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
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
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
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
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