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  • Mike

The Mill Girls *

Updated: Dec 17, 2022

When I was a young boy we quite regularly visited my grandparents, Robert McHoul and Ruth Rhodes (McHoul) on Charles St. in Galt. As I sat there listening to the conversation, we would often hear stories from Grandma and her sister Stella ( who lived next door and seemed to always be part of the conversation…such wonderful memories ), about, as young women, they worked at the old mills down by the river. Old Mills? What were they talking about?

It turns out that just about everyone in our families worked at these mills in the early 1900’s. My Grandmother worked at McCormicks Silk Mill on the west side of the Grand River near the Main St. bridge while Aunt Stella and “The Aunties” ( Jean, Margaret, Elizabeth and Willamina “Ina” ), the McHoul sisters, all worked at Turnballs Woollen Mill. In fact, my Grandfather Robert, after the second world war, worked at the Galt Aircraft School which was also on the river; he likely worked as a machinist in the other mills at some point as well.

Of course, as the “old people” talked, I needed to see what they were talking about. So, off I would go and explore down by the river. The Grand River and the dam were mesmerizing to me; the fast flowing water over the dam and these magnificent old stone buildings hugging the river. I think I just found the mills.

As a kid, these old buildings conjured up historical images for me of what might be happening inside? Well, attached to this post, you will find two links to stories about the mills; one called The Mill Girls. These stories give you a nice historical perspective of working in the mills.

However, there is nothing like the stories from those who were there !

Between The Aunties, Grandma and Aunt Stella, the stories abound. Here’s an “Industrial Revolution” story that is hard to believe in this day and age.

How about this? While working at the mill, at your station, when the water was above your knee you were then allowed to go home! I heard this story a couple times from these ladies as they described the working conditions when the Grand River would rise above its banks and flood the entire area and the factory floor. Can you imagine this in 2021?

While discussing family history with my aunt Elizabeth Cumming (McHoul) a few years ago, she told another fascinating story about Turnballs Woollen Mill. In those days you were paid “by the piece”; i.e. the more you produced, the more you were paid. During the break, the factory machines would be turned off (the water source that turned the main machines would be diverted), however, the McHoul sisters were having none of that and they carried on manually turning their machines to keep producing! They were committed to earning their share for the McHoul family.

In a related story, Aunt Elizabeth told me that Aunt Stella’s job at Turnballs was to sort and count the employee production papers; each employee had to submit their daily work. Working conditions being what they were, no easy method was provided to count the sheets, so Stella cut her finger nails to a point so that she could quickly flip and count the pages….ingenuity!

It sure makes one appreciate what our ancestors, “The Mill Girls”, had to do to survive. Maybe they found ways to make the experience more enjoyable being with old and new friends. Best not to complain too much about our working conditions these days :)


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