Our instinct as newcomers to Brant County is to point out spaces that have potential, places that people may have glossed over because they’ve seen them a thousand times. It takes imagination and gumption to keep things going and we admire that. We don’t want the Willett to close or our incredible library replaced. We don’t want trails and history to be forgotten. We celebrate the restoration and repurposing of old buildings. But what about the beauty in decay? What happens when we let something go: Does it disappear, or become something else, equally and differently beautiful?
Recently Moo has become interested in the concept of time. She knows she is two years old. She knows her birthday is in September. And she knows Fridays are the best days (though Mondays and Tuesdays are good too, in her book). She asks about “the olden days” and enjoys hearing about castles (and of course princesses), which we first visited in Luxembourg last fall. Now she is into the idea of buildings and objects that have been subject to the tests of time, asking to see “ruins” as frequently as she asks for after dinner mints or a change of clothes (if you know Moo, she asks for those things a lot!).
So we took Moo for an adventure one day to find a site of rare Ontario ruins that happen to be on our doorstep just outside the small hamlet of Glen Morris, off the Rail Trail between Paris and Cambridge.
These ruins were first known as the German Woolen Mill, and it has had many lives as people throughout history have attempted to reimagine it. It was first built in 1867 by the German family, from whom it gets its name. Its first life as a textiles mill came to an end with the rise of other, larger mills in the area along the Grand River, but not before taking the life of a little girl who fell into the raceway and drowned.
Next the abandoned mill was renovated and recast as a traveler’s lodge. It remains the site of one unsolved mystery after a man was murdered in his room at the lodge, the perpetrator never identified. The lodge proved an unprofitable business and was then bought by a Brantford man to become his 13 bedroom summer residence, a plan dismantled by the arrival of the nearby railroad which cut off the only road that gave access to the property. This final straw, so to speak, happened in 1946, so the mill has truly only been abandoned for little more than 50 years. Oh well; in North America, when it comes to historical ruins, you take what you can get.
The structures certainly play their part as ruins. When asking around it seems the people who have heard of the Mill are photographers who shoot there. We first heard the term “ruin porn” in relation to the photography of Detroit’s decaying architecture. Many of our local photographers love ruin porn, especially juxtaposing it with hopeful brides and grooms for their engagement portraits. And then there are the paranormal investigators who insist the site is full of ‘activity’, feeding the mythology that makes people afraid to venture to the mill past sunset.
The only activity we saw was a toddler climbing all over the walls and windows along with the remnants of graffiti, litter, and a still smouldering fire. Mosquitoes might be the real deterrent, but if you would like to pay your respects to one of Canada’s finest examples of genuine historic ruins, the directions are pretty simple: From Glen Morris take the East River Road north out of town for about a mile. Park at the small parking area on the west side of the road. By the parking spot there is a trail that goes on an angle down the hill to the Rail Trail and the ruins. It’s a two minute walk at most.
While it is neat to be able to get so close to the ruins, next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the mills and one wonders what state they will be in soon if people continue to have such uninhibited access. Feeling reflective, Moo said that if the mill was still active she would have used it to make knee high socks and blankets for Baby Billie. Together, we then told the mill to stay strong and to stay standing, at least until a few more people can enjoy it.
The lovely thing about visiting mills is that they are always placed near water, which makes for scenic outings. We picked flowers on the nearby banks of the Grand and from the Mill’s old raceway. The County of Brant has a nice publication that collected the sites of many old nearby mills. Check it out – which of them look fun to you? There are more than a few on the list we’d like to visit too.