Following the American Revolution, the British Crown offered land grants to settlers who would remain loyal and relocate in Upper Canada. Joseph Clapp, an ambitious young man who discovered not only the beauty of the Black Creek but also its industrial potential, was one of those emigrants. He first settled in Adolphustown near his brother Benjamin and other Quakers from Duchess County, New York. Within the next 20 years, Joseph married Nancy Miller, a niece of John Roblin of Roblin’s Mill, and established his own mill at Black Creek in 1808 which led to a lucrative lumber and grist mill business.
Frontier life in Ontario created strong demand for lumber and soon one mill could not supply the market. Joseph’s ingenuity met the challenge as he designed a series of berms (man-made embankments) to control the water further up the creek for a second mill. The berms provided more consistent water power and made water power last longer into dry seasons. The upper portion became referred to as Saw Mill Creek.
By 1812 both mills were doing a booming business, but tragedy struck the family because all able-bodied men in the district were called to the militia at Kingston due to renewed American aggression. Sadly, Joseph became ill and died there.
The mill industry in Marysburgh was ably carried on by Joseph’s 19 year old son. Philip married Melinda Head, daughter of a pioneer farmer who arrived from Duchess County in 1828 and they built their home on the high ground above the first saw mill where Hicks’ Store is now located. Philip expanded his father’s milling business to include a 3 story building in which carding, grain and lumber were all processed. Two of Joseph’s younger sons, James and George, 13 and 10 respectively at the time of their father’s death, first apprenticed with their older brother and then struck out on their own to manage the upper Saw Mill creek site.
In 1830, Philip’s expanded three story Black Creek falls mill needed more water power and the brothers made an agreement to solve his problem. Philip was allowed to dam the creek but to limit the flooding of James’ land, the maximum height was 22 feet. This agreement created an enduring feature of our town, the mill pond, and the 22’ limit remains today as the pond’s high water mark.
Boom Town Era
By the late 1830s Milford had 4 mills and was a leading centre of the County lumber industry. Around the mills, along the waterways, pioneer families settled. The population grew so that the 1861 census reports Marysburgh as the most populous township in Prince Edward. Four major factors contributed to Milford’s commercial boom. First, as farmers prospered, they looked for supplies and services close to home. Second, overland travel was slow which maintained both the importance of our extensive coastline and led to inns developing by mills. Third, the Fenian Raids led to Milford residents building a drill hall for the 6th & 16th battalions of the militia. And fourth, Philip Clapp initiated weekly mail service from Hallowell (now Picton).
By 1847 Milford had a minister, a postmaster, a magistrate, a customs collector, a shoe maker, a tailor, a milliner, dressmakers, shipwrights, innkeepers, blacksmiths, carpenters and joiners, coopers, loggers, millers, farmers and general merchants. In 1864, prosperous citizens raised $400.00 to commission the first Town Hall in the County. It served for both the Township council and the second Division courthouse. Customs services were available in Milford for shipments coming in and out of Port Milford and Coles’ landing. The 4 village hotels looked after sailors and military men year round resulting in a reputation for fine horse racing and a bit of rowdiness. By1870 the population was 400 but lumber milling, its founding industry, was in decline.
Ship building, fishing and other occupations based on our maritime advantages were in ascendence. Farming, nevertheless, had become the mainstay of the local economy. Barley, the first cash crop, sustained the village’s prosperity through 1890 when a US protectionist tariff cut the value of our farmers’ output in half overnight.
During the sixty years from the end of the Barley Days until the return of the soldiers from WWII, residents of the Milford area sought to find markets for their produce in a variety of ways. Mixed farming gave way to dairy farming. Five township cheese factories were built to process and market the milk but only Black River Cheese remains.
Three canning factories were productive for a few decades but did not survive a buyout by California Packing Co (Del Monte Co). For residents drawn to the lake, ship building (1848 – 1936), rum running (1920 – 1933) and commercial fishing provided notable periods of prosperity which sustained some families through the Great Depression. However, during this era, roads and railroads were surpassing waterways for shipping. A few of the small ports in South Marysburgh that did survive became centers of commercial fishing not haulage. Farmers were faced with getting their produce to markets over muddy roads and hilly terrain, a distinct disadvantage. Nevertheless, Milford had telegraph services in 1878 and a locally owned telephone company that was bought out when Bell started. And although Hydro did not come to the village until 1937, mill owner Hiram Ellis had constructed a water powered generator for the mill in the beginning of that decade.
Community and the Creative Economy
Near the principal intersection of the 1860’s mill town, only a small number of service industry businesses now remain: garages, a corner store, and a restaurant. Nevertheless, the return of the area’s soldiers after WWII could be said to be the turn of a new era not only because it marked the resurrection of a tradition, the Milford Fair, but also because the soldiers came home with a new understanding of technology and how to use it.
The majority of the area’s commercial enterprises now are home-based businesses scattered throughout the surrounding area following a pattern similar to our earliest history. Home based businesses made accessible by wireless internet complement the township’s farm and artisan based economy. The mill village itself with its school, library, post office, fire hall, church, theatre, town hall, fair grounds and pond remains a focal point for community activity and cultural life, a testament to the spirit of cooperation that built Milford.