Those who have had the fortune—or misfortune—to disassemble the transmission and drive system of their bike have generally been amazed—or dismayed—at the sequence of parts required to get power from the engine to the rear wheel. Motorcycle mechanics were developed long before Harley-Davidson or Indian came on the scene. Centuries before motorcycles were even conceived, complex gear drives were turning in mills.
Popular with motorcyclist and “foodies,” the Charlevoix region of Quebec is special for many reasons. The village of Baie-Saint-Paul is located about an hour (85km/53mi) east of Quebec City and can be so packed with bikes on a sunny weekend to appear as if an impromptu rally is taking place. These riders have come to ride the region’s scenic roads and to enjoy its famous gastronomy.
Within a radius of 18 kilometers (11 miles) of downtown Baie-Saint-Paul are four early 19th century grist mills that still grind the locally grown organic wheat into flour used by artisan bakers. Each mill has a rich history where millwrights explain the process of grinding flour to visitors. For me, these mills also offer a unique opportunity to present the very fundamentals of mechanics.
Since the Middle Ages in Europe, every town required a mill in which to grind grain into flour to produce the staple of life: bread. The same was true when permanent settlements were established in North America. The first gristmill in the New World was built in 1607, at Acadia (Annapolis Royal, NS). In 1627, Cardinal Richelieu inaugurated the seigneurial system, a semi-feudal system of land distribution, in New France. These large estates were laid out along the St. Lawrence River and in the center of each were a church and a gristmill. Since a gristmill was needed for every 40 to 50 families, it can be reasonably assumed that there were mechanics to build and maintain them. In fact, every prosperous village in Canada and the United States maintained at least one gristmill until the advent of railroads offered a means of economical transportation for grain and flour.
The development of inexpensive cast-steel suitable for tool making in the late 1880s occurred at the same time that aluminum became readily available and affordable. The introduction of De Dion-Bouton internal combustion engine in 1896 provided a lightweight power source for bicycles and gave birth to a decade of frenzied development of motorcycle designs. However, the method of transferring power from the engine to the rear wheel was, and still remains, essentially identical to that of a gristmill.
The sluice gate is opened and water rushes into the mill, spilling over the giant waterwheel. Once the brake is disengaged, the weight of falling water begins to turn the waterwheel and, with groans and tremors, the massive two-story high “engine” comes to life and builds up speed. It’s an awesome spectacle to watch.
Every gristmill was custom-built for the site on which it sits, but the mechanical principles were the same for each and every one of them. A source of motive power—preferably controlled and applied at a constant rate—caused a series (train) of gears to increase in speed to rotate a grindstone at about 120 rpm. Auxiliary to this primary drive where others operated by drive belts and pulleys. Depending upon the ratio of one belt drum to another, the belt system could simultaneous support various other systems and machinery within the mill that operated at different speeds.
Standing in a mill and watching the shafts rotate, listening to the whine of rapidly traveling heavy drive belts, and feeling the vibration as
one gear tooth engages with the next is much the same as if you were trapped inside your motorcycle engine—without the messy oil to muck you up. It’s quite easy to see where modern cam shaft belts originated, complete with rollers and belt tensioners. Simple gear clutches aren’t much different from those used on early motorcycles that had only two gear speeds. Beveled gears changed the direction of shaft rotation, as they still do in shaft-drive bikes like BMW. On some vintage models, auxiliary belts, or chains, in the engine run the oil and/or water pump.
Ignoring chronology, the first mill to visit is the Rémy (Moulin Rémy) just north of Baie-St-Paul on Route 138. Built in 1826 it is the largest of the four and operated as a flour mill until 1950 and then produced animal feed until sometime in the 1980s. The original gearing disappeared, but restoration by a local land trust began in 1997 and once again the mill commenced grinding wheat in 2007. A 24-foot diameter waterwheel was built, the gearing authentically reconstructed, and so too for the grain elevators, belt drives, and bolter that sifts the flour. Cast-steel replaces cast-iron, synthetic fiber is used instead of leather for belts, and ball-bearing bushings and steel shafts stand in for lesser materials used in the 19th century. Wood is still used for teeth on gears and pinions; for the main and drive shafts; belt pulleys; and hurst (stanchion).
The Rémy Bakery (Boulangerie la Rémy) uses the flour ground in the mill to create breads, pies, and even pizza in magnificent wood-fired, brick ovens. The mill is essentially a working museum, an “economuseum,” while the bakery is a retail business.
The next site to visit is 18km (11mi) east of Baie-St-Paul in the village of Les Éboulements along Route 362, one of the top ten scenic roads in Canada. Built in 1790, this is the best surviving seigneurial mill in Canada. In 1962 it was acquired by Canadian Heritage of Quebec and restored. This mill is so authentic than even the miller is a direct descendant of its builder.
The Seigneurial—or Banal—Mill is built on a cliff and, although the approach is on the level of the work floor, this structure is five stories tall. Only one grindstone is now in use, but three were originally operated. Other essential equipment—a lathe, blade sharpener, and hoists—are operated by auxiliary belts, as are the grain elevators (belts to which small scoops are attached to carry flour) and the “bolter” (a giant rotating sifter used to sort the flour into different grades from bran to pastry).
The final stop is a pair of mills located on Îsle-aux-Coudres (Hazelnut Island). The first was built on the Red River in 1825. From the standpoint of craftsmanship and efficiency this mill stands out from the ordinary. Yet it suffered the fate of a four-year drought and the miller’s son built a windmill on the other side of the brook in 1836. It’s the only place in the world where both a wind- and water-powered gristmill exists on the same site.
To get to this pair of mills requires turning right out of the driveway of the Seigneurial Mill and almost immediately turning right again onto Chemin du Port (Port Road). Dramatically descending to the St. Lawrence River on grades that reach 18%, you’re presented with stunning views of the island and the sweep of the broad river from the Laurentians to the Appalachian Mountains. The ferry crossing from the village of St.-Joseph-de-la-Rive to the island is free and presents magnificent views of the Charlevoix coastline. You might even spy a white Beluga whale or watch an ocean freighter en route to Montreal during the 15 minute crossing.
At the Flour Milling Economusuem you’ll discover an interpretive center in the miller’s house and guides in period costume. Once again the layout of the mill follows set rules of function and mechanics, but the design is customized for both the physical site and volume of wheat that was—and still is—grown on the island. This one is extremely efficient with the bolter (sifter) next to the vat (stone case), and the tendering screw, for adjusting he working gap between the millstones, positioned between them. Obviously, having seen one mill doesn’t mean that you’ve seen them all!
The windmill is the last “tower mill” built in Quebec. There had been others on the island since the first was built in 1727, and this one utilized stones that once were part of this first one. One stone in the lower wall is even inscribed 1678, so obviously parts of an even earlier structure were utilized. Having seen three mills, you can’t help but notice that the layout is restrictive and how much extra labor would have been required to handle the sacks of grain. The motive power originates with wind at the top of the structure and so the drive system is essentially reversed (over-drift millstone drive) and simpler than in most water-powered mills (under-drift). Another key factor to be considered is that the quality of flour is dependent on the consistency and speed of the revolving grindstone (the runner stone; the bottom stone, the bed stone, is always fixed in position)—and wind speed is rarely constant. This windmill was outdated even at the time it was built. It’s a throwback to the Medieval Period and perhaps the only one in North America that has survived intact into the modern era, although it was restored in 2012.
Now that you’ve had the opportunity to witness the mechanical “engines” that evolved into motorcycles, you might appreciate the long historical lineage of your bike. At the very least you’ve been entertained. Although mills and motorcycles both make wheels turn, they miller has to remain at work and you are free to travel on the scenic roads of the Charlevoix.