As we round the mark leading to our Centennial Celebrations we thought it may be appropriate to share a little history on the Old Mill Toronto, a Toronto tradition since 1914.
The Old Mill and the Valley in which it sits, have long been a part of Canadian Heritage. Centuries before the coming of the white man, the Huron Indians roamed the Humber Valley.
In 1615 Samuel Champlain sent a young guide to scout the route southward from the Lake Simcoe region. So it was that Etienne Brule became the first recorded explorer to see the Humber and view Lake Ontario. Brule lived among the Huron Indians, learning their language and customs, becoming an important mediator between the Huron Indians and the French settlers. Brule travelled the Humber, part of a long established trading route known as “Toronto Carrying Place”. Ornaments, weapons, and furs were popular trading commodities.
During the 1600’s the Humber River was known as St. Johns Creek, but was renamed by John Graves Simcoe, the first Governor of Upper Canada, after two rivers in his homeland. In 1793 Simcoe ordered the Queens Rangers to build a sawmill, which he named the Kings Mill. This was the first industrial site of what is known today as the City of Toronto.
The days of trading along the Humber Valley had transformed the Humber River into a vibrant industry of Mills throughout the Valley. By 1834 many mills were in operation along the banks of the Humber River which became the hub of both business and social activities of the day.
The Kings Mill was leased and later bought by Thomas Fisher. The Mill was poorly constructed so Thomas Fisher replaced the original Lumber Mill with a Grist Mill in 1834 just a few yards to the north of the original Mill. Years later William Gamble, Etobicoke’s first Reeve, bought the Grist Mill and shortly thereafter built a new larger Mill in the same location. This new Mill was destroyed by fire in 1849.
Not to be deterred, Gamble had a 4th Mill constructed, the stone, lumber and the heavy beams for this Mill came from the Humber Valley. The upper loft of the Mill served as a storage area for apples. During the frigid winters, the loft was kept heated by a wood-burning stove in order to prevent the apples from freezing. During the cold winter of 1881 the stove overheated and fire destroyed this latest Mill.
The introduction of steam power once again transformed the Humber Valley from an industry of bustling Mills to a backdrop of leisure and recreation.
By the early 1900’s one man’s vision began the transformation of the Humber Valley forever. Robert Home Smith, financier, railway builder, real estate developer and avid sportsman purchased 3,000 acres in the Humber Valley, from Lake Ontario to what was to become Eglinton Avenue. His concept was to develop a unique modern community.
The early prosperous years of the 1900’s were shattered with the outbreak of World War 1 on August 4, 1914, the day the Old Mill tea garden opened. The Tea Garden acted as the community centre for the residents of this new residential development, a place where news and events of the day were exchanged. Home Smith’s motto “A LITTLE BIT OF ENGLAND FAR FROM ENGLAND” epitomized his objective to create a Toronto suburb of grace and tranquility through English tudor architecture.
During the war years the original bridge adjacent to the Old Mill was washed out. It was a tribute to Home Smith’s political connections and financial clout that a new bridge was quickly constructed in 1916, during the lean years of World War 1.
As the popularity of the Old Mill grew, Home Smith began the first of many additions to the Old Mill building. The print room was built in 1919 and was one of the few places of the time that offered the enjoyment of dinner and dancing in an elegant atmosphere. Thus began the live music tradition at the Old Mill.
By the year 1928 Home Smith centralized the hub of his activities around the Old Mill with his next addition the administrative office of “Home Smith and Company” later to be known as “Home Smith Properties.” The cottage was built soon afterward and became a popular private entertainment spot for Home Smith.
In response to the ever-growing popularity of the Old Mill, design and construction of the Dance Hall and the Garret Room began soon after. Home Smith paid great attention to carry over the design features of the familiar English Tudor architecture into the Dance Hall design.
Who could have predicted that shortly thereafter on October 25th, 1929 the financial world was to suddenly collapse with the crash of the stock market.
Through the depression years, the Old Mill continued to attract a regular clientele. By now the reputation of the Old Mill stretched well beyond the boundaries of the Humber Valley to include all of Canada.
Groups became a familiar site enjoying the established afternoon English Tea tradition, which began in 1914. Home Smith continued to promote the Old Mill as a focal point of his development. The Old Mill management sent personalized letters to the residents of the area outlining many of the Old Mill’s attractions including dining and dancing, facilities for private parties and special occasions with the emphasis on the quality of food prepared by their famous European Chef.
In February 1935, Robert Home Smith died suddenly in Toronto at age 58. He never lived to see the completion of his dream. Home Smith willed his estate to his close and long time friend Godfrey Petit who assumed the chair of President of “Home Smith and Company.”
Monday September 10, 1939 then Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie signed the proclamation of war entering Canada into the war against the German Reich. Canada’s entry into war changed daily life throughout the Country. The war effort drained the Country of it’s labour talents and other resources.
An announcement by Home Smith and Company on October 20, 1939 stated: “Due to the uncertainty caused by the war it has been necessary for us to make certain revisions in our organization…”
The attention to old world charm, exquisite gourmet dining and the dancing to the Big Band orchestras of the day made the old Mill a popular rendezvous for the armed forces during the war years.
The Globe and Mail of Saturday October 16, 1954 reports, “Great storm hits after 4 inches of Rain”. Toronto residents were jolted by the fury of Hurricane Hazel.” Cars were overturned, homes and businesses destroyed and carried away by the torrential rains. Thousands of people were left homeless in the wake of her storm. Many properties along the Humber Valley sustained extensive damage or were lost all together. The Old Mill bridge, the original Mill ruins and the Old Mill itself were spared from Hurrican Hazel. Only the road adjoining the Old Mill bridge sustained damage.
Barely two years later with the continued popularity of the Old Mill, it was expanded once again. The addition of the Humber banquet room became a new feature for private parties which was elegantly decorated with wood panelling and lead pane windows over looking the picturesque Humber Valley. Over the next two decades the Old Mill continued to function in the tradition of its past and became a well-known landmark to the ever sprawling city for Toronto.
In 1973, William Hodgson, an Etobicoke resident, reportedly saved the Old Mill from demolition to make way for a new residential development. William Hodgson closed the building for massive renovations. New sections were added, a Wedding Chapel built, rooms were restored and newly decorated.
In 1986 the Old Mill was once again under construction in response to the popularity attributed to the boom years of the 1980’s. An entire new wing of Banquet rooms was added. The Old Mill had grown to a 16 room function facility nestled on the banks of the Humber river.
In June 1991, then new owners, George and Michael Kalmar became the latest proprietors of the Old Mill. In October 2001, the Mill “ruins” were transformed once again into a boutique Hotel that now stands proudly within the walls.
So begins the new chapter in shaping the history of the Old Mill.