In the days before electrical power lines reached across the land, it was commonplace for towns to spring up around rivers where water power could be harnessed to support industry. In this, nearby Spencerville was no different from many Ontario towns. Records show that a mill was in place on the South Nation river as early as 1812, situated on land leased by Peleg Spencer. Peleg’s son David Spencer purchased the land in 1831 and thus became the official founder of the town of Spencerville. By 1851, David had a sawmill and grist mill on the south bank of the river, and erected a carding and fulling mill on the north bank.
In the early 1860s, fire destroyed the grist mill, and David’s daughter, Mercy, and her husband, Robert Fairbairn, constructed a new grist mill on the present site. The mill was again gutted by fire in 1884 and rebuilt on the remaining stone walls. It continued to operate until 1972.
In 1912, J.F. Barnard purchased the mill and he and his family ran the mill for the next 60 years. One of Barnard’s inovations was to replace the existing waterwheel with a turbine waterwheel, purchased from Chas. Barber & Sons of Meaford and installed in August of 1934. The turbine waterwheel nearly doubled the horsepower of the mill, increasing it from 60 to 110.
Wheat was the primary grain milled, but buckwheat, barley, corn and oats were also processed. The ground wheat might be sold as flour for household use or feed for stock, according to its quality and how finely it was ground. Surprisingly, grain from the Canadian prairies and U.S. midwest was processed at the mill through the 1930s and 40s, and up to 20 car loads of grain might be held for processing at the mill at any one time. Corn was not grown locally as extensively as is now the case, and because high tariffs on American corn made it too costly to import, corn was brought from South Africa for processing as corn meal.
When grain arrived at the mill it was lifted to the top floor by an elevator formed of cups on a belt. From the top floor, the grain would then be fed into either the mill’s double or single roller to be ground.
The Spencerville Mill was purchased by the South Nation Conservation Authority in 1985. In recent years, restoration work has been completed and the mill features displays that clarify how the mill operated and illustrate the history of the mill. Work on further displays is ongoing. The mill stands as a testament to the ingenuity of early residents and preserves an important aspect of the history of Spencertown.