Balmoral Grist Mill’s Fake Wheel

Spinning Historical Fables

When the Balmoral Grist Mill was renovated and converted to a museum in 1970, someone decided it needed a faux waterwheel – even though the original mill never had a wheel.

From the very first day it opened in 1874, to the day it closed 80 years later, the Balmoral Grist Mill was powered by a pair of hydraulic turbines. That is irrefutable.

When the mill was renovated and converted to a museum, someone, for reasons unknown, decided it needed a faux waterwheel. It wasn’t attached to the mill’s machinery and for decades it spun pointlessly, looking quaint, nostalgic and having absolutely no reason to be there.

The famous architect Louis Sullivan coined the almost equally famous phrase; “Form follows function.” The wheel had form. It definitely had no function. Unless you want to call misleading the public a function. Fakery isn’t something you normally associate with a museum. We tend to leave that to the History Channel. So why was the fake wheel added in the first place?

The quick answer is no one knows. It may have been an honest mistake, or it may have been an intentional ignoring of history for the sake of the prettier, more nostalgic picture. Sadly, it’s almost certainly the latter. It was ‘Disneyfication’ before the word had yet been coined.

It is unlikely to have been a mistake because at the time of the renovations, there was ample historical information available. There was physical, photographic, and local knowledge that demonstrated there had never been a wheel on the mill. But even more telling than this was that the museum had hired Archie MacDonald as mill/museum miller. From oral history transcripts collected by the museum we know that Archie was adamant there had never been a wheel. Before being hired, Archie had lived his entire life a few paces from the mill and was the fourth and last owner/operator of the mill. Archie’s father bought it from Hugh Mckay. Hugh Mckay was the son of the builder, Alexander Mckay.

Alexander Mckay constructed the mill in 1874 and operated it until his death in 1886. Hugh took over and ran it until 1904. He then sold it to A.L. MacDonald, Archie’s father, and as stated above, Archie ran it commercially until deciding to shut it down. He then was hired by the province to operate it when it was re-opened as a museum. At the time of the grist mill’s construction in 1874, hydraulic turbines were becoming commonplace and had almost completely replaced wooden waterwheels in all-new mill construction. They also were replacing traditional water wheels in many older mills. Owners saw the benefits of increased efficiency and lower maintenance costs. Advertisements for “Turbine Water Wheels” appeared in all the major Nova Scotia business directories.

James Leffel & Co. produced one of the most popular products at the time. A picture in an advertisement in the 1871 Lovel’s Nova Scotia Directory shows one identical to the turbine from the Balmoral Grist Mill, which is on display at the mill.

The Balmoral Grist Mill and park were officially opened to the public by Premier G.I. Smith on July 29, 1970, complete with its fake wheel. An electric motor powered the mill then and continues to power it to this day.

When the deteriorating dam was replaced in 2011, the waterwheel had to be removed. It was decided it should not, and would not, be replaced as it was a historical lie. Not everyone was happy with that decision, but for a museum it was the right thing to do.

"History is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence. […] It requires forswearing condescension, cant, and nostalgia. The past isn’t quaint."  
~ Jill Lepore, The Story of America: Essays on Origins



Balmoral Grist Mill, 660 Matheson Brook Road, Tatamagouche, NS ~ The museum is open seasonally: June 1 - October 5, Monday - Sunday, 10:00 am - 5:00 pm