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Birge Mills

History

Town site photo

The former schoolhouse

©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko

The small community that became known as Birge Mills got its start in 1843, when American-born Edward Huxtable built a dam and sawmill on Lutterill's Creek. By 1850, Edward was deceased, leaving behind his wife Harriet and young son James, aged about six or seven. The mill continued operating and by 1855 was being referred to as the 'Birge Mill', although records suggest the Birge family didn't own the mill until much later.

The Birge family, who were close relatives of the Huxtables, also came from the United States. John Birge arrived in Canada around 1840 and eventually settled in Eramosa. His son, John Alonzo, known as 'Lon', was born in 1842. Young Lon grew up with sawdust in his blood and as he matured, went on to train in the mill as a sawyer. Around the mid 1860s he assisted his cousin James Huxtable, who by then was also an experienced millwright, build a new sawmill in nearby Shiloh. The two young men made an instant success of the mill but tragically James lost his leg in a sawmill accident some years later.

By 1870 Lon Birge was already a skilled millwright who had gained valuable business experience when he helped set up the mill at Shiloh. Now ready for bigger challenges, he purchased the Huxtable sawmill from his late uncle's estate, and quickly set up shop. After upgrading the equipment, Birge formed a partnership with Nicholas Lynett, who had purchased the Shiloh mill from James Huxtable following the accident, and the pair began contracting for bush lots where they could harvest the timber. Lon waited 10 years before expanding his operation, but once he added the stone grist mill and a grain chopping mill, his business really took off. The mill soon became well regarded for its high quality flour that was widely distributed throughout the area.

Lon Birge was a thoughtful entrepreneur who based his business concept on an early form of 'one-stop shopping' for the local farm community. In addition to the three mills where raw materials were processed, farmers could also find a blacksmith, a tinsmith, a repair shop, a buggy factory and a shoemaker, as well as markets for their surplus goods.

As the busy mill expanded and prospered, many of the tradespeople and workers found it more convenient to live close by the mill. Over time a small hamlet, that included a number of small workers' cottages, began to grow. Fortunately the mill was well placed to support a small community. A school, S.S. #3 Eramosa, was located on Concession 2, Lot 20. A Presbyterian church, more commonly known as the Barrie Hill Church, stood on Concession 1, Lot 21, since the 1840s. Congregationalists could attend the Speedside Church, located in nearby Armstrong Mills. Birge Mills never had a post office but residents could travel to nearby Oustic, where they could pick up their mail at Robert Scott's general store and drop in for a mug of suds at James Oakes' hotel.

Unfortunately for Lon Birge, the 20th century was not kind. Depletion of the local lumber supplies and competition for the wheat market from the prairie-provinces resulted in serious financial losses. His two sons, William John, a sawyer, and Charles, a miller, took over the business and successfully reorganized it on a smaller scale. Over time the surrounding community of Birge Mills slowly faded away. The Birge brothers eventually sold the business to the Wheeler brothers, who switched the operation over to livestock feed. The mill continued to operate until 1991.

After the mill was closed, it was renovated and turned into a private home. Although the road leading to the mill is on private property, the building can be easily seen from the main road. A few other attractive rural homes, dating from the same period, are scattered throughout the area. The nearby school is also private dwelling. Both the Barrie Hill and Speedside churches, now both part of the United Church, continue to function. The area remains occupied by a combination of farmers and rural dwellers.

A portion of the reference material originated from an unpublished essay by J.H.Nelson, 1980.