The sawyer's home, now demolished©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
In 1987, the Herron's Mills Bridge was opened, with a new sign, proudly proclaiming the name of the tiny village, standing alongside it. The only problem is there's nothing there. Herron's Mills is a ghost town and has been for many years. With the exception of one house built by John Gillies, the original founder of the mills, Herron's Mills is nothing but ruins.
John's parents, James and Helen, arrived in Canada from Scotland in 1821. Accompanied by their brood of five children, that included 10-year old John, the Gillies family landed in Quebec City and from there made the arduous journey up the St. Lawrence to Brockville and then onward by cart and foot to their land grant on Lot 10, Concession 5, in Lanark Township.
James and Helen had been relatively successful farmers in their native Scotland. They chose to migrate not because of economic conditions, but rather because they believed there were more opportunities and a greater future in the new continent. Young John was about to become the embodiment of that dream.
In 1840, John and his new wife Mary had settled on Lot 9, Concession 3, along the Clyde River. John believed the location would make an excellent mill site, so much so that he purchased an adjacent 100 acres of land. He built a home, added a dam on the Clyde River and built a small sawmill that he could operate during the summer season.
Over time John expanded his operation to include a gristmill, oatmeal mill and a wool and carding mill to service the local sheep farmers. He reportedly hauled logs from nearby properties and sold boards for $6 to $8 per thousand board feet. He then purchased a larger circular saw and began taking on much bigger contracts. The area eventually took on the name of Gillies' Mills and John was able to offer year-round employment to local men who were able to do logging in the winter and work as mill-hands during the summer. In 1861, he built a beautiful new home to accommodate his large family of nine children.
By 1862, John began to feel that opportunities in the Lanark area were becoming stifled. The area around the Clyde River was being logged out and his costs were increasing as trees had to be transported from much farther regions. In 1862, he purchased timber rights further west, in the Trenton area, and gradually began shifting his base of operations. In 1864 he put Gillies' Mills up for sale.
Gillies' Mills remained for sale until 1871 when the Herron brothers, James and John, also immigrants from Scotland, arrived. In contrast to John Gillies' somewhat jaded view of the area's long-term prospects, the Herrons were enthusiastic about the area's future and purchased the mills along with 100 acres of cleared farm land. They immediately added a bake house, shingle mill and accommodation and outbuildings for their workers. John Munroe added a tannery that operated for a number of years. Soon after the Herrons took over, the settlement was renamed Herron's Mills.
One major difference between the Gillies and Herron operations was the strong community spirit the brothers instilled. Although John Gillies had been a well liked and respected businessman, social activities grew in abundance after the Herrons took over. Recreation included winter skating on the mill pond, followed by bonfires and hot meals for all in the Herron household. The Herrons also established a school with teachers being partially compensated in room and board from local families.
One of the most important functions was the opening of the post office in 1891. The post office was located in the large family home, built by John Gillies. James Herron and his wife jointly operated the post office until 1915, when it was closed following the arrival of rural mail delivery.
The Herron brothers optimism about the mills' future turned out to be amply justified. Although the dam was seriously damaged during spring floods in 1896, it was quickly rebuilt and reinforced with a protective dam further upstream. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Herrons were sawing about 8,000 board-feet of lumber per day. Up to 20 employees worked at the mill during the busy season. The brothers finally ended their partnership in 1919, after 38 successful and profitable years. James' son, Alexander, took over the helm.
Unfortunately Herron's Mills was hit hard by the depression. By the early 1940s, the wool and carding mill and sawmill were gone, although sawing still took place sporadically for local interests. Alexander passed away in 1946. His sister Mary, continued to operate the business until 1951, when it was shut down permanently.
Today, apart from the handsome Gillies home, most of Herron's Mills lies in ruins. Although the ruins lie on private property, the remains of the dam and many of the early structures can be easily viewed from the roadside. A new owner recently acquired the property and the Gillies' home has been extensively renovated.