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The historic Utopia Grist Mill is a true survivor of nature and time

February 2022

The centrepiece of the Utopia Conservation Area, west of Barrie, Ontario, is the historic Bell Grist Mill, also known as the Utopia Grist Mill, is a 118-year-old restored grist mill, and one of the few original remnants of the Village of Utopia. It’s survived not only a devastating hurricane, but also deterioration from long-term abandonment and progress.

The water power provided by Bear Creek proved ideal for milling purposes. James Spink chose this spot on Lot 29, Concession 6 in Essa Township to build a mill in 1864, and the tiny Village of Utopia became an important rural centre. The mill produced feed for the farmers, flour, grain products as shorts (fine food for pigs), bran, and grits. A Grand Trunk Rail line just north of the mill allowed for easy transportation of products to and from the mill.

Richard Bell had originally been hired by Spink to work in the mill in 1876, but three years later, he and his two brothers, John and Manuel, took over the operation of the mill.

The original Spink mill was destroyed by a fire on 29 May 1903, but Bell quickly re-built it and the mill resume operations on New Year’s Day 1904.

Bell’s new mill was a three-storey mill, built on a stone foundation that was 4 ½ feet thick and sunk to a depth of 30 feet due to quicksand. The mill was framed with hand hewn timber, harvested from the Simcoe County forests. The mill was so sturdy that when Hurricane Hazel roared through the area on 14 October 1954, the only damage done was that the porch was washed away.

Around the time that World War II broke out, the Bell Mill reduced their services to only chopping and mixing grain. Most farmers had their own wood choppers, and people were buying bread from supermarkets instead of using the mill flour to make their own.

Although Hurricane Hazel caused no damage to the mill itself, the dam next to the mill was destroyed. As re-building the dam proved to be too expensive, current owner Harold Bell, son of Richard Bell, installed a diesel engine to power the mill.

The hurricane washed the dam away causing water to immediately recede from the mill. To re-build the dam would be too expensive, so Harold had a diesel engine installed to power the mill.

After closing down the mill in 1965, Bell donated it and the property to the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority (NVCA). A new dam was built in 1969, but the mill has remained silent and deteriorating for the next five decades while the NVCA acquired surrounding lands, totalling 102.2 acres, from various owners for flood management and to be used as a recreational area.

By 2000, it appeared the deteriorating mill would have to be demolished, but a community group was formed, Friends of the Utopia Mill and Park, who set about fundraising to restore the mill to fully operational for historic and educational purposes. This goal has yet to be fully realized, but the mill still has a future as the centrepiece of Utopia Conservation Area

Sources: Welcome to Utopia, Ontario, Historic mill a focal point of rejuvenated Utopia Conservation Area (4 photos) – Barrie News (barrietoday.com), Utopia | Hiking the GTA, Utopia Conservation Area gets a facelift! – NVCA.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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