Desti­na­tions

Ex­plor­ing the Bal­moral Grist Mill on Nova Sco­tia’s north shore.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - by Mark Collin Reid

Ex­plor­ing Nova Sco­tia’s Bal­moral Grist Mill.

IT WAS ABOUT THIRTY MIN­UTES into what should have been a ten-minute drive when I be­gan to worry that we were in­deed lost. Rum­bling down a coun­try road near Tatamagouche, Nova Sco­tia, I searched des­per­ately for a sign — a lit­eral road sign, or even a heav­enly sign — that we were get­ting close to our goal, the Bal­moral Grist Mill.

No mat­ter what, though, I wasn’t go­ing to let on that we were ap­proach­ing

terra incog­nita. I knew the golden rule of va­ca­tion­ing in ru­ral Nova Sco­tia: that you’re al­ways just one quick con­ver­sa­tion — and course cor­rec­tion — away from get­ting back on track.

And so, with the world’s most pa­tient pas­sen­gers (my mom and my daugh­ter) wait­ing in the car, I pulled into the next drive­way I saw and then scam­pered across the lawn to ask a lo­cal for di­rec­tions.

After a brief chat about the weather (nice and sunny) and the state of the roads (pass­able, but get­ting worse) the gen­tle­man as­sured me that we were only mo­ments away from our des­ti­na­tion.

At this point, I’m sure my plan to visit a his­toric grist mill seemed half-baked. After all, Nova Sco­tia’s north shore boasts some of the most beau­ti­ful scenery in the prov­ince, in­clud­ing red sand beaches that stretch for miles and coastal vil­lages where you can or­der up lob­ster sand­wiches and seafood chow­der to die for.

We could have spent the day splash­ing in the warm wa­ters of the Northum­ber­land Strait. But it was the grist mill or bust for me.

I had vis­ited the mill once be­fore, dur­ing an ele­men­tary school field trip more than three decades ago, and that trip had left a last­ing im­pres­sion on me.

Fi­nally, after a cou­ple more zigs and zags, we pulled into the grist mill’s gravel park­ing lot. A slop­ing path wended its way through a copse of trees to a small dam that did dou­ble duty as a foot­bridge lead­ing to the red wooden mill be­yond.

The Bal­moral Grist Mill was built by Alexander McKay, the son of miller John McKay, a Scottish im­mi­grant who set­tled in the Cape Bre­ton re­gion of the prov­ince in the early 1800s. Milling clearly ran in the fam­ily — four of John McKay’s seven sons even­tu­ally joined the grind­ing busi­ness.

Alexander McKay bought the land for the Bal­moral mill for just twelve dol­lars. At the time, there were more than 450 small grist mills op­er­at­ing in the prov­ince. McKay’s mill em­ployed a wa­ter wheel, which was a rel­a­tively new tech­nol­ogy in the 1870s. Wa­ter wheels em­ployed sluice gates to start and to stop the flow of wa­ter from rivers or streams. The cas­cad­ing wa­ter turned the wa­ter wheel, which pow­ered the grind­stones in­side the mill that in turn ground var­i­ous grains into flour.

The Bal­moral Grist Mill em­ploys four large grind­stones, all care­fully carved to en­sure the ef­fi­ciency of the grind­ing process. The grind­stones are cut in spoke pat­terns that push the grains from the cen­tre to­wards the outer edges, where the fine grind­ing takes place. Next, the miller sifts the flour to re­move the chaff and then bags it for fu­ture sale.

The Bal­moral mill pro­cesses sev­eral va­ri­eties of grains, in­clud­ing wheat, oats, bar­ley, rye, and buck­wheat. It also fea­tures a unique kiln that dries the oats in prepa­ra­tion for grind­ing.

The mill changed hands sev­eral times over the decades. When Alexander McKay died in 1886, the mill was left to his youngest son, Hugh. Hugh McKay ran the mill for nearly twenty years be­fore sell­ing it to a farmer named Alexander McLean MacDon­ald. MacDon­ald ran the mill un­til 1940 and then passed it on to his son Archie. A decade later, Archie was forced to close the mill due to com­pe­ti­tion from larger, more mod­ern mills.

In 1964, the Sunrise Trail Museum in Tatamagouche be­gan restor­ing the grist­mill

and hired Archie MacDon­ald to run it. How­ever, lim­ited by bud­get and re­sources, the museum was sold in 1966 to the Nova Sco­tia govern­ment. The prov­ince soon launched an ex­ten­sive restora­tion pro­gram, in­stalling an elec­tric motor to drive the mill’s tur­bines, and re­build­ing its dam.

To­day the Bal­moral Grist Mill is part of Nova Sco­tia’s museum sys­tem and wel­comes vis­i­tors sea­son­ally be­tween June and Oc­to­ber.

After an en­joy­able tour of the mill’s interior, we headed out­side to a small pic­nic area lo­cated just up­stream. Set in a beau­ti­ful wooded glade and equipped with a pic­nic ta­ble, the site was serene. As my daugh­ter looked for signs of brook trout in a nearby pool, the only sounds were the oc­ca­sional chirps of birds and the bab­bling of the stream as it tum­bled its way to the dam be­low. As we re­laxed there, I re­flected on the in­ge­nu­ity of the nine­teenth-cen­tury en­gi­neer­ing on dis­play at the mill. Fea­tur­ing four sets of grind­stones, pow­ered by wa­ter and con­nected by a tan­gle of whirring leather belts, the en­tire op­er­a­tion was de­signed, in­cred­i­bly, to be run by a sin­gle miller.

Even­tu­ally, it was time to re­turn to my par­ents’ home near Pug­wash, Nova Sco­tia. En route, we de­cided to stop off in Tatamagouche for a bite. While there, we couldn’t re­sist the chance to ride on the “Tata-nooga Choo Choo” — a mo­tor­ized twenty-eight-seat “road train” that of­fers tours of the town’s main at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing a his­toric train sta­tion and a for­mer cream­ery.

The train sta­tion was of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est be­cause it has been trans­formed into an inn. Built in 1887, the sta­tion of­fered pas­sen­ger ser­vice un­til 1960 and once hosted a Gov­er­nor Gen­eral of Canada, Lord Aberdeen. In the 1980s, the sta­tion was re­stored by lo­cal train en­thu­si­ast and busi­ness­man James LeFresne. Over the years, LeFresne has pur­chased at least nine ca­booses and box­cars and trans­formed them into sleep­ing units for guests of his Train Sta­tion Inn. Vis­i­tors can also rent the Sta­tion Master’s Suite, lo­cated in the sta­tion it­self, which in­cludes three bed­rooms, each equipped with pri­vate bath­rooms.

As we strolled around Tatamagouche, I was struck by how much the town has to of­fer tourists. When I was a kid, I used to ac­com­pany my granny to Tatamagouche for her hair ap­point­ments. It was a thrill for me, be­cause the lo­cal drug­store was the only place near Pug­wash that sold comic books. Other than a few ser­vice stores and a gas sta­tion, Tatamagouche was a pretty sleepy town. But not now. The main drag is burst­ing with restau­rants and tourist shops; a high­light is the Tatamagouche Brew­ing Com­pany, a fam­ily-owned or­ganic mi­cro­brew­ery that of­fers “Tata­m­a­good­ness” in ev­ery pint they sell.

The vil­lage is also just a few kilo­me­tres away from sev­eral warm salt­wa­ter beaches. I’d rec­om­mend Blue Sea Beach Pro­vin­cial Park in nearby Mala­gash. The wide, sandy beach is per­fect for build­ing sand­cas­tles, while the swim­ming is ex­cel­lent in what are billed as the “warm­est wa­ters north of the Caroli­nas.”

In the end, my half-baked plan to visit the Bal­moral Grist Mill left us ea­ger to re­turn the next time I’m home for a visit.

The Bal­moral Grist Mill, Bal­moral Mills, Nova Sco­tia.

Left: The interior of the his­toric train sta­tion at Tatamagouche, Nova Sco­tia, that now serves as an inn for trav­ellers. Right: The au­thor’s daugh­ter, Me­gan, uses a quern to grind grain by hand at the Bal­moral Grist Mill.

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