The recently restored schoolhouse.©Copyright: David Roach
Rockvale had its beginnings as a sleepy little farm community nestled alongside the Collingwood Gravel Road. The settlement was so tiny that it didn't even qualify as a hamlet. It did however have a name - Rockvale. Early settlers included Thomas Akitt, Robert Clark, Thomas Porteous and William Smith.
Things changed around 1890, when the Armstrong brothers arrived from Markdale. The Armstrongs, who had established a successful saw mill and veneer factory in their home town, were looking to expand their business. For whatever reason, Rockvale captured their attention.
At first the mill only operated from April until the fall, but over time it grew to become a year round operation. The mill was powered by steam boilers fired by sawdust. Shingles, veneer and furniture were manufactured on the ground floor. The lumber mill was located on the top floor. Barney Fields was the first fireman to operate the steam plant, a position he held for the next 50 years.
Early accommodations for the workers were unenviable, even by 19th century standards. Initially the men were housed in the confines of an old barn. As the mill became established, the company built small houses for the men with families, and a boarding house for the singles. Boarding house managers included the Sparlings, Parliaments, Roys, Newells and Crofts.
By the late 19th century, Rockvale's residents decided they needed a school. Children had been making tracks up to the schoolhouse on the 8th concession. The journey was about 5 kilometres, which most parents believed was much too far, especially during the winter. When they filed their first petition, they were told they needed a minimum of 25 students within walking distance. Rockvale was able to do far better than that at 41.
The first schoolhouse, SS No. 17, was a small log structure built around 1900 on the Isaac Smith farm, with Hannah Stafford as the first teacher. In 1902 a new brick schoolhouse was built on an acre of land on lot 32, Concession 6, purchased for $75. The first trustees were Robert Akitt, Robert Clark and Martin Phillips. Akitt was replaced by Isaac Smith in 1904.
Next on the wish list was a church. In 1898, Reverend A.J. Darroch began holding Baptist services in an Orange Hall on lot 37, Concession 4. He was followed by Reverend G.F. Hurlburt in 1902. After receiving a donation of land from John English, and a $250 loan from the church Edifice Board in 1905, a Baptist church was erected with lightning speed. Although trustees from the Flesherton Baptist Church were named on the deed, Rockvale finally had a church of its own. A drive shed was added two years later.
The year 1907 was a pivotal year in Rockvale's history. Sarah Roy, who had been managing the mill's boarding house, was also picking up mail in Flesherton and distributing it to the residents. It seemed just and fitting for Sarah to be paid for her efforts so she established a post office under the name Rock Mills, which in turn became the hamlet's new official name.
Also in 1907, William Armstrong, one of the brothers who owned the mill, was tragically killed in a train crash in Caledon. Two other brothers, Herbert and Charles, also passengers on the same train, were among the more fortunate who survived. The accident was a life changing experience for the entire family and set the stage for the sale of the mill to the Durham Furniture Company in 1909.
The new owners quickly integrated their newest acquisition into their existing operation in Durham. Lumber from the mill was transported by team and wagon to the railway station in Ceylon. From there it was shipped to the factory in Durham. The Rock Mills facility was eventually expanded to include the manufacture of tables and chairs.
The mill operated six days per week. Shifts ran from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday and until 5 on Saturday. In later years, the workers were given Saturday afternoon off. Longetivity seemed to be a hallmark of many of the mill's employees. Besides Barnie Fields, there was Jim Parks, who worked as a sawyer for 50 years, and Ned Croft who spent 39 years operating the log carriage. Foremen included Jim Wilson, James Dargavel, John Foster and Mannie Dobson.
Many of the mill employees wore several hats. Besides their work at the mill, Jim Wilson, Jim Parks and John Foster, at various times, also operated a small general store. In 1915 the post office was moved to the store where it remained until 1918 when rural mail delivery arrived.
About two kilometres west of Rock Mills, on lot 25, Concession 7, was a hotel that had been operating since before 1880. By the 1920s it was doing lucrative trade as the neighbourhood watering hole. These were prohibition times and the hotel was known to be a steady source of alcoholic refreshments. Constable Cook from Ceylon was determined to change that.
According to rumour the owner's wife, one Mrs. Hoy, would hide the day's supplies beneath the seat cushion of her rocking chair. Constable Cook made several visits to the hotel but Mrs. Hoy wouldn't budge from the rocking chair while he was present. On one occasion when the good constable tried to forcibly move her she began to scream, presumably with the intention of scaring him away. It worked and business continued on unabated. The hotel was frequented by men from the mill following a hard day's work.
For those who preferred more physical forms of recreation, competitive sports were available in most of the neighbouring communities. Although the hamlet was not large enough for a team of its own, Rock Mills were able to play in the Ceylon baseball team.
Rock Mills did have a hockey team which competed against other teams from Proton Station, Spring Hill, Ceylon and Flesherton in the semi-pro league sponsored by Jack McDougall. Due to a limited number of skilled players, eligibility requirements were quite relaxed. If someone was able to skate, and could keep their stick from becoming entangled in their legs, they usually qualified. More sedate activities included fishing in the Beaver River which had a more than ample supply of speckled trout.
Rock Mills was also home to a second industry of sorts - a maple syrup operation owned by the Akitt family. Although it never grew beyond a cottage industry, Walter Akitt was the province's largest maple syrup producer in 1943. During the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England in 1939, the Akitts had the honour of providing samples of their delicacy to the visiting monarchs. The product must have pleased the royal palate as shortly thereafter the Canadian government began making regular shipments to Buckingham Palace.
Rock Mills continued to thrive until 1953 when the mill and timber rights were sold to the Knechtel Furniture Company in Hanover. Knechtel was only interested in the timber rights and promptly dismantled the 60-year old mill and sold off the property for residential expansion.
Today a few vestiges still remain in Rock Mills. Both the infamous hotel and the brick schoolhouse still stand but are now used as private homes. The schoolhouse has been recently restored. The Baptist Church continues to function, although not in the same building, as does the Durham Furniture Company, Rock Mills' principal employer for over 40 years. The Knechtel Furniture Company is no longer in business.
Rock Mills was never large. Its population probably peaked at around 30 and is now less than half that. Residents however remain optimistic that their little community will once again rise to the top. An old blade, scavenged when the mill was demolished, now sits as a marker in one resident's yard, emblazoned with the words "population 14 and still growing."