"In all cases endeavour to be near a saw and grist mill" advised William Catermold in his guidebook for new Canadian settlers. Since the grist mill often became the hub of a beginning community, it was a distinct advantage for the farmer to have a mill nearby, where his grist could be ground. Commonly, the miller's toll was paid in grain. The resulting flour or meal was an indispensable commodity to a new settlement.
Its vital importance nourished inventiveness, and many mechanical changes were made at the mill. From the hoppers which fed the grain through the 'eye' of the stone, to the bolting cloth that 'sifted' the flour into several grades; from the whirring belts and gears to the repetitive splash of the wheel, there were countless innovations. In 1841, the first two Canadian waterwheel patents were granted to Harvey Tripp and George Rogers, respectively. Both were from Haldimand Township.
The millpond, where the potential water power was stored, served waterfowl and swimmer alike. In winter, it became a skating rink, and, below the dam, the millstream was a favoured spot for springtime fishermen.
The story of Pratt's Mill in several ways parallels that of its benefactor, Cobourg, which incorporated as a town in 1837. One year earlier, Asa Burnham, a Cobourg pioneer who, in 1801, may have run a saw mill at the mouth of Factory Creek, sold his property at Elgin and Ontario streets to Ebenezer Perry for 150 pounds. A United Empire Loyalist, Perry was a veteran of the War of 1812 who came to Cobourg in 1815 and would head the town's first municipal government under the Board of Police (1837).
The mill, then known as Perry's Mill, was constructed of stone. Destroyed in a fire, it was rebuilt of brick in the 1850's although some stone work was again used around the entrance.
In May of 1864, heavy spring rains caused the water to swell behind the milldam, and it was said that the keeper of Perry's Pond had failed to open the dam's waste gates to relieve the pressure. The banks of the dam gave way, and in the resulting flood, three lives were lost. As the surge of water progressed to the lake, five or six more dams collapsed. The William Street bridge was carried 200 yards to dry land and the Grand Trunk Railway bridge lost two of its piers. A distillery in its path added to the flotsam of trees, roots, fences, and rails, with a supply of casks, cordwood, and pigs. The fattening of swine on the distillery refuse was a profitable sideline.
A Mr. Poe added a new enterprise to the mill in 1870, that of a plaster mill, which required schooner loads of stone to be brought in for grinding. He also continued to run the flouring mill.
By 1889 the Pratt family had begun their tenure at the mill which was to last until 1986. Alexander Pratt owned a flour and seed store in Cobourg and leased the flour mills in Baltimore. His interests in the mill had begun in May of 1883, when the Cobourg Flour Milling Company was incorporated for the purpose of converting the old grindstone mill into the more efficient device known as the roller mill. His partners in the $15,000 venture were Alexander Poe, John Dawkins, millers; James Carruthers, a Haldimand township farmer; and Alexander R. Eagleson, a Hamilton township farmer.
Pratt's Mill was almost lost in a 1942 fire, but fortunately the venerable old brink wall, erected by Ebenezer Perry, was saved. Though not many operating water-powered mills outlived their grist-grinding days, a few have survived, and not only invoke nostalgia, but also to teach us of our industrial heritage and of their major contributions to the development of our towns. One such mill, the Lang Mill near Keene, occasionally grinds flour using steel rollers, but an old millstone can be found closer to home, decorating the lawns of Barnum House in Grafton.