Student blog — Hope Mill, A Labour of Love

During the course of the field season, we will be featuring contributions from the crew. Today we have a post from one of our Advanced Field Methods students, Shannon, who would like to share her impressions and photographs of a field trip we took today to visit the Hope Mill, a historic sawmill on the Indian River.

The Hope Mill
The Hope Mill on a chilly rainy morning! Photo: Shannon Dwyer

Upon exiting my classmate’s car at the Hope Mill, my first thought was “man, this weather sucks”.  I then turned and looked at the ‘open’ work space and said “holy cow, these mill workers are hardcore”.  As I stood there freezing, in my thermal pants in the month of May, it hit me; “imagine this work space in a 19th century winter”.  Again, I’m tempted to think that this mill and its workers are hardcore.

Truth is, those currently running and maintaining the Hope Mill have it easy. They have sections of the mill upgraded with electricity and lights, and they even have a tiled floor in their ‘out house’.  All in all, the history of Hope Mill, although somewhat restored; bleeds through every aspect of this structure, and its founding families are honored in a variety of ways.

Nearly two hours go by, and I can no longer feel my left hand or my feet.

Literally frozen in my spot, the saw blade starts spinning and the entire mill starts to tremble. The crew of workers take their places and saw dust starts flying. Several minutes later, a wooden plank is sent up a roller belt and is ready for use.

This simple field trip changed my entire view of 2×4’s and I now hold a new appreciation for every picnic table I see. I have gained a new understanding of the historic value of such open workshops and the amount of work put into such structures to ensure production, and safety.

I can’t wait to see what will be uncovered and excavated during the Nassau Mills Project this year.

— Shannon

Crown gear at Hope Mill.
Turbine gates are open, and the crown gear is whirring away, turning the main drive shaft for the saw. Photo: Shannon Dwyer
Adjusting the saw carriage in order to cut the correct size plank.
Adjusting the saw carriage in order to cut the correct size plank. Photo: Shannon Dwyer
The sawing floor, and rollers to move the waste wood to the cut-off saw.
The sawing floor, and rollers to move the waste wood to the cut-off saw. Photo: Shannon Dwyer
Some members of the Hope family.
Some members of the Hope family. Photo: Shannon Dwyer
Not only a mill, this was also the Hope family's house.
Not only a mill, this was also the Hope family’s house. Photo: Shannon Dwyer
A volunteer is using a pike-pole to grab a log from the millpond to bring it up the jack-ladder via a chain and winch. From there it will be manoeuvered by cant hooks to the saw carriage.
A volunteer is using a pike-pole to grab a log from the millpond to bring it up the jack-ladder via a chain and winch. From there it will be maneuvered by cant hooks to the saw carriage. Photo: Shannon Dwyer
The sawdust is collected from under the saw blade and transported out via a conveyor system.
The sawdust is collected from under the saw blade and transported out via a conveyor system. Photo: Shannon Dwyer

First day and introducing Charles Perry

Charles Perry
Charles Perry, photograph by William James Topley, © Public Domain
Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA 025623

Today was the first day of the 2017 field school. After a meet and greet at the Archaeology Centre, we were going to go walk around and point out the hidden world that exists on campus. We didn’t get very far—although archaeologists don’t melt in the rain, it helps to have proper rain gear and we were lacking some of that, so the tour will be tomorrow.

Instead, we spent some time looking at some amazing old photographs that show some of the past history of what is now Trent University’s campus. We’ll be featuring some of these in upcoming posts, so stay tuned.

So who is Charles Perry and why is he important?

Charles Perry was born December 7, 1818 in Cobourg to Ebenezer Perry, who was a meat-packer, merchant, and miller. Ebenezer Perry built a mill on the Douro side of the Otonabee River in 1847, and this launched Charles into the lumber business in Peterborough. He had great success in marketing square timber and sawn lumber.

Where this becomes directly relevant to us is because by 1851, Charles began buying up land in Smith Township, including a parcel that is now part of Trent University. In 1853 he was elected Mayor of Peterborough. In 1854 he completed construction of his sawmill at Nassau, directly across the river from Ebenezer’s mill. Charles’s mill was pretty distinctive in its heyday. Charles painted all his buildings red, so the big mill at Nassau is often referred to as the Red Mill. It had 130 saws, including two Yankee Gangs, a Slabber, Stock Gang, and an English Gate. Gang saws were saw blades used together in parallel to make the initial cuts to a log when cutting it into planks.

If you are interested in learning more about the types of saws in a sawmill, please consult page 177 of this exhaustive work, published 1870 by David Craik.

The Red Mill was ravenous for timber, and is recorded as able to cut 90,000 feet of lumber in twelve hours. Unfortunately, Charles Perry’s reach exceeded his grasp, and in 1860, he lost the Red Mill at Nassau as it was seized and sold at a Sherriff’s Auction to cover tax arrears.

At this point, Charles Perry drops out of his connection to our field site, but he lived a pretty interesting life after his crash. The forefeiture of his mill property didn’t seem to really affect his reputation too much as he was again elected Mayor of Peterborough in 1861, a position he held until 1864.

The time capsule found last summer at the Peterborough Jail was placed during Perry’s tenure as Mayor.

Following his stint as Mayor, he also was elected to the first Canadian Parliament in 1867 as a Conservative MP representing Peterborough West. He served until 1872. After that, he appears to have been a customs collector for Peterborough from 1873 until his death in 1876.

He lived at the French-Second-Empire-style house at 168 Brock St., Peterborough from its construction in 1870 until his death. His widow sold the property in 1892.

Nassau Mills 1896
The Red Mill at Nassau, about 45 years after construction.

Welcome!

While we can’t truly know what is beneath the surface until we begin excavations, we are anticipating learning something about the Euro-Canadian settlers who came to this region. Probably we will also intersect with the industrial boom that the lumber trade and the arrival of the railroad brought. Finally, we might learn something about how use of this landscape changed after the sawmills fell silent.

Historical archaeology is when we have written records and oral traditions that we can use together with artifacts to gain a more nuanced view of what happened at a site. Sometimes the information complements our picture of a site gained from the excavation—and sometimes documentary evidence conflicts with what we glean from the archaeological record!

Some argue that the documentary record means we don’t need to spend much time excavating historical sites. Surely we already know much about Nassau Mills, we have accounts from contemporary visitors that tell us of dramatic events and the prominent personalities of the day.

While these documents are an important tool that we can use to learn about the past, they do not tell us everything we would like to know. Documents are often incomplete and biased towards particular points of view. Often documents are based on imperfect recall or events are recast to portray actions or thoughts in an idealised fashion. More commonly, they are simply dry lists and accountings that don’t really have much personality–they are often sparse in detail about the daily lives, thoughts, and activities of people, and they neglect or overlook certain segments of society.

The information we can derive from material culture is a way to shed light on those unrecorded behaviours and under-represented members of a culture. The structures that made up the Nassau Mills complex, the mills, outbuildings, worker houses, farmhouses, railway platform, etc., and the refuse people discarded will reveal information about the everyday lives of the community at Nassau Mills.

By combining the historical record with the archaeological record, we explore a number of questions about the lived experience of people that we can’t otherwise address. We can move from the smallest to ever larger scales of social interaction. We can see how small scale material (e.g. the remains of a single house) fits into and is transformed by its relationship to larger cultural systems (Nassau Mills, Peterborough, Canada West, etc.).

Beginning May 1st, we will start to investigate around Nassau Mills with the Trent Archaeology Field School. We’ll be posting updates about our work, and the students will also be contributing to the site and relaying their experiences. We hope you enjoy following along with us.