Prior to European settlement, the area now called Windsor was a group of islands surrounded by marshland, which were covered with saltwater at 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 dyke land became very fertile farmland.
In 1749, the English began building a system of small garrison forts intended to ‘overawe’ the Acadians and Mi’kmaq. 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) rivers. Ten years of guerrilla warfare followed, 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 just north of the fort and close to the junction of the rivers. Nesbitt Island was in fact a hill surrounded by dyke lands, connected across the marsh land to Windsor by a road called Nesbitt Street. With the coming of the railway, much of the dyke land between Fort Edward and Nesbitt Island became a rail yard. As the site of heavy industries, Nesbitt Island became ‘the other side of the tracks’ both literally and figuratively. Two shipyards were built on its banks followed by a fertilizer mill, tannery, and a cotton factory.
Beginning around 1881, the Windsor Cotton Mill formed and purchased three 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, also from England, followed by homes built to accommodate the workers.
The mill was built on marshland, bounded on a combination of stone fill and wood piles, and a high brick smokestack was erected beside the mill. With the construction of the smokestack nearly complete, 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 supposed to be built higher, so the workers had two choices: demolish and rebuild it or cap the chimney once finished and see what would happen in the future. The workers chose the latter and hung a plumb line over the side to check for further tilting. For years, the plumb line indicated no movement, and, thus, the ‘Leaning Tower of Windsor’ became a local landmark. After standing at a lean for 100 years, the chimney was torn down in 1998.
In 1891, the mill was sold to the Dominion Cotton Company for $100,000 ($50,000 cash plus bonds). The mill was closed around 1908 due to consolidation of the industry in Ontario and Quebec. It then sat vacant for several years.
Over in Pictou County, the Nova Scotia Underwear Company, owned by Eureka Woolen Manufacturer, was destroyed by fire in 1915. The Windsor Town Council saw this as an opportunity to attract a new industry to town. They succeeded by providing the company a remission on their taxes and a cash bonus of $5,000 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 the women called Eureka Hall. In 1921, the company was restructured and renamed Nova Scotia Textiles.
Over the years, other industries on the Mill Island came and went. The shipbuilding companies closed with the end of the era of wooden ships, the tannery shut down, and in the mid 1900s, 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 1990, it lost a long-standing contract from Roots Canada, and then, oddly enough, the Iraq war put the final nail in the coffin. The mill had a contract with a company called Morning Pride, based in Dayton, Ohio, that specialized in protective wear for firefighters called Morning Pride jackets. But a shortage of fireproof material called Nomex during the Iraq war meant the mill’s only profitable contract was now impossible to complete. The mill closed its doors for good in 2005.