Before electrical power, it was commonplace for rural villages to spring up around rivers where water power could be harnessed to support industry. By 1812, Peleg Spencer had leased land by the South Nation river before building a wooden dam and then a sawmill on the south bank to serve settlers in the backwoods of Edwardsburgh Township. After Peleg’s son David purchased the land in 1831, he became the official founder of Spencerville. By 1851, David’s business included a saw and grist mill on the south bank and a carding and fulling mill on the north bank.
A fire destroyed the grist mill in the early 1860s but by 1864, David’s daughter, Mercy and her husband Robert Fairbairn had constructed a new stone grist mill on the north side of the river with four grinding stones and a steam engine which allowed the mill to operate year-round.
The mill was again gutted by fire in 1884 and again rebuilt within the remaining stone walls.
In 1912, Justin Fletcher Barnard purchased the mill beginning a family business which lasted for the next 60 years. By 1927, Barnard’s sons Percy and Walter were adding to innovations begun by their father. One of them was to replace the existing waterwheel with a refitted Barber turbine waterwheel, purchased from Chas. Barber & Sons of Meaford and installed in August of 1934. The turbine waterwheel nearly doubled the horsepower of the mill, increasing it from 60 to 110.
The Barnard family continued to expand the business as wholesalers and distributors of feed supplies, various grades of flour and farm merchandise. A hardware store was added in 1955 by Percy’s sons Morgan and Ted. Ted Barnard continued to run the family milling business until it closed in 1972. The Mill’s original retail store and the family name is now commemorated as Barnard’s Emporium which today is still in business, offering quality handcrafted goods for sale and displaying a variety of heritage artifacts which speak of the living past.
The Spencerville Mill was purchased by the South Nation Conservation Authority in 1985. Since then major restoration work has been completed including a celebratory opening of the upper level in 2015 attended by local volunteers, elected officials, donors and Mill Foundation Board members.
Today, the Mill is also a museum “where history lives and breathes.” Along with displays of original artifacts, new exhibits illustrate the history of the Mill and how it operated. The Mill preserves an important aspect of the history of Edwardsburgh Cardinal Township and stands as a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the business people and families who first developed a Spencerville community. Research on these original families is underway as part of developing additional displays for the interest of Mill visitors and local residents who strongly support the preservation of the village’s most unique building and what it stands for.