by David Shanahan
When the signs went up a while back announcing that Factory Bridge in Oxford Mills would be closed for a couple of months, the big question on many people’s lips was: “Where’s Factory Bridge – never heard of it!”.
Well, as all residents of the village now know for certain, Factory Bridge is the one on Bridge street crossing the South Branch between the Brigadoon and Maplewood.
Presumably, the name derived from the cheese factory which once stood at one end of the bridge on the north-east bank of the river.
The very first bridge on that spot was a simple plank affair, allowing people to cross between the grist and saw mills which had been built on either bank. Asa Clothier built the first mill and dam here in 1845, leading to the development of Oxford Mills.
Rickey Waugh bought the land in 1850, completing the dam as well as a grist mill and saw mill, and the rough plank bridge was erected at that time. Waugh also built the large stone building on the corner of Bridge and Water Street, both store and residence, now the Brigadoon Restaurant.
He later erected the stone building across the road from his store which became his family home.
These two buildings are now all that is left of Waugh’s extensive developments. His original dam was replaced by the present structure in 1959. The mill was demolished in 1961. In 1861, Waugh drew a sketch of the bridge area for his insurance company, and it shows the mills and dam, as well as dwelling houses on the north-east and north-west banks of the river downstream from the bridge.
Maps from the 1860’s show that Bridge Street had been laid out, but the bridge itself was still a narrow plank one.
Waugh’s bridge was replaced in 1892, and again in 1910. This bridge was a more impressive structure and lasted until 1982. In 1909, the Province of Ontario agreed to cover one-third of the cost of new roads and bridges to County Councils in the province.
The subsidy the County then provided to Oxford-On-Rideau Township was used by them to raise debentures of $200,000 and, in 1910, six new bridges were built across the Township. Two of these were in Oxford Mills, one linking Water Street with County Road 18, called the Hanlon Bridge, and the other replacing the one on Bridge Street. It was officially known as the Oxford Mills Bridge.
Each bridge was 60 feet in width, with a roadway 16 feet wide. The Oxford Mills Bridge had a roadway of just 15 feet in width, and sidewalks on either side, each three feet wide. The sidewalk had to be removed in 1970 in order to widen the road for traffic.
The bridge connected the commercial and residential side of the village with the administrative centre at Maplewood Park, site of the Town Hall and School from 1875. The concrete for the bridges came from Dominion Concrete in Kemptville, and the structural steel came all the way from Sarnia. It is interesting to note that the 1910 bridge cost a total of $2,362.75.
The name “Factory Bridge”, by which the bridge was known in the 1980’s at least, probably referred to the cheese factory. “The Mill Bridge” would seem to be a more appropriate name, although the saw mill had burned down in 1900, and the grist mill was demolished in 1961.
A cheese factory operated on the north east side of the bridge between 1870 and 1947. It was built by Murdoch Gair, a businessman who had come to Oxford Mills from Scotland in the 1860’s and later went bankrupt, having embezzled funds in his role as Treasurer of Oxford-on-Rideau Township.
The factory was taken over and continued operations, ultimately under the ownership of J. W. Fretwell, until 1947 when the roof collapsed under the weight of snow that winter. The concrete floor and stone foundations are the only remaining parts of this building, and can still be seen from the bridge.
Much has changed from the time Rickey Waugh sketched the bridge and dam area in 1861. The mills are gone, as are the homes that stood below the plank bridge. The dam he built in 1850 was replaced by the present concrete one in 1959, a testament to the strength of Waugh’s work.
The cheese factory no longer stands there, and the current bridge is a far cry from the original wooden beams that once crossed the South Branch. But Waugh’s old store and his family home still stand, the last remains of a thriving and bustling industrial development that led to the rise of Oxford Mills.
As late as 1959, a local writer could describe the village in these terms: “Oxford Mills contains 44 houses, 2 general stores, one garage, a post office, one electrical shop, 2 halls, vacant grist mill, school, three churches, park, two bridges, a dam, a rest home for aged people, and a cemetery”.