image Managing Change – Morningstar Mill in context

Morningstar Family Portrait
Wilson and Emma Morningstar with their daughters, Jessie and Nora, c. 1900.

The turn of the 20th century was a time of transition in Canadian life.  The last traces of pioneer life quietly disappeared as the advancements made in technology in the 19th century continued even more rapidly in the 20th century. The advancements introduced more efficient manufacturing and transportation methods and better communication systems which changed the way people lived and obtained goods. It also spurred urbanization, and social and cultural change.

Wilson Morningstar embraced the new technologies but, at the same time, also retained some of the old.  He used a modern turbine to grind grain into flour and animal feed, and saw logs into lumber.  His turbine eventually ran modern roller milling equipment to produce top quality white flour and, later, a generator to produce electricity for lighting the mill and house at dusk, and a pump to supply water to the house.  Despite having modern milling equipment, Wilson continued producing stone ground flour using millstones. He also had a blacksmith and carpentry shop for making or repairing anything his family or community needed.

When Wilson purchased Mountain Mills in 1883, the mill had already been updated with a modern turbine.  Turbines had replaced waterwheels as a power system by the 1850s.  With respect to size, cost, efficiency and operating characteristics, turbines represented a marked advancement over the best traditional waterwheels. They also cleared the way for the age of hydroelectricity.  The turbine in Wilson’s mill was manufactured in Thorold which illustrates that turbine technology was widespread.

In 1872, when the turbine was installed, the mill most likely contained one or two pairs of millstones. Millstones had been used in Europe and North America for hundreds of years to grind grain into ‘stone-ground’ flour.  The invention of the roller mill in the 1870s however, replaced the use of millstones for grinding grain within ten years of their introduction.  Roller mills made the commercial production and distribution of flour possible, and the sale of white flour affordable to the general public. White flour became instantly popular for baking and cooking with because it was purer, finer and whiter than any flour that had been produced in the past. White flour also had a longer shelf life than stone ground flour which made it ideal for shipping great distances, and stocking on grocery store shelves!

After a fire had destroyed the interior of Wilson’s mill in 1892, he installed a Greey roller milling system to produce top quality white flour in order to keep up with the latest technology and culinary trends.  Even though Wilson was now able to produce white flour, he also continued producing stone ground flour.  In about 1911, Wilson replaced his old set of millstones with a newer set in response to increased public interest in the health benefits of whole wheat flour.

Water flowing over the escarpment at Decew Falls provided the energy to power Wilson’s mills. Water from the millpond was directed through a single penstock and discharged through a single turbine close to the bottom of the falls. The spinning turbine set all the machinery inside the mill into motion.  The power generated was used on location to run the flour and saw mill.

In 1898, the Cataract Power Company of Hamilton (now Ontario Power Generation) began generating and transmitting electricity from St. Catharines to Hamilton from a site within one kilometer of Wilson’s mill.  At the time, 56 km was the longest distance that electricity had ever been transmitted in Canada, and the second longest distance in the world.  The firm built the electrical power generating plant to the north of Morningstar Mill at Reynoldsville (now Power Glen) and used the same principles that Wilson did to run their plant: water from Lake Moodie was direct to a penstock and discharged through two turbines (in their case) at the bottom of the escarpment into Twelve Mile Creek.

Even though Wilson and the Power Company used falling water in the same way, the difference in product was revolutionary and marked the end of 19th century technology and the beginning of 20th century technology in our area.  In Wilson’s case, he used falling water to spin a turbine which produced about 25 kilowatts, but the power could only be transmitted locally over a few feet with shafts, gears, pulleys and belts.  The power company used falling water to produce several thousand kilowatts that could be transmitted electrically over many kilometers.  The electrical transmission of power now gave manufacturers the flexibility and freedom to locate their enterprises anywhere.

Making use of this new technology, Wilson produced his own electricity for lighting the mill and house from about 1902/04 until about 1914.  When the Power Glen Station began providing electricity to the Decew Falls neighbourhood, Wilson dismantled his generator and connected to the City’s electrical grid.

Wilson appears to have managed this time of transition rather well. He supported and encouraged changes which appeared beneficial but also maintained many of his economical practices of self-sufficiency. The Morningstars had a small orchard and a vegetable garden, they kept chickens, a cow and pigs for food, retrieved drinking water from a well and spring, and used two horses and a buggy for transportation.  Wilson also had a blacksmith and carpentry shop for custom manufacturing and repair.

The Morningstars grew, processed and stored their own food. They made their own bread, butter and cheese, sausage and bacon, and canned their own fruit and vegetables.  Anything surplus was taken by horse and buggy to Sherwood’s grocery store in downtown St. Catharines and sold or traded.

Travelling by horse and carriage between small communities, and by steam train, steam boat or electric street rail car between larger cities were the prime methods of transportation during the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. Farmers came to the mill with grain or apples in their horse-drawn wagons and left with bags of flour and feed, or barrels of apple cider. Visitors arriving in Port Dalhousie by steamship from Toronto or Hamilton would hire a horse-drawn carriage to bring them to Decew Falls.  Living on the outskirts of town, Wilson and Emma continued to travel by horse and buggy well into the 1920s even though automobiles were now becoming more popular.  Wilson shod his own horses, provided blacksmithing services to set wagon and buggy tires, and scraped the road flat with railroad rails hitched to a team of horses before Grantham Township spread gravel on the roads.

In about 1895, when the white clapboard house was built, Wilson provided his family with an improved water supply. He installed a cistern which was accessible from inside the house. It collected rain water which the Morningstar family used for washing and cleaning.  Wilson installed a hand pump which brought water up from the cistern into a sink.  In 1918 or 1919, Wilson installed a pump in the turbine shed which pumped water from the stream beside the mill to the house. This provided the family with running water for about a decade. Drinking water was retrieved from a well or a spring up until the late 1920s/early1930s when City water was piped to the house.

The Morningstars kept in touch with family and friends by writing letters. Fortunately, many letters were saved and they provide wonderful insights into the Morningstar’s day-to-day life.  The Morningstars kept up-to-date by reading the newspaper and later, listening to the radio. Wilson’s granddaughter, Lorna, writes that her ‘grandfather kept informed by reading The Globe every night…  [It] was always the issue from the previous day… [because it was] received in the mail which they picked up at the post office.’  She also mentions that when she was little, they did not have a radio, but when they did purchase one, maybe by the late 1920s, they listened to the news when it was on.  The telephone arrived in St. Catharines in 1878, and by 1885, ‘Bell Telephone Company’ had 114 telephone subscribers and two public phones. We do not know when the Morningstars purchased a telephone, but when they did, it was installed in the house close to the stairs so that it could be heard ringing upstairs or downstairs.

Wilson Morningstar operated his mill from 1883 until 1933.  He provided his small rural community with once essential grinding, sawing, blacksmithing and carpentry services.  With the advancements in technology and transportation, the increasing availability of electricity and the growing dependence on store-bought goods, the small water powered mill and self-sufficient farm household gradually succumbed to growing industrialized processes.  Wilson could not compete with large flour mills that had advanced rolling equipment, electric power and locations on accessible transportation routes.  Wilson’s business slowly declined, and when he died in 1933, the water-powered mill was effectively out of use.

The Morningstars were held in high esteem by their community. A letter presented to Wilson and Emma on their 50th anniversary in 1932 thanked them for their fellowship which ‘contributed to the social and industrial welfare of [their] community.’ They were a ‘valued part [of the community’s] history and progress.’  Today, the mill stands as a monument to a time when industry was physically tied to water power, and as a testament to a very capable and industrious millwright and tradesman who provided for his family and served his community.


  1. Very nice story of a significant enterprise and family business 🇨🇦

  2. It is great to see that everything has been preserved. As a young boy I also fished there. Beautiful sight

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