatchewan border.  However, when the party arrived at Fort Carlton, they were encouraged by three individuals whom they met there to consider a location near the Isbister settlement, somewhat down river from Fort Carlton.  These three individuals included the Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Factor, Lawrence Clarke, Adam Isbister (one of the individuals living at the Isbister settlement), and Nisbet’s interpreter, George Flett.

The three men made a few suggestions as to where the mission might be located and, after reviewing them, Nisbet decided to negotiate the site down river from the Isbister settlement.  After some shrewd negotiation on the part of Flett, permission was granted for the establishment of the mission at that location, and young Christina McKay and her family had a new home, in what was soon to be identified as Prince Albert.

Christina did not remain long in Prince Albert, however, although she did not move so very far away.  Her father moved the family to the community of which Mistawasis was chief.  There he established another Presbyterian mission and there, as she grew into womanhood, Christina became a teacher in the school.

It is unclear how long Christina remained on Mistawasis reserve, although we do know that she was still teaching there in 1885.  In her recollections of her early years, she recalls returning to Prince Albert in 1885 in order to seek refuge in the stockade which had been constructed around the Presbyterian church and manse (now the site of the University of Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert campus).  She also recalls how, at the same time, her father, the Reverend John McKay and the Anglican priest, the Reverend John Hines, gathered the followers of Mistawasis and the followers of Starblanket (Ahtahkakoop) together and brought them to Prince Albert, ensuring not only their safety but also their continued loyalty.

It is unclear exactly what position George Mills held with the town when he married Christina in 1890.  Neither his name, nor Christina’s appears in any of the directories prior to the Henderson’s Northwest Territories Directory in 1900.  At that time, George is listed as the caretaker of the public school.  At the time, schools fell under the town council’s control, and as we know that George and Christina lived in a house on the site of Central School, this provides confirmation of his position.  (Central School was the only public school in Prince Albert at that time.)

In the 1908 Henderson’s Prince Albert directory, George Mills was listed as a bookkeeper living at 133 – 18th Street East.  This is the same brick house in which he and his wife lived out the remainder of their lives.

In the directories of 1909, 1911, and 1914, George is listed as the superintendent of the City market.  Just what this position entailed I have been unable to discover.  My original thought was that he was in the grocery business, as Prince Albert later had a grocery store called the City Market.  But I realised that the new City of Prince Albert must have had such a position as a market superintendent.  I thereafter reviewed the minutes of the City’s Markets and Parks committee, but found little information about the “market” aspect of that committee.  The minutes primarily dealt with “parks” matters, such as boulevards, tree planting, and the cemetery.  The only information which I could cull about “markets” was a reference to amending the Market bylaw to preclude any private person weighing vehicles carrying coal.  This appears to have been confirmed when I discovered in the 1919 edition of the Henderson’s Prince Albert directory the listing for George Mills as being the city weighmaster, a position he appears to have held until at least 1925.

George Mills appears to have retired by 1927, and one wonders whether a health issue might have been a determining cause.  When he died on March 3rd, 1933, it was indicated that he had been suffering from a lengthy illness.  Buried in the South Hill Cemetery from St. Paul’s Presbyterian church, he was mourned by many from across the city who knew that they had lost a long-time resident whose memories of early Prince Albert were now confined to the interviews which reporters had committed to the local newspaper.

Living on another seventeen years after the death of her husband, Christina McKay Mills survived long enough to be able to attend the 80th anniversary services and dinner of the church which had brought her to this community, and in which area she had lived the majority of her life.  She was an honorary president of the Synodical and a life member of the James Nisbet Auxiliary.  She, too, was interred in the family plot in South Hill Cemetery.

Although the Mills left no children, they did have a foster son, Dr. Fred McLean, a member of the Canadian Army.