The Historic Babcock Mill, built in 1856 and located on the banks of Millhaven Creek in Odessa, was officially reopened to the public by Loyalist Township on July 6th, 2023. For many, the wait for this day has been long. The historic place has been closed to the public for the last 30 years! As a local, I only briefly recall getting a peek inside on an elementary school tour around 2000. Otherwise, what laid behind those limestone walls was a mystery to myself and many others.
Many area locals attended the grand reopening, including Loyalist Township Mayor Jim Hegadorn, as well as Donald and Ross Babcock, who have played an immense role in preserving the Mill and its story over the decades. Summer Student Tour Guides, Rebecca and Ella, kicked off the festivities with a guided public tour of the main floor—the first since 1992! As such, the opening unveiled some of the mystery surrounding Mill by answering many questions and then some, about its fascinating history!
A Historic Place of Many Uses
Beginnings and The Booth Family
The story of Babcock Mill begins in 1803, when the British Government granted the land the Mill currently sits on to Joshua Booth, one of the first Loyalists that immigrated to the area from New York around 1784. He became an established mill owner in the area, owning the Booth Woollen Mill at the time of his death. Yet, Babcock Mill, initially known as Odessa Mill, was built 43 years after Joshua’s death. It was built in 1856 for his grandsons, John K. and Philip D. Booth, by William and Hugh Saul, stonemasons from Newburgh. While building the Mill, they would walk over 25 kilometres each day from Newburgh and back for work! The Saul brothers were known for their work in the area and later even built another historic place in Odessa, the Methodist Episcopal Church (St. Alban’s Anglican Church) (1870-71).
The Booth brothers originally intended the Mill to be a gristmill, however, the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), built the same year as the Mill, put a wrench in their plans. It could bring goods to the nearby Ernestown Railway Station for cheaper. As a result, the Booths used the Mill as a salesroom, storage, and office space for their family’s woollen mill.
The Babcock Family and Better Baskets by Babcock
In 1907, John Herbert Babcock acquired the Mill and sawmill from the Booth family for $2,000. John outfitted the Mill as a basket factory and it soon became the sole water-powered mill that made baskets. He was granted patents for his baskets in 1915 and 1919. These baskets became known as “Better Baskets by Babcock.” The Mill aptly became known as Babcock Mill.
A fun fact I learned was that the Babcock’s were the first to supply power to Odessa! Using hydro power from the dam by the Mill, John first illuminated the village in 1922. When he would turn off the power each night, many village locals would also call it a night! In 1926, a concrete dam was built to replace the old wooden dam, built in the 1830s to supply power to the Booth’s mills. The old dam could no longer keep up with the demand for electricity from the village customers.
John’s sons, Oscar and Roy Babcock, took over the Mill after his death in 1946. They converted it into a truck body manufacturing plant called J.H. Babcock & Sons Limited, Truck Body Manufacturing. Despite production ending in the 1960s, evidence of this business is still present today, particularly in the Mill’s enlarged front door. You will notice matching sections above and on both sides of the door. When opened with the door, a truck body could pass through. Likewise, the summer students told me about truck parts recently dug up from the ground directly behind the Mill!
Loyalist Township Ownership
In 1977, Ernestown Township (now Loyalist Township) acquired Babcock Mill from Roy Babcock. Subsequently, the Township opened it for summer tours led by students between 1984 and 1986. They then turned their focus in 1987 towards accurately restoring the Mill as a basket factory. A fire had previously ruined some machines and the Township hired Donald Babcock (Roy’s son and John H.’s grandson) to restore and rebuild them. Donald had made baskets at the Mill as a young boy so he sketched up plans to recreate the machines based on his and his brother Ross’ memories! Both Donald and Ross were present at the 2023 reopening, providing demonstrations and sharing fun facts and memories!
The Mill opened to the public again for tours in 1988 until 1992. Donald reproduced the last original basket in 1993 and the historic place was officially closed to the public. Between then and 2001 it hosted the odd school trip each year. Babcock Mill Park opened in 2016 and includes a natural playground. Likewise, over the decades the Mill has also been a backdrop for many weddings and family photographs. Yet, the Mill itself remained closed… until now!
Visiting Babcock Mill Today
As of the summer of 2023, Loyalist Township reopened the large burgundy doors of the historic place for public tours led by summer student tour guides. Like the grand opening, tours currently focus on the main floor of the Mill, which contains most of the basket-making machinery and tools. However, there are plans to renew and open up the second and basement floors to the public during future summer seasons.
So, next time you’re in Odessa, remember it’s “Home of the Historic [reopened] Babcock Mill!”
You can learn more about the Babcock Mill by visiting their page on the Loyalist Township website or checking them out on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter on the Loyalist Township profiles.
Written by: Nicole Mulder, Kingston & Area Association of Museums, Art Galleries & Historic Sites
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