"At last the big egg opened. ‘Pip! pip!’ said the young one, scrambling out; he was very big and ugly." – Hans Christian Andersen, The Ugly Duckling
When I mention that I work at the Sutherland Steam Mill invariably, I get a blank look. Then I mention that it’s about 12 kilometers from the Balmoral Grist Mill. Almost everyone knows the grist mill and comments on how lovely it is.
Both are part of the Nova Scotia Museum complex or, as we like to call it, the ‘family’. Like any family, some are better endowed in the looks department than others, and compared to the Grist Mill, the Steam Mill is admittedly a bit of an ugly duckling. But behind the clapboard exterior lies the soul of a beautiful swan.
The swan hatched in the early 1890s when Alexander Sutherland decided to set up a saw and woodworking mill in Denmark. He purchased a piece of land that was located beside the brand-new Oxford to Pictou Short Line Railroad.
He ordered a steam mill from an Ontario manufacturer who brought it down by train and helped set it up. Sutherland’s son Wilfred said in an oral history interview:
“Father put up a shed to house it while he built the permanent building. Well, that portable mill burned in the night and it took the new building with it. […] Father's big new rubber drive belts, that he'd just got that morning, were right inside the door and he stood there and watched them melt away. He even lost his overalls.”
Construction of a new mill was started after the fire and completed around 1894. But for a few modifications over time, the mill is much the same as it was in 1894. The mill was clapboarded with red trim. Alexander was a carriage maker by trade but an innovator and an entrepreneur by inclination. He created, assembled, and often modified much of the original machinery himself.
Although Alexander Sutherland had specialized in carriage making, the mill also produced windows, doors, gingerbread, balusters, spindles, finials, newel posts, rosettes, lathe, molding, flooring, shingles, and more. Downstairs the Oxford sawmill produced rough lumber and during the winter months, the farmers would bring logs they wanted sawn to the mill in the spring.
In 1940, Alexander Sutherland retired from the business and his son Wilfred took over. Both father and son were very musical. Alexander was an old-time fiddler. Wilfred sang, played guitar, and even wrote some songs. Locally he was known as the Yodeling Sawyer.
After the war Wilfred began to export sawn lumber overseas. It went by rail either to Pictou or Pugwash and from there by ship to the United Kingdom. He also maintained a decent amount of local business in lumber, windows and doors for local cottages which began sprouting up along the Sunrise Trail.
Despite still being viable, Wilfred retired from the business in the spring of 1958 because of poor health. The mill went silent.
The 1970s were a busy time for the Nova Scotia Museum both in terms of building new museums and the acquisition of historic buildings. An example of both processes was the William Robertson & Son Hardware Store and Ship Chandlery acquired in the mid 70s. The building was restored, and the brand-new Maritime Museum of the Atlantic was built around it. At more or less the same time, the Sutherland Steam Mill was also bought and restored. The two museums are also connected by a single invoice dated June 5, 1953 for blue shingles and roofing nails from the Robertson Store. Our own interpreter’s manual mentions some expansion projects at that time including the new tin roof over the mill’s carriage shop. It is fascinating to see an archival connection between two Nova Scotia Museums at that time.
In 2019, on the 40th anniversary of the Sutherland Steam Mill opening as a museum, the mill began to soar once again. A diesel compressor was added to make the blades spin and the belts fly round their pullies. We are delighted to be able to now offer visitors a new glimpse of the swan’s soul beneath our ‘Ugly Duckling.’
"The new one is the handsomest of all; how young and beautiful he is! […] He was more than happy, and yet not proud, for a good heart is never puffed up." – Hans Christian Andersen, The Ugly Duckling