Water rushes down the wooden sluice causing the mammoth wheel to turn with a groan as wooden gears begin their noisy clatter and huge belts whirr. As large as a house, this engine rotates a granite wheel to grind wheat into flour. Once upon a time, every village had one; now, these gristmills are historical treasures. Although several authentically reconstructed mills are scattered throughout eastern North America, only a handful of originals have survived to modern times. Four of these can be found in the Charlevoix region, a mere hour east of Quebec City on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River.
Bread has been called the staple of life, and this dietary necessity spawned a mechanical revolution that grew to encompass mills for pumping water, sawing wood, forging metal and pumping air for iron furnaces. The first gristmill in North America was built in Nova Scotia in 1607. When Cardinal Richelieu inaugurated the seigneurial system in 1627, a church and gristmill were mandated for the centre of each estate. However, one doesn't have to be a baker, mechanic or historian to be fascinated by the mills of the Charlevoix or beguiled by their bucolic settings.
The Banal or Seigneurial Mill in Les Eboulements was built in 1790 and is the best-preserved seigneurial site in the province. Touted as being completely original, the primary wooden gearing was actually replaced by steel and cast iron at some point in the late 19th century, although the secondary belt systems appear to be original. Regardless, the beauty of the mechanical system in this particular mill is its readily visible integration of new materials without changing its original characteristics. While this is a historic site that's open to the public during the summer, it also remains a commercial business where organic wheat is still ground between antique French grindstones.
Chemin du port begins adjacent to the seigneurial property. Dropping 360 metres to St. Joseph de la Rive, it provides a panoramic view of the St. Lawrence River and Ile aux Coudres. A ferry (free) crosses to this lovely island discovered by Jacques Cartier in 1534, which was named for its abundant hazelnut bushes.
Alexis Tremblay built a gristmill on Ile aux Coudres along the stream called the Rouge River in 1825. After several years of drought rendered the mill inoperable, his son, Thomas, built a windmill on the opposite side of the brook in 1836. This was the last "tower" windmill to be built in Quebec. Both are now part of the island's Milling Economuseum, where guides in period costumes will explain the function of various components in the gristmills and the new interpretation centre provides information about their history. The gift shop even sells flour as well as bread baked on the premises in wood-fired ovens.
The Tremblay water-powered mill remained in commercial operation until 1956. Comparing the gearing system and working layout of the watermill and the windmill is especially interesting considering that they are contemporary to each other and built by the same family. From a technical standpoint, there's not much difference between Thomas Tremblay's mill of 1836 and what a wind-powered gristmill would have looked like 200 years earlier. The windmill has been restored, but to such a minimal degree that "authentic repairs" is a much better description for this gem. There are a few cast-iron components, but this is what machines looked like in the 17th and 18th century when they were made primarily of wood. There isn't another place on this continent where a windmill and watermill can be captured in the same photo.
The four gristmills in the Charlevoix region illustrate differences in architecture, the evolution of mechanics, and all are situated in settings that attract landscape painters. The Remy, located on Route 138 just north of the village of Baie St. Paul, is the largest and is similar to those built in the eastern United States during the first half of the 19th century.
In 1825, the Seminaire de Quebec commissioned Jacob Fortin to build a gristmill on the Remy River. Despite being created under Quebec's seigneurial system, the Remy was designed as a commercial venture and became so successful that it ground flour from 1827 to 1950. Converted to produce animal feed, it operated into the 1980s. It was acquired by Heritage Charlevoix, a land trust founded by local residents Frank and Anne Cabot in 1992, and restoration began in 1997. In 2007, the Remy Mill once again began grinding flour from locally grown organic wheat.
The wooden floors of the mill are sculpted by 150 years of foot traffic, and the stairs testify to the tread of mill workers carrying heavy sacks of grain to the second floor, the marks of their metal-tipped staves stamped in the planking. Half of two floors in this stone mill were the millwright's home and are furnished with period pieces. The windows in the residence clearly show the thickness of the double stonewall construction.
The gearing and machinery are not original but are modern reconstructions, and this makes the Remy gristmill particularly interesting. The water wheel - the largest in Quebec - is made of white oak and most of the gears have wooden teeth. Some parts are steel and ballbearing bushings have replaced those of cast-iron. If these materials had been available in the early 19th century, millwrights would have used them. Today, the craft skills of building, maintaining, and operating water-powered mills are almost lost arts, and this is one of those rare places where they are being rediscovered.
At the Boulangerie La Remy, flour that has been ground in the mill behind and above this converted farmhouse is transformed into delicious loaves of bread in two gorgeous wood-fired brick ovens. The converted farmhouse is not indigenous to the site, but was moved from a nearby village for this specific function. Loaves include traditional white baguettes and sourdough to modern brioche, flavoured (including raisin and cranberry) breads, their signature Meteorite, and even pizza and apple pie.
The Charlevoix is internationally recognized for its specialty food producers and outstanding restaurants, so it seems natural to discover award-winning bakers like Boulangerie Pains d'exclamation in La Malbaie and Boulangerie Bouchard on Ile aux Coudres. Traditional loaves of crusty sourdough made with locally grown organic wheat have become a trademark specialty of the region and each gristmill site has its own traditional wood-fire ovens where loaves can be bought. Sourdough bread baked in wood-fired ovens is far removed - philosophically and texturally - from commercially made products. Combined with locally grown organic wheat and the stone-ground milling process, the results are one of the ultimate gourmet delights.
This concentration of original gristmills is unique in North America, and whether you're interested in baking, mechanics, history, architecture, photography or painting, a visit to the mills of the Charlevoix promises to be a rewarding experience while touring this region.
If you go
Lodging ranges from camp sites to a five-star hotel
The Charlevoix region, noted for its painters and exquisite cuisine, is located 93 kilometres northeast of Quebec City on Route 138. There are numerous restaurants and lodging ranges from camping sites to five-star hotels. For more information: charlevoixtour ism.com or write Charlevoix Tourism, 495 Blvd. de Comporte, La Malbaie, QC G5A 3G3 800-667-2276
The Banal Mill, 157 Principale, Route 362 in the village of Les Eboulements, 16 kilometres east of Baie St. Paul. There's a modest admission charge and you can purchase bread made for the flour ground at this mill. hcq-chq.org, 418-635-2239. Admission: $3.
Ile aux Coudres: 12 kilometres from Les Eboulements. The ferry runs 25 times a day between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. and is free of charge. traversiers.gouv.qc.ca, 877-787-7483
Les Moulins de l'Islet aux Coudres/ Milling Economuseum, 36 Chemin du Moulin, Ile aux Coudres. lesmoulinsiac.com, 418-438-2184. admission $9 adults/$5 children/$20 families.
Boulangerie Bouchard, 1648 Chemin des Coudriers, Ile aux Coudres, 418-438-2454
Moulin Remy, 235 Terrasse de la Remy, Route 138 5.6 kilometres north of Baie St. Paul. moulindelaremy.com, 418-435-6579. Admission: $5.
Pains d'exclamation, 398 Rue Saint Etienne, La Malbaie, 418-665-4000. All types of loaves and pastries, including bread from locally grown wheat, ground at the mill, and baked in wood-fired ovens.