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July 26, 2023

Millbrook from the Air, June 2023

By Guy Scott

The largest village in Cavan Township is Millbrook. The village site was strategically located at the point where the Middle Line of Cavan crossed Baxter’s Creek. Like all villages, Millbrook was a mill town (hence the name!). As early as 1818 settlers had claimed land within the future town site. By 1822 the Deyell Brothers were running a grist and sawmill on Baxter’s Creek. This was a huge bonus for settlers all over the area, and countless pioneers to the north tramped the trails to have grain ground into flour until the Purdy’s opened a grist mill in Lindsay (1831). Over its history, Millbrook has hosted 9 mills: milling everything from lumber to flour.

Further prosperity hit the village in 1856 with the arrival of the Port Hope-Lindsay Railway. The population quadrupled from 250 to 1000 and Millbrook became a very prosperous business centre. The town was dealt a huge blow by the Great Fire of 1875 which destroyed over 30 businesses. All was lost except for the Victoria Hotel, which was saved by the heroic actions of the cast of Forepaugh’s Travelling Circus, which was staying there at the time. But the fire was a blessing in disguise as a plethora of fine new Victorian buildings replaced the hap-hazard growth of the pioneer era. Many of these magnificent structures still grace the main street of Millbrook today, giving the town an old Victorian atmosphere. It is almost like time stood still in Millbrook. In fact, this old section has attracted several movie directors looking to produce period films. Movies shot in Millbrook include “Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town,” a CBC adaptation of the famous Stephen Leacock book where Millbrook plays Orillia circa 1911; The Music Men, a remake of the famous musical where the village doubles as River City (Iowa); “Ice Princess”; and a History of Violence. The historical core of Millbrook proxies for other towns long since changed by time.

The height of prosperity in Millbrook was the 1880s. After this decade, the population began to decline as the economy of the area stagnated. In fact, an exodus of settlers from Cavan township to the new province of Manitoba began in 1881. A special “settlers’ train carried a Cavan contingent to the new prairie town of Souris. It was led by Squire Sowden, the most prominent businessman in Millbrook. Tough times, the search for new farmland and a hope for future profits fuelled the exodus. Needless to say, Souris prospered after its founding.

Today, Millbrook is a bedroom community fro surrounding cities. The Millbrook Correctional Centre operated from 1957 until it was closed in 2003. Needler’s Mill, the last surviving mill from the heyday of Cavan’s mill’s has been lovingly restored to its former glory. The 4th Line Theatre presents local plays in its barnyard during the summer only. The Millbrook Fair recaptures the agricultural past and present. But above all else, Millbrook still has that magnificent main street that still echoes glories of the past.

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