In a cool respite of perfectly manicured park space in East Kildonan, there are two thick circular granite stones on display. They look like stylized Bauhaus patio tables.
I want to discover why someone once said this park, of all places, is the spot where if given the chance, he would bring an international visitor to learn of EK’s past.
That person is Jim Smith, a long time archivist and historian who lives in North Kildonan and whose specialty is municipal history.In his company, one will often hear an impromptu history of the surrounding space – often concerning a history one wouldn’t even consider. (Know about the history of that local A&W, perchance? Well, I do…now.)
So I meet Jim one sunny morning at Edison Avenue and Henderson Highway, where the granite stone circles are on display. I park my vehicle in front of one of the numerous apartment blocks on Edison Avenue close by.
The stones themselves may well have started their journey to this spot from Scotland on board seafaring ships sailing into Hudson Bay in the early days of the Selkirk Settlement at Red River. Arriving in the Bay, they would have been transferred into York boats to make the long river journey to the Red River colony, where Red River lots were granted to Selkirk Settlers east of the river in what is now Elmwood, East Kildonan and North Kildonan. (The Selkirk Settlement was not limited to “Old Kildonan” west of the Red).
The stones are of chiseled granite and were once used to grind grains. I can’t imagine portaging millstones – can you?
Perhaps the last leg of their journey was within a creaking ox cart from the Forks where the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Garry was situated. Lastly, perhaps the weighty stones were rafted across the Red River to its east side, right into what became Water Mill Creek. The name occurred sometime after 1926. The exact date of the Matheson Mill construction is unknown.
The Matheson stones are chiseled on one side in a unique pattern which can be seen on the underside of their display. The granite stones are so hard they did not wear down significantly, although the chiseled designs did need “redressing”, or re-chiseling ever so often. This was part of the miller’s job, or that of an itinerant stone dresser. (If the stones were made of a softer stone, they would have produced sand within the flour they ground).
The monument was officially unveiled in the park on June 28, 1966 as a memorial to the Selkirk settlers, and to the Matheson Mill, one of the earliest mills in the NorthWest.
Matheson Mill was a water mill – impounded water was diverted into a narrow channel, speeding it up to drive a water wheel that turned the grinding stones. Two pairs of circular stones, laying atop and close to each other, ground seed kernels into flour between them. The interior surfaces, chiseled with specific designs called “dresses”, moved the resulting flour to its exit at the stone’s periphery. The millstones mounted in the park are both dressing side down, positioned this way for unknown reasons.
The only other two-set mill in the Red River area was owned by Louis Riel’s father. Today these stones are on display in front of the St. Boniface Museum.
Accounts reveal the Matheson Mill was still in operation in 1868 or 1870. Yet an 1850 report by the Hudson Bay Company listing all mills in the Red River area does not include the Matheson Mill. However long it operated, during its time, the mill was the hub of the North Kildonan community.
After the mill was either torn down, fell down, or was washed away at some unknown date, the stones began a mysterious journey. Today, only two of the four stones are on display at the park. (Read about the mystery of the other two millstones on CNC: Solving the missing millstones mystery).
Even before considering the mystery of the missing millstones, it’s hard to imagine a mill once operated somewhere close by. I can’t even imagine, as vehicles speed noisily by on Henderson Highway, that a creek once meandered through here.
Today, the area is a concentrated suburban residential district where once tall grass prairie was crossed with sweeping buffalo paths to then become farm fields and domestic grazing lands.
An early account mentions an Aboriginal encampment at the loop of the Red River, where Elmwood begins (around O’Dawda Park today). Glass beads and fire pits were discovered when Brazier Street was dug up for reconstruction in the 1990’s near Talbot Avenue.
Quest for Water Mill Creek
It is all very hard to imagine, so Jim and I begin a journey to pick up on any remnants of this time. We drive to a spot nearby just north of the Curtis Hotel on Henderson Highway.
“That apartment block actually sits on the creek,” Jim says. “I’m sure it (the creek) was filled in to some degree…”
He says this would be a good place to situate a plaque to commemorate Water Mill Creek, (later known as McLeod Creek). He estimates the creek at this spot to have been 75 feet wide. Recorded oral histories reveal reminiscences of the mill being here just north of the spot where the Curtis Hotel is now.
It’s a day after a torrential Winnipeg downpour and a water vacuum truck is servicing one of the apartments. As we take up the trail of the curving, low areas that once flowed with water, Jim estimates the spot of the Matheson Mill to be somewhere between the apartments north of the Curtis Hotel and Brazier Street.
“Mill Creek, as it was called then, probably wouldn’t have had a lot of water in it for a good part of the year. Probably in the spring, of course, after the snow melt and if you had a lot of rain it would fill in. I’m sure there were times where there wouldn’t have been a lot of water to move the water wheel,” says Jim.
Up until the 1960’s a culvert ran beneath Henderson Highway that flowed traces of the Creek. Before this, the Creek ran in places where now upon it sits a Tim Horton’s and the Baptist Church on Rowandale Avenue.
The large dip in the street reflects the creek’s path as it continued along to Whellams Lane. Its entrance to the Red River can still be seen north from Chief Peguis Trail on the east bank to Kildonan Settlers Bridge. The creek was simply filled in at various places due to land development.
“(Where it meets the Red River) the creek is still there in a thoroughly natural state, and of course when the river is high it backs up into the creek,” Jim explains.
At this spot, a chain ferry crossed the river from the 1870’s to 1916. For this reason, Whellams Lane nearby was originally called Ferry Lane.
Crossing the Red at the Kildonan Settlers Bridge, blue plaques upon the bridge each display a name of a local Selkirk Settler.
We head to the only water mill left in Winnipeg – a working reproduction of a mill that was originally built on Sturgeon Creek in 1829, 1830 and 1831. (Roaring spring waters in Sturgeon Creek tore it from its banks each year).
The early mill was built by Metis leader Cuthbert Grant, who was famously involved in the Battle of Seven Oaks. After the third mill destruction, Grant abandoned the mill to build a windmill at Grantown.
Grant’s Old Mill Museum
Jim and I arrive at the impressive mill site where friendly guides Jessica, Courtney and Sarah greet us. The old mill now includes museum space filled with artifacts.
Hanging high upon the wall in the post and beam structure that uses no nails is a facial portrait (and perhaps the only known photo) of Cuthbert Grant. In 2011, Gill Seller painted a full portrait of Grant using this photo to inspire his vision of Grant’s assemblage.
Jessica starts the mill and it rings out a loud, heavy hum. It produces flour immediately after she pulls a lever that releases grain that flows with a wooshing sound into the area between its large millstones.
The mill mechanism itself was donated by Ogilvie Flour Mills. It is more than 100 years old and is electrically powered, explains Jessica. The equipment was still in use before it was donated.
The stones within it are of granite; the top “runner” stone is 2000 pounds and stationary bottom “bedstone” weighs about 1000 pounds.
We descend the staircase to another level where a large wooden wheel turns as the mill hums loudly. A wooden scaffold around the huge wheel allows an interesting and dramatic view of its workings. Along an entire wall is written out Cuthbert Grant’s lineage, dating back to the 1600’s.
I had earlier noticed a posting near the Museum’s entrance. It describes the forward movement of all peoples in a spirit of reconciliation and collaboration, and the place of history in this path. It lingers with me because of its relative novelty; only a few years ago, such a notice would never have existed.
Lunch at A&W
Leaving the mill, Jim and I stop for lunch at the A&W on Portage Avenue on the south bank of Sturgeon Creek. Teen and Papa burgers on tray, Jim and I sit down in the busy restaurant.
Glancing to the table next to us, to my sheer surprise there sits Senator Murray Sinclair along with a young person. A woman soon joins them.
After looking at Sinclair too long – as one does with someone who is so familiar through the media – I spontaneously (and with some feelings of foolishnes for staring) – smile at the Senator. I had always admired his work, especially the connection he created to people through the media. He consistently reminds us – or in fact provides first awareness – of Aboriginal issues that so badly need profile.
In retrospect, I think I was dumbstruck at the happenstance of seeing him along our journey of history. (If ever Senator Sinclair might visit the CNC site, he may recognize the hot and tired duo in the photos from that day).
Sure, another reporter would have immediately asked him about his view of the notice at the museum, and what this might indicate for Canada. But somehow I just sit there in contemplation of these things, and eat my lunch with our two tables set beside each other.
I conclude it is the beginning of a new day for the present into which our past moves.
This is the first in a three-part series on Winnipeg’s early history. Check out Solving the missing millstones mystery and Home life challenging for early settlers by Shirley Kowalchuk on Community News Commons.