Bird Woollen Mills' Logo

The rooster and the hen have long been a symbol of excellent workmanship in Bracebridge and the rest of Canada. This trademark of quality was first stamped on fine wool products when Henry J. Bird settled on the banks of the Bracebridge Falls in 1872 and lasted until the mill succumbed to progress in 1953.

The Bird family has a long history in the textile industry stemming back to Mr. Birdís home of Gloucestershire, England, in the 1700s where the Birds produced cloth for billiard tables. This fine textured cloth was renowned in Europe and Bird products won awards in England and France.

When Mr. Bird left England, he first traveled to New Zealand, then to the United States and settling in Canada in 1867 where he worked in a mill in Almonte, Ontario. Soon after, the first Bird Woollen Mill was opened in 1869 in Glen Allen, Ontario, but soon closed its doors in 1871 after two floods and the death of Mr. Birdís wife and two children from tuberculosis.

Water power was the chief reason for Mr. Birdís choice of Bracebridge as the location for his new mill, but there could have been a number of considerations which prompted his decision. Like many others in Ontario at that time, he would have been aware of the opening up of the Districts of Muskoka and Parry Sound which were being settled under a provincial government system of free grants of land for farming. Further inquiries and possible reference to the book, Free Grant Lands of Muskoka and Parry Sound, published in Bracebridge in 1871 by Thomas McMurray and widely circulated would have informed Mr. Bird of many advantages of a location in Muskoka for his woollen mill industry. There was the water power at the Bracebridge Falls, where already a sawmill and a grist mill had been operating on the south side of the falls for a few years. Settlement had begun at Bracebridge and in nearby townships as soon as the colonization road from the south reached the place in 1861. By 1868, the Ontario Legislature designated Bracebridge as the capital of the new Territorial District of Muskoka, where the government offices of Magistrate, Crown Lands Agent and District Registrar were established.

The Bird Woollen Mills was built on the north side of the 
Muskoka River because of the ample waterpower. 

One other deciding factor, most prominent in Mr. Birdís mind must have been the likelihood of Muskoka becoming a sheep-raising district; the average rainfall, so far as was then known, appeared to favour the growth of wool in Muskoka over other parts of the province. Indeed, after establishing his mill business in Bracebridge, it was Mr. Birdís practice to assist settlers to acquire flocks of sheep. To him must go the credit for giving Muskoka the opportunity in pioneer times to become a centre for sheep raising. This was to his own advantage as the owner of a woollen mill but this development also resulted in the popularity of "Muskoka lamb" which came to be sold in city markets and became an item on restaurant and dining room menus far beyond Muskoka.

In 1872, on the upper part of the north side of the falls at Bracebridge, Mr. Bird erected his mill building. The three-storey structure, 30 by 50 feet was of the hewn clear pine framed typed. The building housed the mill equipment, had room for wool storage and there were upper rooms for a living apartment. Mr. Bird signed a ninety-nine year lease with the Crown for the lot.

In the early years, the mill operated on a custom basis, depending entirely on local wool brought in by farmers. When a farmer brought his raw wool, it could be traded for carded wool or spun yarn and this trade system became very popular that in 1888, a stone and brick warehouse was added to the mill to house the Muskoka wool. Fourteen years later, the warehouse was replaced by a second three storey building measuring 60 by 90 feet. This new building, which faced the street, housed storerooms in the basement and offices, warerooms and rental stores on the first floor. That same year, the business became a joint stock company with five directors: Henry Bird Sr., Henry Bird Jr., Robert Bird, Thomas Bird, and Angus McLeod. By 1911, a third building was erected measuring 140 by 45 feet and new machinery was ordered from England. The small mill which had opened nearly 30 years before was almost unrecognizable among the many marks of progress.

All this progress meant that supplies of Muskoka wool were not large enough to fulfill the needs of the mill and Mr. Bird began importing wool from other parts of Canada, Iceland, New Zealand and Austria. Mr. Bird imported wool through the Canadian Wool Board in Toronto. The Wool Board would inform Mr. Bird of wool sales and bid on his behalf for the amount of wool required.

Dated 1914, this photograph shows several of the new machines 
purchased from England a few years before. 
Henry J. Bird is seen at the right.

Imported wool tended to be coarser than the Muskoka wool. A different breed of sheep was raised in Muskoka. Here, the sheep were raised for meat and provide the delicate Muskoka Lamb which was popular in Ontario. Despite the meat and wool production, local sheep farmers began to specialize in other areas of farming and by the 1930s all of the wool for the Bird Woollen Mills was imported.

A variety of cloths were produced by the Bird Woollen Mills. "Indian Point" blankets were manufactured when people began to flock to Muskoka in the summertime. Stocking and legging yarn was produced, sporting cloth, romneys and heavy tweeds, and also a black glossy mackinaw cloth which was popular with lumberjacks for its water resistance. This mackinaw made the Bird Woollen Mills famous when they were contracted by Carrís Mackinaw in Orillia to create a special gray tweed in 1890. This contract comprised fifty percent of manufacturing for a time. Products were shipped out by train to all over Canada Ė Woods Manufacturing in Ottawa, the M&M Company in Montreal, and centres in Winnipeg and Newfoundland.

Local sales also contributed to the millís profits. Skeins of yarn, socks, blankets, work pants and sports clothes were sold at Mr. Birdís store. The clothes were made by Carrís and shipped back to Bracebridge for retail sale. At the peak of the tourist season almost fifty percent of the millís production would be sold locally. The mill reached its peak in the years before the Depression when it was selling to tourists as well as the, local farmer and lumberman. By the end of the 1930s, many of the markets had disappeared or declined and the mill had to close its doors during the height of the Depression. The mill workers were given work by the town, digging sewers in return for vouchers until the mill could open again.

The Bird Woollen Mills in 1880.  The three-storey 30'x50' building  housed the mill equipment, had room for wool storage and upper rooms for a living apartment.

The warehouse is the only building which remains of the Bird Woollen Mills.  The four-storey reinforced concrete building is now owned by the Town of Bracebridge.

During the first World War, the mill changed its production to meet the demands of the war effort. Operating from 7am until 9pm, the mill produced service blankets by the hundreds, although most were made from cheaper material and therefore were of a poorer quality than their regular stock. Heavy great coat material was woven for the army and the air force while a finer finish khaki was used for the soldiersí uniforms. During this time, the Bird Woollen Mills still produced its mackinaw but 90 percent of production was devoted towards the war effort.

When World War II began, the Canadian government refused to give any orders for war supplies to the Bird Woollen Mills. One possible explanation was that the government in power was the Liberal party and the Birds were known to be strong Conservatives. The mill was still producing goods of excellent quality and there seems to be no explanation of why, when samples from the same piece of cloth were sent in for inspection and one would be accepted yet another rejected. This loss of trade during World War II was one of the contributing factors in the decline of the mill. If the mill could have benefited from the war trade, it may have been able to continue operations several years longer.

A mill worker

Mill machinery

The only competition in the area was Humphrey Woollen Mills in Simcoe but the major competition came from England. When Mackenzie Kingís government was in power, they lowered the tariff on English imports and with the British labour, very fine wool was being brought into Canada at low prices. With this, the Canadian mills could not compete and this was another contributing factor to the eventual closing of the Bird Woollen Mills. By the 1940s, the farming and lumbering era had ended and this part of the local market was gone for the mill. The introduction of synthetics such as nylon and polyester claimed a large part of the wool market. Along with this went the problem that the Bird Woollen Mills just could not afford to keep up with the times. Their machinery was old and slow and they did not have the financial resources to purchase better equipment. Skills essential to maintaining Mr. Birdís high standard for quality were lost as the older employees retired or died. Also, within the Bird family, internal struggles were occurring as the brothers battled over how the mill should be run.

The closing of the mill was a gradual process. During its last year of operation, only 25 of the 60 workers remained. A mill in southern Ontario bought much of the millís equipment. In 1953, the Birds Woollen Mills closed its doors.

In later years, the old buildings were destroyed to make room for a new parking lot. Today, one building remains to mark the place were one of Bracebridgeís grandest traditions began, under the mark of the hen and rooster.

Renovated in 1993, today the last remaining building houses 
the Bracebridge Chamber of Commerce and a restaurant.

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Woodchester Villa is located in Bracebridge, Ontario, Canada.