Madoc and its Historical O’Hara Mill


While searching for this historical saw mill in Madoc Ontario for this post, the 2oldguys arrived at the parking lot of the O’Hara Homestead and Conservation Area expecting to find a lone, old mill. The first thing we saw was an old mill pond and an amazing covered bridge! On hearing children’s laughter nearby, we proceeded to the bridge and discovered the Mill below it and what appeared to be a small village. The laughter was from a group of school children on a history outing. The more we roamed the ‘village street’ the more treasures we found, a few of them described later.

The Village of Madoc: In 1822, before James O’Hara arrived in Madoc, an agreement was signed and sealed between the Crown and the Mississauga Nation of Indians. The Rideau Purchase agreement encompassed a vast area of eastern Ontario in the Midland and Johnstown Districts, then part of the Province of Upper Canada.  Situated at the junctions of Hwy’s 62 and #7 it also has a colorful history. In the 1800’s the MacKenzie brothers established their mill here powered by the water of Deer Creek. A small settlement known as MacKenzie Mills quickly grew up around it. For a short time the village was known as Hastings before it was re-named Madoc, after Prince Madoc of Wales.

In 1854, the ‘Madoc Meteorite’ one of the largest and heaviest meteorites ever found was discovered near Madoc. It landed somewhere west of the village and weighed 156 kilograms. The Geological Society of Canada is now its home. In 1866, gold was discovered in Madoc Township (Eldorado). Canada’s first gold rush created several boom towns in the area. Most of the gold mines failed because of the high cost of extraction, but prospectors also discovered copper, lead, marble quartz and talc in the area. More recently, The Madoc Fluorite mine operated in the 1960 and 70’s. It produced beautiful fluorite crystals which were used in making lenses. The Canada Talc Mines began in 1896 and continued until 2010. It was one of only three mines on the planet in steady operations for more than 100 years.

The O’Hara Family: Patrick O’Hara, in 1789 came to the Americas from Londonderry, Ireland. In 1794 he married Cynthia Pringle and they had nine children. James (Squire) O’Hara, son of Patrick O’Hara on hearing of the opening of new lands by the British government for settlement in what was known as “Canada West” decided to move and establish a homestead for himself. The location he chose was on concession 5 in Madoc Township about three miles north of what is now the Village of Madoc. Here on Deer Creek James built his small log cabin and began to clear the land for his farm.

As with a lot of early settlers, during the winter months, James would leave the farm to work in the lumber camps or he would go back to visit family and friends. On one of these trips to the United States, he met his future wife, Mary Healy, who was visiting friends near the town of Jersey in Jefferson County, New York. James & Mary were married shortly after. In 1823, they settled in Madoc Township, their first son James Jr. was the first white male born in Madoc.

James O’Hara Sr. and Mary (Healey) had 11 children: Eliza, Harriet, James Jr., Mary, John, Charles, Lucy, David, Matilda, Emily and Henry Seymour. James O’Hara Jr. and Mary Jane (Lear) had five children: Charles, Benjamin, Frank, Minnie and Alberta. Their 3rd son Frank (1858-1932) was the last direct O’Hara to live and work on the farm. Active in the community and church affairs, James was a well–respected citizen. He was appointed a Justice of the Peace by the government, whereby he acquired the title of “Squire”. James O’Hara passed away on September 15, 1882. He was instrumental in the opening of the first school in the Township, known as “O’Hara’s School SS #2” located at the corner of Mill and O’Hara Roads. The original school on this site was a frame building and was replaced in 1884 with a new, modern brick structure which was in use until 1961 when students were bussed to the new Madoc Township School. The early schools were attended by 15 to 40 students from grade 1 to 8 in one room, the youngest were seated at the front and the oldest at the back of the room. Special times at the schools were the Christmas Concerts put on by the students for the parents and Arbour Day (the 1st Tuesday of May) were the yard was raked for the summer and the afternoon was devoted to a picnic and games.

The Mill: In a partnership in 1850, James Sr. agreed to erect a saw mill and James Jr. agreed to supply the mill with water privileges and timber. The historic O’Hara Saw Mill is very unique in that it employed an “English Gate” or “Frame Saw” technology. In this system, a single, straight flexible saw blade is held under tension inside a wood sash (or frame) that is driven up and down by the mills water power. These straight saw blades were often referred to as ‘mill saws’ or ‘long saws’. Used for cutting wood or stone, the blade is held perpendicular to the plane of the frame, so that the material being cut passed through the center of the frame. A water powered carriage moved the logs towards the saw. This mill is located on its original site and it is said to be the only such water powered “Frame Saw” left in Ontario and likely the only one still working in Canada.

The O’Hara partnership lapsed after only 20 years but the mill continued to cut and sell lumber until 1908, a remarkable 58 years. In 1953, the abandoned mill near collapse and 34 hectares of land were purchased by the Moira River Conservation Authority. Soon after, the mill foundations were rebuilt and damaged timbers, wooden water wheel blades, wheel shaft and connecting rods were all replaced. The carriage, saw frame, and carriage drive mechanisms built on site by James O’Hara Sr. were still all in good condition. In the mid 1960’s a new cedar crib dam filled with rocks was constructed and the pond bottom was cleaned out for a deeper, weed-free area for swimming and fishing. The park emphasized that it was more than an area for just recreation purposes, education is a large part of its priority. A recent reconstruction of the dam with an added feature of a covered bridge returned the mill to working order in 2013.

The O’Hara Mill Homestead was built soon after the marriage of James O’Hara Jr. and Mary Jane (Lear) sometime after their wedding in 1848 when they out-grew their settlers log cabin north of the sawmill. The O’Hara House is still standing on its original site and was built from boards and planks sawn at the mill. The O’Hara property was purchased in 1954 by the Moira Conservation Authority (Quinte Conservation). The park was developed and enlarged in 1965 and the homestead was purchased from Minnie (O’Hara) Maines and is now part of the Museum Complex. The O’Hara Mill Homestead grounds are owned by the Quinte Conservation Authority and are very well managed by the O’Hara Volunteers Association.

The original Carriage House, is a two story barn with the horse stables on the ground floor and carriage storage on the upper floor. The Carpenter’s Shop, another original building to the site was used for the carpenter to provide furniture and tools for the home, farm and for the mill. The Blacksmith Shop, not original to the site, provided the hardware and tools needed for daily pioneer life. Several Sheds, one displaying a massive stone puller and others displaying antique farm equipment that are sure to bring back memories, especially if you are an old country boy over fifty years old.

The Log School House, now on display was likely the last log schoolhouse in Ontario. Built in 1861, it was the first school in section #7 and was constructed on lot 16, concession 9. In 1887, a new school was built and this log structure was designated a wood shed until Elzevir Township donated it to the Moira Conservation Authority who in 1966 moved it to the O’Hara Mill Homestead.

The O’Hara Mill Homestead is a great place to relax and spend the day wandering the Village discovering its many treasures. Unfortunately, the day the 2oldguys were there it was ‘off season’ and most of the exhibits were closed, but it was still an amazing place and I am looking forward to a return visit ‘in season’ to experience some of the many special events happening there. The Conservation Area has many trails to discover, with names like Fern, Deer Creek, Heritage, Woodland and McEathron Trails. Other trails have names like the Homestead Parkway, Wagon Road and the Lois Wishart Way. Geocaching is also featured here and in the Madoc area.

Regards, Ranger.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: