By Jan Olson
Ever wonder where Mill Creek got its name? For a long time the Cree in the area called it Stony Creek. It was still referred to as Stony Creek when William Bird, a Métis trapper for the Hudson Bay Company, built a mill on the creek in 1871.
This was one of the first flourmills in western Canada and was built in Mill Creek at the N. Saskatchewan River, east of the Low Level Bridge and Scona Hill. It is said that Bird modeled his mill after the one built by Father Lacombe at the St. Albert Mission on the banks of the Sturgeon River. The St. Albert mill successfully ground wheat. Bird got his mill plans from England. The millstone may also have come from England, but it is more likely that it was quarried locally. Apparently, the mill functioned very well, but there was a seasonal problem that Bird had overlooked. During the spring the creek flowed with more than ample water, but come fall (the critical harvest time) less water moved through the ravine. It took Bird three years to try to make the mill successful, but he finally abandoned his construction and mill in 1874. The mill might have looked like this photo of a mill in Keremeos, B.C. We do not know exactly where the mill was located as there are no plans; nor has archaeological work been performed in the area. Yet, the fact that a mill was built showed that agriculture was an important part of the economy. Also of import was that William Bird built the first house outside of the Hudson Bay Fort walls near the mill on the flats of what is now Cloverdale. People were beginning to settle the land on the North Saskatchewan River. This act would mean that relations with the various native groups was somewhat friendly and that the former fur-traders were thinking of the area as more than simply a place with a fortified trading post, but a place to call home.
The Type of Water Wheel Bird Built
The type of mill, Bird constructed is called an undershot wheel or stream wheel. Undershot wheels do not need a head of water or an actual waterfall. They are most suited to streams flowing through fairly flat country. This style would have been perfect for the flats in Cloverdale where the Mill Creek drained into the North Saskatchewan River.
It is the oldest form of water wheel having been developed in China, Europe and Africa. In fact some undershot wheels were even built on floating platforms. The Byzantine General Belisarius probably constructed the earliest version during the siege of Rome in 537.
The undershot is a vertically mounted water wheel that is rotated by water striking paddles or blades at the bottom of the wheel. It is also regarded as the least efficient type, although subtypes of this water wheel (e.g. the Poncelet wheel, sagebien wheel and Zuppinger wheel which have different blade curvatures) allow somewhat greater efficiencies than traditional undershot wheels. The advantages of undershot wheels are that they are somewhat cheaper and simpler to build, and really do not affect the flow of the river or creek. A significant disadvantage is that they generate less power and can only be used where the flow rate is sufficient to provide torque.
What is a Grist Mill?
A grist mill’s parts consist of the waterwheel and two stones for grinding grain into flour. Water pushes the wheel to make it spin, which in turn causes an axle inside to turn. The axle is connected to a gear which then in turn causes the grinding stones to spin one on top of the other. At the top is a chute for pouring the grain into the pair of grinding stones.
The bottom stone, or bed stone, is in a fixed position, while the upper stone, or runner stone, revolves. Millstones were made of ordinary granite or sandstone, quarried in full-size chunks. Each member of the pair had to be furrowed. The runner stone had furrows cut on its bottom surface and the bed stone had patterns cut on the top. Stones varied in size from four to six feet in diameter and weighed as much as one ton. Furrows varied in pattern; early stones had curved grooves but later stones had a variety of straight-line furrows. Grooves serve as channels through which air can pass and carry off heat generated by friction during the grinding. They also serve as a path for ground flour or meal to leave the mill.
The distance between the two stones could be adjusted slightly for each type of grain—wheat, rye, corn etc.–and they had to be perfectly balanced, and yet not touching each other. Stones improperly balanced could ruin the product, damage the stones, and the friction could even cause a fire. The miller needed to keep the millstones sharp because dull stones ground coarse flour. Coarse flour was called “cakey” and tended to ferment faster. The stones were arranged variously, but always in such a way that the upper ones would shear across the lower, with the steeper edges opposed to achieve a cutting action. The most common arrangement was in groups of straight grooves, each group parallel to the diameter of the central hole. The bed stone was just slightly concave; the runner stone was convex but was almost imperceptibly flatter than the bed stone. The stones wear hardest at their outer edges and therefore grind finest there.
Grain fell from a hopper and was guided by a chute, or spout, into the hole in the runner stone. It was moved outward by centrifugal force as the stone ground it. The flour and bran then needed to be sifted and separated into grades.
Look for the “replica” millstones that are on the signs for Mill Creek Ravine Park…see if you can find 4 of them.
1) Tom Monto. Old Strathcona: Edmonton’s Southside Roots. Crang Publishing 2011.
2) Theodore R. Hazen. A Report of Hunt’s Grist Mill. Old Rehoboth, Massachusetts, April 1998
3) Mark Denny. Waterwheels and Windmills. The Johns Hopkins University Press. May 2007.
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