Rural landmark bites the dust, taking history with it

It’s worthwhile to stand out in front of the Innisfil Antique Mall and look across the street to the Simcoe District Co-op’s Feed Mill. Just look. It sits on 3.5 acres of land and holds in its boards a 55-year history.

It was built by the Simcoe District Co-operative Services, an organization devoted to extending services and cash flow assistance to the farming community. When the mill was built on Innisfil St in 1948, co-op members were concerned that it was so far out of town, in so remote a location. And of course, today, without moving an inch, it’s in the heart of the city.

The two storey building, which ceased mill and feed operations last month, has formed the foundation of grain and feed service to the rural community for half a century. Farmers would bring in their grain, visit with early workers like Al O’Connor, feed manager, and they’d leave with milled feed to take home to their dairy or beef herds.

In those days, the mill gave personal service and farmers became well acquainted with Emerson Graham, Lloyd Martin, Hugh McMillan, Bob Pryde, and Ron Barnes. These fellows worked the mill, accepting grain, bagging feed, some driving trucks to deliver larger orders. When the mill opened it handled two or three bags of this or that, small custom orders that served the needs of its members. Last year the mill measured its output as 30,000 tons, according to CEO Glen Vanderhaighe. And that tonnage is trucked out. Mill workers seldom meet farmers in our less personal, higher output age.

But half a century ago, trainloads of grain and supplies arrived at the mill through the CNR (Canadian National Railway) tracks that ran adjacent to the mill. Chopping, seed-cleaning, and pre-mixing of concentrates were just some of the services offered. The second floor of the mill served as a dance hall for years, lovingly nicknamed “The Coop” by enthusiastic members who enjoyed a musical night out.

During the 50’s, a consulting service sent Joe McGrath out as the fieldman on the Co-op staff, to help with management, soil or feeding problems that member farmers were voicing. Add to that a molasses mixing plant and a new grain roller and it’s easy to see why the Feed Division offered over 40% of the co-op’s total revenue, and over 60% of its profit.

The mill was one important segment of the Simcoe District Co-op’s initiatives. Fuel was another service added in the 50’s, and a retail operation was the third element.

So, why close it after 55 years, and after its steady contribution to co-op coffers?

Glen Vanderhaighe explains: “Our mill is no longer state of the art. We’re not getting out of the feed business; we’re moving our service to Lake o’ Lakes whose modern plants at Peterborough and Wingham will continue to process grain for our customers. It operates the same way, with trucks picking up grain and delivering feed… it’s just that there will be an increase in distance.”

Glen says reaction of the 3700 co-op members has been good. It’s expensive to maintain the old mill and upgrading to meet today’s standards doesn’t make economic sense when subcontracting can provide excellent service. The new standards that Glen’s talking about include Hazardous Analysis and certification of Critical Control Points.

Besides, with 3.5 acres of land in the downtown core, the co-op can see other economic uses for the property.

“We have our retail store and garden centre and our fuel business and those are growth parts of our business in an urban population. Right now the co-op has 3700 members and twice as many customers who just come in to buy.

The dozen mill employees affected by the move are long service people. More than half have been placed within the organization, a couple as drivers, and final movement haven’t been decided yet.

Hazel Morrison, an employee since 1964, says she’s seen enormous change since the bustling, simpler days of the 50’s and 60’s. As the office girl in the 60’s, Hazel still works part time, keeping track of the finances when needed.

As you stand on Innisfil St and look at this landmark, you can almost hear the hoots of laughter during a dance in The Coop, and you can smell new grain as the grinders change it into feed, mixing it with molasses so a dairy herd has productive nutrition.

It’s a building that has played a crucial role in the agricultural life of Barrie’s past.