Mill Island, Windsor

Mill Island

by Eva Mumford, Windsor, NS

Prior to European settlement the area that is now called Windsor was a group of islands surrounded by marshland that was covered with salt water on the high tide. Through a system of dykes (levies), ditches, and one-way valves called arbiteaux, these marshes were eventually dyked by the Acadian settlers who came to the region about 1680. The dyked land became very fertile farmland.

In 1749 the English began building a system of small garrison forts intended to ‘overawe’ the Acadians and native Indians. In the summer of 1750 one such fort, Fort Edward, was built on the most prominent island south of the junction of the Ste. Croix and Pisiquid (Avon) river. There followed ten years of guerrilla warfare during which some 1,100 Acadians were deported from the region. Finally, in 1760 the region was opened to English settlement, and the area around the fort, eventually named Windsor, began to develop.

One of the early settlers, William Nesbitt, was granted lands that included a small island (by that time a hill surrounded by dyked lands, just north of the fort, closer to the junction of the rivers. Nesbitt Island was connected across the marsh land to Windsor by a road called Nesbitt Street.

With the coming of the railway, much of the dyked land between Fort Edward and Nesbitt Island became a rail yard. Nesbitt Island became literally and figuratively, ‘the other side of the tracks’. Nesbitt Island became the site of heavy industries. Two shipyards were built on its banks. These were followed by a fertilizer mill, tannery and a cotton factory.

Beginning about 1881 the Windsor Cotton Mill was formed. The company purchased 3 lots of land on the ‘island.’ A mill was constructed on these lands, completed in 1884. The building was used for bicycle practice while awaiting the delivery of equipment from England. With the arrival of machinery came management and staff from England. Homes were built on the ‘Island’ to accommodate the workers.

The mill was been built on marshland, bounded on a combination of stone fill and wood piles. A high brick smokestack was built beside the mill. The construction of the smokestack was nearing completion without problem when the construction crew went home for the weekend. When they came back on Monday they observed that the chimney had acquired a significant tilt.

It was to be built higher, so the workers had two choices, demolish and rebuild it or cap it at its completed height and see what would happen in the future. They hung a plumb line over the side to check for movement. For years the plumb line indicated no movement. The ‘Leaning Tower of Windsor’ became a local landmark. Finally, after standing 100 years, the chimney was torn down.

In 1891, the mill was sold to the Dominion Cotton Company for $100, 000. ($50,000 cash plus bonds). The mill was closed in about 1908 due to consolidation of the industry in Ontario and Quebec.

Eureka Woolen Manufacturer was incorporated in 1893 in Pictou Co. The mill, then named Nova Scotia Underwear Company was destroyed by fire in 1915. The Windsor Town Council immediately set about to attract the industry to town. They succeeded by providing a remission of taxes and a cash bonus of $5,000.00 over a five year period. In 1916 the Nova Scotia Underwear company took over the vacant Dominion Cotton mill. Many of the employees from Eureka, including several young women, moved to Windsor to work in the new mill. The company built a large boarding house for them called Eureka Hall. In 1921 the company restructured and was renamed the Nova Scotia Textiles.

Over the years, other industries on the Island closed down. The shipbuilding companies closed with the end of the era of wooden ships. The tannery closed and in the mid 1900's the fertilizer plant ceased operation. Throughout its the period, ‘the mill’ faced many challenges but pressed on. Finally, it became a victim of free trade and foreign competition. In the 1990 it lost a key contract from Roots Canada for which it had been providing garments for several years.

Oddly enough the final nail in the coffin came about as a result of the Iraq war. The mill had a contract with a company called Morning Pride, based in Dayton, Ohio, that specialized in making protective wear for firefighters. The mill had a contract to manufacture Morning Pride jackets, but a shortage of fireproof material called Nomex meant the mill’s only profitable contract was now impossible to complete.

Normex is made by DuPont, an American chemical manufacturer. Nomex, a fire-resistant, petroleum-based fibre, is a variant of Kevlar, a component of bulletproof vests. DuPont has a contract with the US Military and must fulfill these orders before it can deal with commercial orders.

In August, 2006, DuPont sent a letter advising its customers of a shortage of Nomex because of ‘continued and unexpected demand for Nomex ... by the U.S. Military.”

***
The late Eva Mumford worked for many years with Nova Scotia Textiles. She served in various offices in local 159 of the United Textile Workers of America as well as other regional offices. She was a long time and active member of the West Hants Historical Society.

The West Hants Historical Society is a non-profit organization based in Windsor, NS and serving the Avon area. The WHHS has been in operation since 1973, and operates a Museum, genealogy department and the national historic site of Fort Edward in Windsor, NS.