by the Merrickville & District Historical Society
Following the American Revolution, the first Loyalists arrived in Canada, settling first along the St Lawrence and then, in the closing years of the 18th century, working their way north searching for new land and opportunity. They were closely followed in the early 1800’s by settlers from Europe, the bulk of who were Irish, Scottish, and English. The often inhospitable terrain and environment had the new settlers fending for themselves, causing them to develop a wide variety of skills and knowledge.
The fortunate ones settled along rivers which gave them arable land and at least some access to adjacent neighbouring communities. In the Lower Rideau Settlement, a few resourceful early settlers such as William Mirick, Rufas Andrews, and the Burritts saw the opportunity to harness the power of the river to provide for mills which would serve the needs of the growing number of settlers. These pioneers were shortly followed by the first settlers who arrived with only a few implements, perhaps an ox, cow and chickens and only the most basic supplies. The rush to build shelter before the harsh winter was the first priority.
Hastily built drafty rude log shanties were barely adequate and were clad as soon as possible with cut boards or replaced with squared logs. Thus, the wily William Mirick’s first mill was devoted to shaping logs, cutting planks and making shingles.
The first grains from the land in most cases were thrashed on the farm but soon, as production increased, came the need or at least convenience of using local grist mills to obtain flour and feed. Again Messrs Mirick, Andrews and Burritt were happy to oblige.
While much of the land adjacent to the river was highly arable, those settlers who found themselves “inland” were much less fortunate. To clear, till and produce harvest on the dry rocky uneven land was a challenge only the most hardy and determined could accomplish. Sheep were another matter. For them and other livestock, the land was generally agreeable.
Although home spinning and weaving were common pioneering practices, the first stage, the conversion of raw fleece into suitable material was a difficult and time consuming process involving sorting, scouring, raking and washing. Much better was to send the raw fleece to a “carding mill” and get in return sorted and cleaned carded wool suitable for spinning and weaving. And as the flocks grew, the surplus fleece also generated income for trade goods.
As early as 1817, William Mirick had erected a carding mill to serve these local needs, but by the late 1840’s the opportunity was seen to expand the operation into a full milling operation for manufacturing woollen goods at all stages. By this time cloth making machinery was available in the US and Britain and with an eye to future woollen milling, entrepreneur Stephen H. Mirick, son of William, in 1848, made the significant investment in a full scale woollen mill and factory, the first in the area.
With improved technology and innovation and with the opening of export markets, the mill operated with growing success until the death of Stephen Merrick in 1861, after which the mill continued to be operated by the family but it missed Stephen’s vision and dynamic presence.
Thomas Watchorn, originally from Ireland, was an experienced miller who had worked for Gilbert Cannon in his mills in Almonte and had family connections to the Merricks. With the coming of the railway to Merrickville, he saw significant growth prospects and by first leasing in 1874 and then buying the Merricks Woolen Mill from Henry Merrick, in 1885, Thomas Watchorn and his brother Robert became entrepreneurs in their own right. With renewed energy, the Watchorn brothers succeeded in improving and growing the business. They worked to encourage local sheep farming, and used the wool to produce flannels, sheeting, tweeds, and yarn and in later years blankets and sheets. In 1912 Thomas’ son Robert Watchorn changed the name of the mill to Watchorn and Company. In 1891 it was sold and continued to change hands several times over the next years, while remaining in the Watchorn family.
Its last successful era was during the war years when it produced woollen goods for overseas. It was hard work but the many Village employees who worked there were very loyal to the Company. A long time Merrickville resident recalls:
“We worked regular ten hours a day. . . Sometimes we would have to go back and work a couple of hours after supper, to get out whatever the quota was. If it had to be shipped, if it had to go at a certain time, we would have to go back and do it… I’ve spent many a two hours after super, hemming blankets and helping to pack them.”
After the war the business began to decline. Cotton, not easily procured in Merrickville, was replacing wool as the desired clothing material, and the mill eventually closed its doors in 1954. It was demolished in 1976, leaving only a pile of stone rubble and the still visible faint inscription, above the original entrance, “S.H. Mirick, 1848” to remind us of the great enterprise that was Merrickville’s famous woollen mill.