Historic mill restoration stirs memories for former owner

Work is now underway to save a historic grist mill in Western PEI. Crews are building a new foundation undernearth the century-old Leard's Mill in the community of Coleman. Warren Leard visited the site and shared his memories.

Leard's Mill is getting fixed up. Warren Leard is grateful.

Memories of Leard's Mill run swift and clear for Warren Leard, 92. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Warren Leard sits under the shade of a maple tree he planted decades ago, and watches as burly construction workers begin to firm up the foundation of the old grist mill in Coleman.

The tree cast its shadow on the timber-frame mill, and on the tidy house beside it, where Warren Leard was born 92 years ago.

"It is wonderful, just wonderful to be in the old place," said Leard, who now lives in Alberton. "I want to give great thanks to our community for keeping it in mind to keep it alive. It's one of the last ones of the old mills and it was the way of life back in those days."

Crews are building a new foundation under historic Leard's Mill. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Warren Leard used to run the mill, as did his father and his grandfather. The community is now raising money to restore the building. Leard's memories — and his technical knowledge of how the mill once worked — provide a precious resource as work proceeds.

"The waterwheel gives about 75 horsepower. The one that sawed the lumber was 28. It was the tank-type waterwheel. The weight of the water falling done the turning," said Leard. "My grandfather started the light plant in Alberton. He bought two water wheels. One for here and one for Alberton and he give Alberton lights, street lights and lights in their home but no fridges at that time. It was ice boxes."

A flat, round mill stone lay in the grass under the maple tree as Leard recalls the mill's early operations. Memories flow swift and clear.

"They dried the oats to make oatmeal and they had a set of stones, same as what's here and they also did the wheat," said Leard. "And they had a sawmill attached to alternate, to make steady work."

The water that once powered the mill has also contributed to erosion of its foundation. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

"Now we had a big fire swept O'Leary," continued Leard. "The lumber for this mill was stacked here, ready to be built … and O'Leary was swept out by fire and the wind shifted and it came this way and the men came and they put all the lumber in the brook … Now the boards in the roof are charred. You can go up today and see them."

The work now underway will stabilize the mill's foundation and will stop any further collapse into the Trout River.
But much more work lies ahead to restore the timber exterior of the building and the antique machinery inside it.

Water-powered mill stones ground the grain. Leard's Mill converted to diesel power in the 1950s.

"We need to preserve the structure and the contents inside," said Bob Lockhart, a board member at the Canadian Potato Museum in O'Leary, which now owns the building. "So this is the first phase of probably a number of phases of work."

The community needs to raise more money before further work can be done, according to Lockhart. Leard believes the mill could be restored to working condition. He continued to operate it, under diesel power, until about 15 years ago.

Much of the machinery inside Leard's Mill remains intact. Warren Leard continued to operate the mill until about 15 years ago. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

"You'd have to do some new work to it inside," said Leard. "As far as the rolls go, they're in perfect shape. I had them all in Toronto and got them all refinished in my time."

Leard says he's willing to help if restoration crews seek his advice.

"My grandfather and my father, they were all millers," said Leard. "They had good ideas that way ... It seemed to be born in them."