| Fifteen years ago, a century after William Orsman and the Ritchie Brothers built it in 1893, Alberta’s oldest surviving flour mill received a new lease on life. A renovation completed in 1992 transformed the Ritchie Mill at 10170 Saskatchewan Drive into a dazzling menagerie of offices and dining space. As the mill marked its 100th year, it stood proudly as one of Edmonton’s best late 20th century examples of heritage restoration. |
“It’s an amazing feeling, seeing a building come back to life,” said Reg MacDonald, one of the developers behind the project. Reg and Blair Hallett, both residents of Strathcona, bought the mill from the city in 1991.
“You would not believe how desolate this place looked when we first got it,” Reg said when I chatted with him at the official opening. “There was a tremendous amount of refuse around; it was dirty and the third floor was essentially a pigeon roost. It was pretty stark.”
But, they knew the place had enormous potential to be rejuvenated and continue its service to the city.
The mill was constructed at the end of the Calgary and Edmonton Railway in Strathcona in 1892 and 1893 by Orson and Robert Ritchie, with help from his brothers John, George and William. The three-storey building was constructed with brick and stone in the industrial style of the late 19th century.
The men who built it designed it for its function, and did not employ a trained architect. Additions that would come later were built of wood and metal siding.
It was one of the first mills in the west to be equipped with steam-powered steel rollers, instead of conventional stone rollers. The steel increased both the range of flours which could be milled from the hard prairie wheat and the quantity that could be produced.
Robert had arrived in Strathcona from Ontario early in 1892 and, on the edge of the frontier, immediately saw the potential for a flour mill. His new mill could well have been the first of its kind in Canada. Business was good and, to handle the increasing volume of grain being processed, Ritchie added elevators to his mill in 1895 and 1902.
Along with his business interests, Robert Ritchie was active in local politics. He served as an alderman, a school trustee and a justice of the peace, In 1906, he was elected mayor of Strathcona.
In 1912, in the midst of Edmonton’s greatest boom of the early 20th century, Ritchie sold the mill to Northwest Mill and Feed Company. His timing couldn’t have been better, as the following year the economy collapsed.
In its heyday, farmers with grain-laden wagons lined up on the street all the way to Whyte Avenue. For years at harvest time, the Ritchie Mill was one of Edmonton’s great gathering places.
The mill continued processing grain into flour until 1948, when it was converted to a feed mill. It remained in use until the mid 1970s and was declared a Provincial Historic Resource in 1979.
The Old Strathcona Foundation assumed control in 1981, and poured $1.2 million in restoration work into the building, updating the mechanical, electrical and heating systems. But it failed to secure a major tenant for a restaurant/office space scheme and the building remained vacant for a dozen years.
Given its location on Saskatchewan Drive near 102 Street and with a commanding view of downtown and the river valley, developers were chomping at the bit to acquire the property. But most were angling to turn history into dust.
That’s when MacDonald and Hallett came into the picture. They believed the Old Strathcona Foundation had the right idea, but at the wrong time. So they resurrected the plan, with a few new wrinkles, and a $1.3 million price tag. The result was astounding.
The original delivery ramp was converted into the entrance foyer; offices were built in the three above-ground floors. The top floor is open beam, with a bank of skylights and twin lofts and ceiling heights that stretch more than four metres.
Historical traces include the original bin walls with their two by six stacked lumber and robust wooden support beams. And there are time-woven flourishes, like a section of wooden wall worn by the decades-long passage of rivers of grain.
The basement, with its red brick and classic fieldstone foundation walls and vintage support beams, was transformed into a restaurant space. Out front, an old boiler shaft was converted to a gas bar-be-cue.
Today the Ritchie Mill is one of a few 19th century industrial buildings remaining in Alberta and one of even fewer agricultural buildings that survives in an urban setting. It is also the oldest flour mill in Alberta and possibly the earliest building of its kind left in Canada.
As remarkable as the restoration is, it is nothing compared to the fact that the mill has survived at all. Unlike the Princess Theatre, Hotel Macdonald and Lemarchand Mansion – lovingly restored Edmonton landmarks – the Ritchie Mill isn’t the sort of structure that ignites preservationist frenzy.
It is a mill and that’s what it looks like – plain and industrial. That unpretentious, boxy architecture is a virtually vanished apparition of frontier life on the prairies, making the Ritchie Mill all the more precious.