Exploring beautiful Almonte

Sep 14th, 2017 | By | Category: On The Cover

This Ottawa Valley mill town is a showcase for history, festivals, and park lands

By Katharine Fletcher

Almonte is one of our prettiest and most vibrant Ottawa Valley towns. Yes, a river runs through it –  the Mississippi – which gave today’s bustling town its first raison d’être as a mill town. Grist, saw and woollen mills soon sprang up alongside the falls in the early 1800s.

By 1880, Almonte was such a recognized industrial centre that it was nicknamed “the little Manchester” after that industrial milling city in England. So it’s a lovely village to explore so as to reconnect with our Ottawa Valley’s booming industrial history.

Where to go?

Mississippi Valley Textile Museum

One of my favourite places in the Valley is the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum: the “MVTM.” The 1850 Victoria Woollen Mill was built in the 1850s by John Rosamund, named to honour Queen Victoria.

Today’s museum occupies a former warehouse Rosamund constructed in 1867. Entering it, you’ll discover a wonderful gift shop featuring locally produced artworks, a museum showcasing the woollen milling industry, plus a series of rooms and halls of textile exhibits.

What else to do and see around Almonte? First, there are many shops and restaurants to explore. Second, there’s a nearby parkland and historic mill-turned-heritage-home to explore.

Mill of Kintail
Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority

Don’t miss one of the seven wonders of Lanark County: the Mill of Kintail. Keeping to our milling theme, visiting it introduces us to this former grist mill whose wheels were powered not by the Mississippi, but the Indian River. Built in 1832, about a hundred years later it became the home and studio of Dr. Robert Tait McKenzie and his wife Ethel, who summered here in the 1930s. A sculptor, Tait’s work is truly inspirational –  as are the trails alongside the river and woods managed by the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority.

Robert Tait McKenzie was a physician as well as an artist, who worked during WWI as a military surgeon. He is renowned worldwide for his pioneering work in preventative and rehabilitative medicine including treatments such as massage and hydrotherapy still used today.

Enquiring minds will want to know: What are the remaining six of the Seven Wonders of Lanark County? Now, that sounds like another column, doesn’t it? (Check them out here: http://bit.ly/2wKg1mL)

The history of Almonte

Photo: The Michael Dunn Collection

Lower Mill Street, about 1905.

By Brent Eades, Editor-in-Chief, The Millstone  

The early settlement

The first European settler here was a David Shepherd, who in 1819 obtained a Crown grant of land in the area of present-day Almonte, where he began construction of a grist mill and sawmill. But fire destroyed the sawmill the following year, and Shepherd gave up the venture.

The Crown regranted the land to Daniel Shipman, who, with several other settlers, quickly developed the grist and sawmills, and in the next few years a blacksmith’s shop, school, hotel, distillery and other ventures.

By 1870 Almonte was an incorporated village, and boasted 30 stores and nearly 40 other businesses.

An unlikely name

In a region where the early settlers’ Irish and Scottish origins are prominent in the names of the communities they founded –  Lanark, Corkery, Glen Isle, Scotch Corners, Tatlock and the like –  it seems more than a little odd that Almonte should be named for a now-forgotten Mexican general.

Almonte went through a number of name changes in the early days, from Shepherd’s Falls to Shipman’s Mills, Ramsayville, Victoriaville, and by about 1855, Waterford; but the federal post office pointed out there was already a Waterford in the west of the province, and told townsfolk the name would have to change yet again.

At the time relations between Canada and the United States were at a low ebb, especially here in Ontario. The province’s first major wave of settlers, after all, had been Loyalists, Americans whose sympathies for England prompted them to flee northward during and after the Revolution; and the suspicion lingered in many Canadian minds that the US still intended a settling of accounts.

American invasions of Canada around 1812 didn’t help matters, nor did US military incursions into Mexico during the 1840s. Which is where General Juan Almonte enters the picture. The border skirmishes between Mexcio and America during this time were seen by Mexcians as a naked and unprovoked land-grab, and by worried Canadians as a cautionary tale –  proof that the American republic was ready and willing to use force against its neighbours to achieve its territorial aims.

General Almonte was primarily a diplomat, and was in fact Mexico’s ambassador to the United States when open warfare erupted between the two countries. He was hastily recalled to Mexico, and served with distinction in the field against the invading US forces.

He was taken prisoner, later released, and died in 1869, lauded by the English press at the time as “a kindly and accomplished gentleman.” So in the political climate of the day, the loyal British citizens apparently felt General Almonte was an admirable public figure, and agreed upon the new name of Almonte — which we pronounce “AL-mont” rather than the Spanish “al-MON-tay.” And thus it remains 140 years later.

Glory Days: When wool was king

One need only stroll past some of the massive mill-owners’ mansions here to gain a sense of just how lucrative and important the textiles industry became in the latter part of the 19th century.

It was the rapid expansion of the national rail system, coupled with the emergence of an industrialized middle-class with cash to spend and a growing appetite for consumer goods, that spurred the spectacular growth of Almonte’s textile industry. Suddenly there was a ready-made national market for fine woolen goods, one that was almost instantly accessible, or at least by the standards of an earlier day.

By the turn of the century there were seven woolen mills operating at full bore in Almonte; and for decades to come they would guarantee job security and modest prosperity for the town’s people. Mill-work became a family way of life, passed on through the generations.

But by the 1950s competition from foreign producers had shut the flow of textiles from Almonte down to a trickle, and the mills in time closed or were converted to other uses. The last to go was Rosamond #1, which shut its doors for good in the early 1980s. It is now a very attractive condominium project, incidentally, with a splendid view of the river.

The eventual demise of the woolen trade was gradual enough a process that Almonte was able to weather it well. Displaced millhands found other work, either here or in nearby communities, and the town’s prosperous, close-knit (so to speak) and cheerful character survived intact.

Though there is no industry here any longer, life remains comfortable, safe and eminently pleasant; in fact, Almonte has become something of a Mecca for disillusioned city-dwellers longing for a quieter, more decent quality of life.

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