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The Pointe-Claire Mill

Considered the cornerstone of the heritage of New France, mills date back to the days when our collective history was first being built. Sadly, very few of these mills still remain; most have fallen victim to time or unrelenting modernization.

Léonard Paillé dit Paillard, the master of the mills!

Settlement in the west of Montreal rapidly gained momentum after the Great Peace was signed between the French and the surrounding Native nations. Many fiefs were granted to colonists brave enough to leave the secure ramparts of Ville-Marie and settle on the fertile land that skirted the island. As the need for infrastructure quickly grew, this responsibility fell to the island’s seigneurs, the Sulpicians, who built a mill where the censitaires (tenants) could grind their grain. In 1709, the Sulpicians hired carpenter Léonard Paillé, dit Paillard, to build a communal mill. Since the late 1600s, this French-born carpenter had been the region’s most prolific mill builder. During his 40-year career, Paillard is said to have built the structure and mechanism of at least 24 mills. With the help of his son Charles and stone mason Jean Mars, Paillard built a mill that would long outlive him.

The Pointe-Claire mill had the advantage of being located on a point of land that jutted out into Lac Saint-Louis—the ideal spot for benefitting from the full brunt of the wind. Despite the fact that the Iroquois no longer posed a threat, the building’s architecture took on a defensive nature and even featured loopholes—small openings through which firearms could be discharged in the event of an attack. The mill was also surrounded by a wood palisade. The mill’s simple yet functional design served the local habitants well, but also reflected the limited material resources the seigneurs had on-hand at the time of its construction. A miller’s house was built next to it.

The mill was run by a succession of a dozen leaseholders, until the Sulpicians finally sold it to an owner-operator in 1837. The mill’s activities ceased in 1866, and the parish of Saint-Joachim acquired the property, before transferring the ownership to the Congregation of Notre-Dame. In the late 1800s, the nuns converted the mill into an observatory, replacing the conical roof with an observation platform. A wind engine was erected on the roof to pump water from a well to feed the convent. It remained in use until 1916, when the convent was connected to municipal water services. During the 1950s and early 1960s, the sisters had the conical roof rebuilt and restored the mill’s exterior back to its original character.

The Pointe-Claire windmill is the second-oldest communal mill on the island of Montreal, after the mill in Senneville. In 1982, the Quebec government classified the mill a heritage site, and today, it is a source of pride for the residents of Pointe-Claire. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers from the Société pour la Sauvegarde du Patrimoine de Pointe-Claire (Society for the preservation of the heritage of Pointe-Claire), steps are being taken to restore the mill’s mechanism, which will allow it to operate once again.

Communal Mills in New France

Just like in the motherland, the seigneurs of New France were responsible for building, maintaining and operating a mill, which was called a banal (or communal) mill because it was for the collective use of their censitaires, or tenants. Unless agreed otherwise, the seigneur enjoyed exclusive operating rights. In return, the censitaires were obliged to grind their grain there for a fee. Those who infringed the rule were punished with a fine or had their grain confiscated.