Pockets of paradise: The Mill of Kintail

by Michael Reynolds

As I write it is the time of trilliums and trout lilies in the woods around Mississippi Mills and in my mind one of the best places to find them is at The Mill of Kintail on Concession 8, truly a pocket of paradise.

We all endured a long cold winter that leaves us open to the sounds and scents and visual wonder of the forest waking up to Spring. I am surprised year after year at the rapid and vigorous growth of delicate and beautiful flowers and leaves along our woodland trails in the month of May, my favourite month of the year.

Many people have a close and affectionate connection to the Mill of Kintail. My earliest memory of visiting here dates back to the mid-1950’s when my family came to visit the previous owners of the property, Major Jamie Leys and his wife Irene. My father knew Major Leys from the Canadian Army during World War II.

As a child I remember the sandy-coloured stone intensity of the mill building and the magic of the river running by in the heat of summer. The Major and Mrs. Leys greeted us dressed in long Japanese kimonos and invited us into their living quarters in the very bottom level of the Mill which they had decorated with tatami mats, paper screens and low-lying furniture. In the 1920’s Major Leys’ father and family had been posted in Japan. My 8 year old self was awestruck and I am still fascinated with the traditional culture and style of Japan.

After tea, the Leys’ gave us a tour of the museum upstairs that honoured Dr. Robert Tait McKenzie, the extraordinary physician, teacher and sculptor who had grown up in Ramsay township. McKenzie and his wife Ethel bought and restored the old grist mill in the early 1930’s. The large main floor had their bedrooms and a large living room for entertaining. The top floor had R. Tait McKenzie’s sculpture studio filled with highly realistic stone angels and bronze athletes in a slightly art deco style.

The centuries of history overlap. For countless generations, the Algonquin people of this area moved up and down the river now known as the Mississippi and no doubt hunted, fished and gathered along the tributary running alongside the mill which John Baird built in 1830.This was quite early on in the European settlement of the Ottawa Valley when mighty old growth White Pines were being felled and fields were being cleared and populated by waves of immigration, mostly from England, Ireland and Scotland.
The Baird Mill thrived for almost 100 years as an essential part of the growth of the community. When R. Tait McKenzie and Ethel restored it, they named it the Mill of Kintail and for a few summers it was a cultural centre of sorts for friends from the community and those from the United States and beyond.

Irene and Jamie Leys bought the property in the early 1950’s from R. Tait McKenzie’s widow Ethel. In the early 1970’s they sold it to the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority after having ensured the preservation of the museum. Now, in the 21st century, the Mill also contains a museum to commemorate an old friend of Tait McKenzie, James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. The Naismith Museum fills the lower level of the Mill where Jamie and Irene Leys once lived, sometimes in Japanese splendor.

During the years after my first unforgettable visit to the Mill, there were only scattered occasions to walk the trails and soak up the atmosphere of the museum. I returned to Ottawa in 1979 with my own children and brought them to share my great memories and to be in the woods in the spring. My parents also moved back to their home town of Ottawa and we all drove out for the fall colours once or twice.

Still living in Ottawa, a whole new chapter of my life opened up in 1996 when I met my wife who is a ceramic artist. We planned an outdoor wedding to be a celebration bringing together our families and friends.

The artist Rosemary Leach, a friend and neighbour in Ottawa, had just moved to Clayton and said, “why not the Mill of Kintail for your wedding?” Of course! The little stone chapel surrounded by pretty gardens would be perfect. It all came together on a beautiful, sunny Saturday, on the August long weekend, 1997. There was fiddle, guitar and flute music played by friends in the Ottawa Celtic music scene. A huge potluck picnic under white marquee tents, a keg of lager, dancing conga lines through the trees and a crowd of lovely friends. Ben Winter filmed a super 8 video that captures for all time, the noise and fun as well as the beauty of the chapel, the trees and the river.

The trails and woods around the Mill have a grounding effect. I walk here almost every day with our dog Nell, to stretch our muscles and exercise all our senses. Thoughts and concerns float away as we stride the pathways and become absorbed with the beauty all around us -a walking meditation, a reminder to be here now. Recently the idea of “forest bathing” has slipped into the conversation on living a healthy life. People in Japan head to their parks and forests to breathe in the oxygen produced by photosynthesis -not only life sustaining oxygen but many other air-borne chemical compounds given off by trees and plants that enrich our brains and bodies. In Japan they call it Shinrin-yoku, part of a larger concept of nature therapy.

I think we all intuitively know this to be true -that we need the trees more than ever to help absorb the growing burden of carbon dioxide and all the pollution created by man-made industry -that we need to plant more trees to replace the dying elms and ashes and all the others that are cut down or blown over. And that we need to protect and conserve our woodlands, wetlands, rivers and lakes in the face of a growing population.
The Mill of Kintail sits in a 33 acre conservation area watched over by a competent staff and many friends in the community who care for its future. As a well-loved Pocket of Paradise it is used by many people from far and wide and just around the corner. Very heartening are the facilities for children -a modern playground, a basketball court and a classroom for school and youth groups. Most of all, it is a safe and inviting natural space open for all to share the wonders of our beautiful forests.