The unique red Sheave Tower in Blair is so well tucked away from the road that you would miss it unless on a mission to find it. When visiting my 4th (of 160!) Unusual Sites in Ontario, the pinpointed spot on Google maps trailed behind me with no red tower in sight. Pulling over to the shoulder, I parked my car in front of the community mailboxes and walked back towards the taunting red map pin. As I walked closer, I heard water and decided to follow my ears instead of faulty eyes.
Where the road dips, there’s a hidden fence and small path off to the side which leads to a colourful wooden information board. At first glance, it resembles an A+ high school project, with a collage of paintings, drawings, and text, more so than a dull looking informative welcome board. It’s one of the prettier ones I’ve seen.
A little farther down the slightly overgrown path you’ll arrive at Blair (Bowman) Creek and, voila, there lies the picturesque Blair Sheave Tower. It’s a peaceful spot where the only creatures that will disturb your exploration are the peskiest and hungriest mosquitos. As long as you’re doused in bug spray and wearing appropriate clothes, it’s worth seeking out this treasure.
What is a Sheave Tower?
What exactly is a sheave tower, you ask? A sheave tower assists grist mills by generating power for them from rivers. The running river turns a turbine underneath the tower. This sets in motion various gears and shafts which then turn a sheave (grooved wheel) higher up in the structure. To transfer this energy to the Carlisle Grist Mill, the Blair Sheave Tower was connected with a pulley and cable system. Think of it like a huge outdoor laundry line and you’ve got the picture.
Before Blair was Blair, it had several other names. Among these was “Shinglebridge”, thanks to the shingled covered bridge, Durhamville, then New Carlisle because of the mills, and eventually Blair, after Adam Johnston Blair of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. The village name changed to Blair in 1858 when its post office was built.
This area, part of the Haldimand Tract, has been home to the Six Nations peoples for countless generations. Then, in the early 1800s, Pennsylvania German Mennonites emigrated north from the United States. Daniel and Jacob Erb, some of the area’s first non-Aboriginal settlers, purchased the 60,000 acres of land that became the German Company Tract from Richard Beasley and his wife in 1802. They also built the first saw and grist mills in Blair village around 1808.
History of the Carlisle Grist Mill
In 1846, Samuel B. Bowman built the 4-storey Carlisle Grist Mill. In 1876, Allan Bowman built the sheave tower to increase the mill’s production. By building the sheave tower downstream from the grist mill, he was able to harnass the Blair (then Bowman) Creek’s energy twice over. A water turbine was found inside the tower and a steel cable pulley system connected the sheave tower to the grist mill. Utilizing the creek this way also provided an extra 15-horsepower of energy during peak periods. Talk about a smart move!
In 1888, Jacob Hilborn bought the mill from Allan Bowman and subsequently his son John took over from 1902 until 1925. Unfortunately, in 1928, overheating caused the multi-storey Carlisle Grist Mill to burn down. In its place, using the building’s original foundation, a shorter 1-storey mill was built and continued to be used for many decades. During the rebuild, an electric motor was added to manufacture corn meal and corn flour. In 2000, the Carlisle Grist Mill was declared the oldest independently operating corn mill in Canada. Three years later in 2003 it ceased operating. If you visit the red sheave tower, you will notice the grist mill across the street, which apparently houses some of the original equipment to this day. The grist mill is privately owned, and therefore not open to the visiting public.
History of the Blair Sheave Tower
As we’ve learned from above, Blair began as a milling village on the then Bowman (now Blair) Creek. Blair was the first village to have a dam, which paved the way for the first sawmill, and later the various other mills. None of the original machinery remains inside the wooden tower today. It is, however, Ontario’s last remaining sheave tower of its kind.
At 9.4 metres (31 feet) high, the sheave tower stands in beautiful contrast to the green-leafed trees surrounding it. It’s no surprise that it is Waterloo Region’s most visited scenic site by painters and photographers. It has been described as having “a mini mining headframe” and a “tapering wooden structure”. Its other claims to fame include being one of the world’s smallest hydro-generators, as well as Ontario’s oldest hydroelectric generating site. In fact, the Blair Sheave Tower generated electricity all the way until 1954. That’s pretty impressive for a tiny tower sitting on the bank of a tiny creek!
Over the next few decades the tower changed hands, was designated a heritage structure, and restored a few times.
- 1986: Blair’s council votes the sheave tower a heritage structure and saves it from demolition
- 1962: The Waterloo Historical Society partially restores the sheave tower, however nearby housing developments force the creek to overflow and damage the tower’s foundation
- 1994: Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, Cambridge chapter, purchases the Blair Sheave Tower
- 1998/1999: A respected Ontario-trained heritage architect, Nicholas Hill, restores the structure, replacing several original wooden boards that rotted
- 2000: Unveiling of the restored structure in 2000 for Blair’s 200th anniversary
- Blair sits along the western edge of the city of Cambridge. It’s a beautiful area of town with several preserved historical treasures, including cemeteries (one from 1804!), homes, more mills (of course!), and so on
- Blair is known for its beautiful and rare Carolinian forest, which is part of the south end of the impressive Grand River Watershed
- Waterloo County’s first school was built in Blair
- Ontario’s first paved main street was in Blair
- The Blair Sheave Tower is on the city of Cambridge’s flag
- Blair Cemetery is one of the oldest European cemeteries in Waterloo Region
Have you ever been geocaching? I’ve only been once, but I love the idea. I’m a sucker for puzzles of any kind and geocaching ticks my boxes for travel, mystery, and puzzles. What a trifecta!
The cache has now been removed because it was on private property. However, at one time there was a camouflaged “lock n’lock container” found over the bridge and to the right along the narrow path.
The other hint was coded, and if you’ve read the Ontario Cryptic Gravestone blog post or followed the adventure on Instagram, you’ll know I LOVE this kind of thing! Here’s the clue once left for treasure hunters:
CLUE: “Onfr bs gur gerr“
(letter above equals below, and vice versa)
There is no formal parking area to leave your car when visiting the Blair Sheave Tower in Cambridge.
There are also no toilets or places to get food or drink as it is on a quiet residential road.
How to Get There
- Highway 401 W
- Exit 275 Homer Watson Blvd in Kitchener
- Left on Homer Watson Blvd (Changes to Fountain Street in Cambridge)
- First exit onto Dickie Settlement Road in roundabout
- Left on Old Mill Road
- Your final destination is 90 Old Mill Road, Cambridge, Ontario
Ontario’s 160 Unusual Places Adventure Continues!
The Blair Sheave Tower crosses off #4 of 160 unusual places I’m visiting with Ron Brown’s 160 Unusual Things to See in Ontario. Where to next? I’m checking out a castle, a funky looking church, and more! If you’re on Instagram, hop on over to follow along! To check out the first adventure in my series, visit the blog post on Waterloo’s Pioneer Memorial Tower. For more local reading, head on over to learn about the Ontario’s romantic last wooden covered bridge in West Montrose. Happy browsing, fellow adventurers!