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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

In Search of Roblin's Mills

Al Purdy's long poem 'In Search of Owen Roblin' relates the settlement history of the village of Ameliasburgh, Prince Edward County. The village, its history and inhabitants feature in dozens of Al's poems and prose works. The village once called Roblin's Mills, preceded by the lower village of Way's Mills, waxed then waned, in decline after the mill finally closed in 1900. In 1962 the iconic mill was demolished and reassembled at Black Creek Pioneer Village.

Roblins Mills (now Ameliasburgh), as Al Purdy knew it in the early days of the A-frame (1957 on) is a very different place today. The village which Purdy explored  looking for voices of those gone before, is itself changed, and much reduced, but with a glowing heart of volunteerism and heritage dedication and scholarship. And it's a destination for a growing number of Canlit  pilgrims.

Purdy tells the story of his archaeologist's search for places and times:
"In the midst of my own despair and failure
I wrote it all down on paper
everything I learned about Roblin's Mills
and the 19th-century village now called Ameliasburg
in a kind of fevered elation at knowing
the privilege of finding a small opening
in the past..." 

"When the house was half-built and the money ran out
Ameliasburgh village became the big city for me
I discovered the old ruined grist mill
built by Owen Roblin in 1842
four storeys high with a wrecked mill wheel
cumbered by stones and time
containing the legend of the Roblin family..."

Owen Roblin built this fine house across the street from his mill complex, and built a rare octagonal house for his son. Both are gone.

"In 1829 Owen took up land in Ameliasburg
ten years later traded lots with one John Way
to build his mill and stone house
then an octagonal one for his children's children
But the mill was torn down last year"...
Roblin octagonal house
photo courtesy PEC Library and Archives

Today it's difficult to find even the footprints of these lost structures.

All that remains of the once proud Roblins Mill
The plaque reads: "On this site in 1842 Owen Roblin (1806-1903), grandson of Phillip, U.E., erected a 5 storey flowing mill which became the focal point for the village of Roblins Mills. The mill was powered by water which came through a canal from Roblins Lake directly to the south. The water spilled 75 feet into the millpond which can be seen in the valley below. Using a 30 foot diameter overshot water wheel and three run of millstone, the mill had a daily capacity of 100 barrels. At one time the mill complex included a bakeshop, carding mill, saw mill and ost office. Operations ceased in 1920 after a long business decline. Idle for many years, it was dismantled in 1963 and rebuilt at Black Creek Pioneer Village near Toronto where it is operational during the summer. Directly across the road is (sic) the Roblin house also built about 1842." 

the curve where the mill complex once stood
The plaque was erected in June 1971 by the 7th Town Historical Society, which also published an outstanding local history '7th Town: Ameliasburgh Past and Present'.

the millpond below the escarpment, outlet of the mill creek

the spot across from the mill site, where Own Roblin's house
stood in 1842

As Purdy wrote in another evocative poem about looking for the past in its places:

"But it's been a long time since
and we must enquire the way
                of strangers - "                                                                                                                  
(The Country North of Belleville, The Cariboo Horses, 1965)

(All archival photos courtesy of Prince Edward County Library and Archives, thanks to Krista Richardson, archivist)


  1. Lindi,

    a name like Roblin's Mill and the rhythms and cadences evoked by daily activity in surrounding environs must have been sheer music to his ear...

  2. I have fond memories of the old mill when we were kids in the winter time taking cardboard boxes and using them to skid down onto the pond from where the paddle wheel would be frozen to the canal water. It would have been around 1955-56. We lived in a big house at the top of the town.