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Moiles Mills


Town site photo

A sandy street lined with homes, presumably for the workers.

Courtesy: YMCA

Scoundrels are probably the best description that comes to mind in connection with the four Moiles brothers of De Tour Michigan. The brothers, Bart, George, John and James were a group of unsuccessful mill owners in very dire financial straits. Their predicament was so serious that their Chicago creditors saw fit to repossess the brothers' mill and post a guard on site to protect their seized chattel. As far as the Moiles were concerned, it was their mill and it was now or never - they had nothing more to lose.

Although the brothers were hardly the envy of the business world, they displayed a cunning zeal for detail, organization and teamwork, unmatched by many of their business contemporaries of the day. Thus it happened, on April Fools Day, 1893, when probably one of the greatest unsung and most beautifully orchestrated April Fools tricks was played out from start to finish.

The evening began with the brothers, accompanied by a number of their workers, arriving on site, going over to the mill, and loosening every single bolt they could find. The watchman, alerted by the noise, went to investigate. All he saw was a crew of men who claimed to be "tightening" bolts to maintain the mill.

The success or failure of the brothers' plan depended entirely on the removal of one specific obstacle, namely the watchman. They began by fortifying him with a bottle of whiskey. Then another of Moiles' men arrived on site and announced to the rather inebriated man that his wife had taken seriously ill. Since the brothers also had the foresight to cut the town's telephone line, it was impossible for the watchman to confirm this rather devastating piece of news. So he quickly jumped on his horse and off he went.

In the meantime, two harbour boats, the O. W. Chennie and the Annie Moiles waited silently while the mill was being dismantled and loaded piece-by-piece on to the boats, a job that was completed in the lightning speed of less than six hours. The Moiles and their workers were helped by the fact that the watchman was somewhat delayed. Some distance away from the mill, his horse became ill and collapsed. Apparently the Moiles, again with precision planning, had decided to buy themselves some extra time by drugging the poor beast.

Eventually the now sober watchman figured out what was going on and summoned the local authorities. However by the time everyone arrived, the tug was 15 kilometres offshore and across the border on the Canadian side. Upon hearing the U.S. authorities approach, someone fired a gun and firmly told them they were now in Canadian waters. The pursuers scuttled off rather than risk an embarrassing international incident over a stolen mill.

Unfortunately for the Moiles, the adventure wasn't quite over yet. After the tug took a wrong turn, they found the Canadian passageway blocked by ice and had to re-enter American waters. Not only were they back in U.S. territory but they had the further misfortune to be trapped in ice. Luckily for them another ship came to their rescue and unknowingly became an accomplice in crime. Finally the tug arrived at John Island; the brothers reassembled the mill and found themselves back in business, this time in Canada.

Although the Moiles blamed their business failings in De Tour on softwood trade disputes between the U.S. and Canada (a battle that continues to this very day), it appears their luck in Canada wasn't much better. The town site on John Island was located in what was then prime timber country. The brothers should have made a fortune but it seems they were just lousy businessmen. Their relationships with their customers were poor, resulting in numerous complaints and lost clients.

The Moiles set up a town site that became known as Moiles Harbour and alternately Moiles Mills and Moyles Mills. They added a sandy street close to the harbour lined with houses for their employees. Many of their workers, along with their families, had accompanied them from De Tour and had risked everything to help the Moiles steal back their mill. Now they found themselves earning little more than meagre wages to cover their room and board. They had no stake in their homes because the company owned everything. In all fairness to the Moiles, their shaky financial position may have prevented them from offering anything better.

Poor business practices finally drove the brothers to sell the outfit to Guy Moulthorpe of Bay City Michigan in 1903. The mill immediately boomed and offered employment to 60 hands.

Under dedicated ownership and good management, the mill prospered and expanded for a number of years. The town grew to become a lively community of over 200 residents, containing a school, general store, community/dance hall, combination billiard parlour/barber shop and a blacksmith. Dr. Crok was the town's physician.

One of the most popular forms of recreational activity was baseball. Moiles Harbour had a strong team and competed against other teams in the nearby communities of Cutler, Spragge, Spanish Mills and Blind River. Another big attraction was swimming at the John Island beaches, renowned for their beautiful, soft sand. Community spirit was strong and town celebrations were held often. For those who preferred less wholesome forms of entertainment, a hidden poker shack could be found in an isolated area of the woods. Incredulously, the Webbwood authorities actually discovered the operation and shut it down. One suspects a set-up.

One April night in 1918, residents got together for another of their many celebrations. It was to be their last. During that fun-filled night of music and dancing, tragedy struck and the mill burnt down. With lumber supplies rapidly becoming depleted, there were rumours of arson and insurance payouts. Whether true or not, the owners decided it was not financially viable to rebuild the mill. Shortly thereafter, the town site was abandoned.

Over time the property was acquired by another group of mill-owners, the Bell family of Sudbury. In the late 1940s, the Bells donated a large portion of land, including the remains of the town site, to the Sudbury YMCA In 1954, the YMCA established the John Island Summer Camp.

Today YMCA campers, aged six to 16, continue to enjoy the Moiles Mills baseball diamond, reputed to be one of the oldest in the province. In addition to their regular camping and recreational activities, campers also have the unique opportunity of learning more about the town's history through the various artifacts, photographs and documents that are on display at the camp's museum.

In the interests of the children's safety and security, access to the town site by members of the general public is not permitted. However it's encouraging to know the YMCA has made a dedicated effort to both preserving and archiving the community's history for future generations to come.

Special thanks to David Ward, Director, Camping Services and Licensed Childcare at the Sudbury YMCA for additional information and permission to use the above photos.

If you have children aged 6 to 16, you may be interested in learning more about John Island or other YMCA summer camps in your area. The John Island camp also sets aside one week during the summer for a 'family camping' session.

Information on camp sessions and online enrolment forms are available at the YMCA Sudbury Camps website.