Editor’s note: This is the first of two pieces in the Peaceful Pockets of Paradise series about the Blakeney area. It looks at Blakeney’s historical roots, while the next will focus on its current-day form.
Call us biased, but Marilyn Snedden and I feel that Blakeney Park warrants at least two perspectives. The history of Marilyn’s family in this area, as many of you know, goes back to 1821, when the first of her ancestors to immigrate to Canada arrived in the Union Hall area. Who better than Marilyn to share her extensive knowledge of the history of Blakeney?
The Hamlet of Blakeney in Earlier Times
By Marilyn Snedden
If you turn off County Road 29 on the Blakeney Road, you are on what was originally called the Bytown Road (the way to Ottawa). Other than the bridge crossing the Mississippi River, the landscape remains the same as when the early settlers arrived in 1821. There have been many mills and shops built there over the years, but now only some foundations remain.
When James Snedden, his wife Christina and their two youngest children were located on the 100 acres from the 9th line (County Road 29) and the river, the land was covered in pine trees; hence the earliest name for the community was Pine Tree Falls. Since James was 60 years old and three of his children had emigrated to Beckwith Township two years before, he exchanged land with his son Alexander, who saw the value in the rapids and waterfalls to provide water power for grist mills and sawmills so necessary for development, and he had the advantage of being young enough to clear the land.
The first mills were in the Bay at the foot of the hill that climbs into the present village. It’s a tribute to their ingenuity that somehow the river was diverted enough to allow a hand-dug tunnel from the main river to the Bay — a drop of 30 feet. This allowed the grist mill, powered by a waterwheel, to grind the grain.
In the next years a timber slide was built over this same tunnel. All the timber coming down from the upper Mississippi had to pass through here to avoid the dangerous rapids, and the Snedden family collected tolls for each log. Earlier occupants of the house built above the slide tell of still hearing the rushing water underneath their house in the spring.
Many of the mills were built on Pine Isle (in the Bay) since there were waterfalls on either side. The road used to exit straight off the bridge, following the lower shoreline with a short bridge over to the island. On the island there was a flour and grist mill, an oatmeal mill, a stable for horses and a frame house where the miller’s family lived. Peter Campbell was the last one, moving his equipment into Almonte to a mill along the railway tracks in 1918. Today it’s difficult to imagine all the activity there, and now the whole area is covered in poison ivy!
The largest mill was a three-storey woollen mill built by Peter McDougall in 1873. It was built over the watercourse so the waterwheel was underneath on the south end of the bridge. It employed 25 people producing 100,000 yards of tweed a year in the 1880s.
There also was a tannery operated by Robert Gommersall on this same waterway. The last building that remained until the late 1900s was a stone building at the southern exit of the bridge. As children we were told it was a prison where we’d go if we misbehaved (because it had bars on the windows.) Later we found it was actually a storage place for the woollen mill. Mr. McDougall also built the brick home on the hillside.
Abial Marshall built a sawmill on the north shore, damming the channel to the small island where the latest bridge has been built by the Almonte Fish and Game Association. In the 1871 census he employs 10 males for 8 months using 15,000 logs to produce 1,500,000 board feet. When Abial moved to Washago, William Snedden took over the operation.
On the same side of the river, there was a cobbler’s shop operated by James Coxford who, with his wife, raised 18 children in a small brick house. This might have been a case of the shoemaker’s children having no shoes! Nearby, John Glover, a cooper, created barrels.
The first cheese factory was opened in the former Snedden stone home on the hill but in 1932, a building was moved from Pakenham (!) to the north end of the bridge where a farmer’s cooperative operated the Rosebank Cheese & Butter Co. until 1954. Then the building was converted to Nontell’s Dance Hall. This dance hall was an exciting addition to the community until it burned to the ground a few years later.
Further beyond the bay, heading towards Martin Street, development continued to accommodate the growing community: a General Store and Post Office combined, a white-frame church, and a brick school. The opening of the post office in 1874 resulted in the community changing its name from Rosebank to Blakeney.
The extension of the railroad to Rosebank (Blakeney) was another huge development. In 1859 Almonte became the northern terminus for the railroad until enough money was raised to extend the railroad, in the early 1860s, past Rosebank. Because the flour shipped from the A&D Snedden Flour Mill was a large part of the train freight, the stop at Blakeney was named Snedden Station. This was a flag stop where it was a thrill for me as a child, to accompany my father with our two or three cans of milk to load on the train going north at midnight. You lit the big red lantern in the station, ran out waving it on the tracks and the huge steaming monster pulled to a stop. The cans were then loaded and empties thrown off to replace them. There were many stops like this until North Bay was reached, where farmers received a small bonus per hundredweight. This was in the 1950s before farmers in the country received the better prices those near the city did. That’s where the term ”Milk Run” came from.
The park along the river is still owned by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources who, several decades ago, decided to remove the foot-bridges over the creeks because someone slipped through on a rotten board and they were worried about liability. Fortunately local people protested and they left them. The local Fish and Game Association has assumed responsibility for the grounds, cutting the grass, clearing branches, building bridges and pathways, looking after garbage and even the outhouses. The two iron items that remain in the park are from the woollen mill. I think the Munros from the garage dragged them out of the channel many years ago- — one is a turbine. The foundation of the woollen mill can still be found and some from the oatmeal mill remain on the island, but the poison ivy is so rank there that it’s not advisable for people to go there.
The “old swimming hole” at the highway side of the bridge has been a favorite spot over the years. Now fishermen and boaters also frequent the area, so it’s hoped everyone can get along.
Reverend Robert Knowles, a former minister, wrote in the Toronto Star in 1928 when he returned to preach at Blakeney: “Rosebank — a locality, if one store, a defunct blacksmith shop, a deserted mill, a tannery burnt down, a tavern burnt out, fifteen houses, one telephone, one little church, a noble river and a spreading bay can be said to constitute a locality”.
This depicted a sad little village, but today, as I stated at the beginning, the natural beauty of the river, trees and vegetation has returned, so let’s do our best to preserve it for posterity.
As I grew up on the 10th line side of Blakeney, moving to the other side of the river to the 9th line when I married Earle Snedden in 1960, I have a lifetime of memories of the river and the park. When my sisters and I had spent a day in the hay field, our father let us take the rowboat down to the swimming hole at the bridge as a reward. Apparently we used to taunt the Snedden boys who were still sweating it out on their side. It was out on the second rock in Blakeney Park that Earle (one of those Snedden boys!) asked me out for the first time on July 1, 1956 – to the Arnprior Drive-In (if you can imagine!). Later on, it was a thrill when Earle and I would go “skinny dipping” after the cows were milked – a great way to cool off – and we never got caught!
Other memories involve sneaking cheese curds from the big vats when father was delivering the milk, and then bringing home the whey to “slop the hogs”. The farmers also got butter – 10 pounds to a box. One hot summer day, my sisters and used a few pounds of the butter to fill the holes in the latticework on our verandah. My mother was horrified when the dog ran by covered in grease where we’d wiped our hands. I’m sure we were punished to “fit the crime”.
The General Store was the meeting place for the community when we children would get an ice cream cone and our parents would catch up on the local gossip. I have many other memories, such as bringing family members on a hike in the park every Thanksgiving, but that’s for another time.
The Ramsay Women’s Institute erected a plaque in 2010 at the parking lot in Blakeney showing the locations of the former mills. Someone in Australia saw it on the internet and connected with us to find out about their family who owned one of the mills. How strange and wonderful to connect with someone on the other side of the world whose ancestors knew yours!