The Town of Hastings straddles a set of rapids where the Trent River narrows, at the eastern end of Rice Lake. The Trent-Severn Waterway is a 386 kilometre canal route connecting Lake Ontario at Trenton to Lake Huron at Port Severn. The rivers were an important part of settlement in Upper Canada as they were used to transport all kinds of goods to the interior of Ontario. Because of their reliable source of power, mills soon appeared to grind grain, cut lumber and in later years even provided hydro-electric power for the community.
The town started its life as Crook’s Rapids in 1820 after James Crooks who purchased approximately 1,000 acres of land here in 1810. It is said that up until 1835 the only shack on the site of the present day Hastings was erected on the river bank several years earlier by the Hon. James Crooks who established a primitive mill here on the north/west side of the present day locks. This first mill contained only one run of a very common mill stone. Because it never ground much grist, it is believed that he only established this mill to secure the valuable mill rights for a larger mill later on. Grist mills work best when they have a dam to provide a reservoir of water and an adequate head to operate a water wheel. James first mill did not utilize a dam, he used a ‘swing dam’ to divert water from the river to his water wheel.
When the Government of Upper Canada decided to build a dam at Crooks Rapids and a set of locks to make river travel easier, Crooks moved his grist mill in 1835 to the south/west corner of Front and Bridge Street in preparation for this new development. The lock construction started in 1837 but was slowed by the Upper Canada Rebellion and were not completed until 1844. James Crooks was elected to the Legislature in 1829 and in 1841 he was appointed to the Legislative Council. His business interests at home (Dundas) and the death of his son moved him to sell his properties in the Hastings area in 1851.
Henry Fowlds was born in 1790 in Scotland. In 1813 he married Jane Steele and they had ten children, Eliza, John, James S., Robert H., Elizabeth, Henry M., Mary C., William J., Mary Anne and Theresa. Of the ten children, only five survived…James S., Elizabeth, Henry M., William J. and Theresa. James S. married Margaret MacGregor and they also had a rather large family, nine children. The family came to North America in 1821 and settled for a short time in New York City and in Hartford.
In 1834 they came to Canada and first settled in Prince Edward County. The Fowlds family arrived in Asphodel Township in 1836 and settled in the village of Westwood (now Keene). Fowlds hired locals to clear land for new settlers and soon was into lumbering by building a saw mill. The Fowlds family were building homes in the village and soon built a grist mill, a general store and post office.
Henry Martin Fowlds arrived at Crooks Rapids in 1851 and was about to change the little village forever. Henry purchased the water rights, land and buildings of Crooks Rapids from the Honourable James Crooks and re-named it Hastings, after a child-hood friend, Lady Flora Hastings. The 1871 Fowlds Mill, still standing today was built by James, the eldest son of Henry Fowlds after their original grist mill located at the corner of Front Street and Bridge Street was destroyed by fire in 1870. This mill by 1910 was converted to hydro-electric power and re-named “The Tannery Power House” and its output was for many years used to power the Breithaupt Leather Works located just north of the mill.
The Fowlds operated saw mills, grist mills, a brickworks and a woollen mill, built several homes and opened the first store and post office in Hastings. James Fowlds was responsible for Hastings first school and he played a major role in bringing the railroad to town. The railway (The Grand Junction) came to Hastings in 1879 from Belleville via Campbellford and through Keene to Peterborough. The Fowlds steamboats travelled the canal carrying the products from the mills to lake ports. The attractive stone mill is the only one of Fowlds Mills still standing in the town and is now a private residence since 1988 and is still capable of hydro-electric generation. The town today still contains many of the Fowlds legacies. Located on Bridge Street are “The Maples”, a grand old home constructed in the 1860’s for Henry Martin Fowlds, son of Henry Sr., “The Ashfield House” once owned by James Steele Fowlds, eldest son of Henry and the “Fowlds House” that was built for the Fowlds family.
Located on Front Street is “Lowden Hall” built for another of Henry Sr.’s sons, “Hazelbank” and “The Albion Hotel” built for Henry and “The Montreal House” built on the site of Henry Fowlds original lumber mill that had been destroyed by fire. Located on Albert Street is “The J. Ross House” which was part of James Crooks property transferred to Henry Fowlds in 1851 as part of the purchase of Hastings. A short history of the Hastings Tannery has to be included in this post because of its important connection to the Fowlds Mill for many years.
The Hastings Tannery was the first tannery in Hastings, erected around 1854 by Isaac Thomas and replaced in 1895. The power to operate the machinery was a horse. When hitched up to the main drive shaft and prodded to walk around in circles, it provided the motive power to turn the wheels of the tannery, literally a one-horse power output! In 1918 the building was destroyed by fire. In 1906, the property at 79-87 Front Street East was purchased by the Breithaupt Leather Company of Berlin (now Kitchener, Ontario) and a new and more modern concrete block building was erected on the site. The iron tower structure and its cone- shaped water reservoir were built in Bridgeburg (now Fort Erie, Ontario) and were transported to Hastings by train and assembled at their current site. The locally owned Plants Foundry once located on Bridge Street built equipment for the tannery as well as farm equipment and sawmills.
The Breithaupt Leather Company was known for producing its famous ‘oak sole leather’ and was in production in Hastings until 1982. Note: Oak bark tanning was a long, gentle process that preserved the natural fibres of the leather’s protein structure for flexibility and durability. The ghostly buildings, brick chimney (from the former tannery) and water tower, although in a dilapidated condition still stand today and make a great picture. This company was credited for keeping the town from ‘going under’ during the Great Depression, the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world from 1929-39.