A business that once employed close to 500 at its peak in the Yarmouth area lives on in the powerful memories of many.
If you didn’t work at the mill, chances are you knew someone who did.
For decades, generations of families, along with other employees, made their way in and out of these doors on Water Street.
Shift after shift.
Day after day.
Year after year.
Not quite forever, but close to it – or so it seemed.
Cotton mill through the eyes of a child
Crystal Turner’s father, Reg Turner, worked at the Yarmouth cotton mill for many years, first in the weaving room, then in the boiler room before he retired.
He worked many night shifts and she remembers “sneaking in” to take him a snack. She and her sisters would sit with him “for ages” and watch late shows on the black-and-white TV he had on site.
“I remember watching Hawaii 5-0 and Space 1999 with him at the mill,” she says.
“At that time, Maynard LeBlanc was the night watchman and he did rounds over the entire two buildings. I went with him on his rounds many times. Such a nice man.”
Some of her favourite memories were of the much-anticipated Christmas parties.
They were usually held at the Yarmouth legion, with “hordes” of kids attending and always Santa. Every child received a personal gift, usually something quite nice, she says.
“Dad told us later that he would give them a list of what we had asked for and usually they picked something from that list for us,” she recalls.
There were “wonderful” treat bags with Yarmouth Candy suckers – “the huge animal ones” – and a chocolate milk from Cook’s Dairy, plus other goodies.
“It was truly the highlight of Christmas in my youth,” Turner says.
She also remembers the big balls of string that her father would bring home from leftovers on the looms.
“He always seemed to carry scissors in a holster on his belt.”
She has the old wooden desk chair that he sat in while writing his reports in the boiler room.
When she married, her father got his new son-in-law, Tony, a job at the cotton mill.
“My entire childhood to adulthood was entwined with that place,” she says.
The cotton mill was a part of Yarmouth’s economic success for 108 years, starting near the end of the Age of Sail.
By 1879 Yarmouth’s shipping fleet was the second largest in Canada, with sea captains renowned around the world. Although the fleet was constructed in about 100 locations, 88 per cent of the vessels were built in Shelburne, Yarmouth and Digby.
An opportunity was seen to manufacture canvas for sailing ships and the Yarmouth Duck and Yarn Company was established on Water Street in 1883.
The mill was sold in 1902 to Cosmos Cotton Company. That company merged with Cosmos Imperial Mills in 1925. In 1973 Dominion Textile bought out Cosmos Imperial Mills.
The closure of what is locally referred to as simply ‘the cotton mill’ occurred in 1991. The mill’s owner had shocked the community when in the fall of 1990 it announced its intention to close the mill.
The period leading up to the announced closure of the mill had been one of economic prosperity in the Yarmouth area, prompting the Yarmouth Vanguard to declare in a headline ‘Welcome to boomtown.’
The headline on the front page of the paper after the closure of the mill was announced read, instead, ‘Boomtown goes bust.’
The headline was reflective of the significant role the cotton mill had played in the fabric of the community for a very long time.
Former employee Bob Gavel says people have their own theories as to why the mill closed.
“We all kind of felt the demise the train tracks contributed,” he says. “We had to start trucking the cotton in and I think it added to the cost. That was the start of the end.”
The bales of cotton used in the cloth-making process were unloaded from train cars right beside the mill.
In March 1990 the Canadian Pacific Railway abandoned the Dominion Atlantic Railway's trackage west of Kentville to Yarmouth.
Gavel began working at the mill in the mid-1970s. He left during a strike and returned in 1983 as a room hand in the weave room, sweeping floors and cleaning up. He became a cloth doffer and advanced to the cloth department to become a batcher tender where he helped sew rolls together into larger ones for shipping.
From there he went to industrial engineering to become a time-study analyst, visiting different departments to devise ways to improve machinery performance and employee efficiency.
Gavel’s next advancement was as a technician in the laboratory, testing machinery to see if it was running efficiently and performing tests to make sure products coming out of the machines were at the proper standards. He then became an acting shift foreman in the spinning and winding department. The mill ran seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
Some of Gavel’s strongest memories are of the bales of cotton arriving on the trains. The bales were stored upstairs, hundreds of them, each measuring four feet tall, by three feet wide, by three feet deep, he says.
The raw cotton moved through a complicated network of machinery that was tended by workers, to eventually become 15-20 types of cloth – some as fine as cheesecloth, others as tough and thick as canvas.
Employees could visit a store on John Street to buy towels and other products made at the cotton mill.
“We had our own nurse and medical facilities on site. Across the street was the main office building where payroll and the superintendent was, that’s where the RCMP station is now.”
Gavel says employees tended to stay a long time.
Today, Novatec Braids Ltd. occupies a former cotton mill building on the east side of Water Street.
Demolition of much of the old mill on the opposite side of Water Street occurred in 2017 after it was determined by the three local municipal units involved with the industrial commission – the Municipality of Yarmouth, the Municipality of Argyle and the Town of Yarmouth – that the cost of refurbishing and renovating the large section of the building far outweighed the cost of knocking it down. In the years since the mill’s closure there had been successful and unsuccessful occupation of the section of the building identified for demolition. A tender of roughly $3 million was awarded to tear the section down.
Phil Mooney, the Town of Yarmouth’s deputy mayor, says all of the land on which the cotton mill buildings once stood has been sold.
Tri-Star Charters, which provide motorcoach and shuttle services, has purchased a piece to expand its lot.
Novatec Braids Ltd. bought a section for a planned expansion.
Germaine’s Electrical has bought some to “even up their property” and address parking issues.
“Another individual, a numbered company, has done some ground work and they’re going to build a commercial enterprise on the property in the middle,” says Mooney. “They should be starting in the next few months.”
Mooney adds that the Town of Yarmouth has bought some of the land for a future boardwalk, described in the waterfront development plan.
Seeing the old cotton mill building demolished was a sad time for many who had spent much of their life there.
“I tried to avoid Water Street while it was happening,” says Gavel.
He says the hardest part of everything when the mill closed was the people you missed.
“You became a family is the way I looked at it,” he says.
To keep that family connected, Gavel launched a Facebook Group called Yarmouth Cotton Mill in May 2014 that now has close to 500 members.
In that group people share memories.
They share photos.
And when a former employee of the mill passes away, they share condolences.