Skip to content

Historic mill a focal point of rejuvenated Utopia Conservation Area (4 photos)

'There’s some really interesting diversity in here,' said land manager.

With 50 acres newly opened to the public, the updated Utopia Conservation Area is expected to quickly become a draw.

Two trails totalling two kilometres, mostly looped and lined with limestone screenings, are meant to be accessible to people of all abilities. There are signs along the way, explaining the area’s flora, fauna and history. 

A separate trail leads to the historic grist mill which overlooks Bear Creek.

“The building has an incredible will to live,” said Susan Antler, Friends of the Utopia Mill and Park chair during the area’s official opening Friday.

The original mill built in 1864 burned down in 1903. The three-storey building that replaced it was built with the help of the community. It has a 1.5-metre thick stone foundation sunk deep into the ground on the creek’s edge. 

When Hurricane Hazel caused the creek to rise during the fall of 1954, the porch was swept away and water came into the first floor and then flowed out the back, but there was otherwise little damage.

The mill later became the core of the conservation property. 

Having closed the mill in 1965 its owner at the time, Harold Bell, donated the gristmill, along with the adjacent small general store, to the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority (NVCA).

Within the next three years, the NVCA had acquired surrounding lands, totalling 102.2 acres from various owners for flood management and to be used as a recreational area. 

The property is essentially divided in half by a railway line and the goal is both to preserve the natural greenspace and wetland and make it available for passive recreational use.

The mill was saved from demolition several years ago by the Friends group and there are efforts to raise enough money to fully restore it.

Kyra Howes explained that part of the property where trails have been created was once a camping area. Howes, manager of lands and operations for the NVCA, said the goal is to encourage the land’s natural development for the animals that have long called it home.

Plastic tubes along the trail protect newly planted native trees, which include endangered butternut trees. While there has been a concerted effort to increase the butternut population on the property, other saplings that are left over after the NVCA’s annual tree planting campaign find home here as well.

The Bear Creek Valley is home to plenty of mature trees, Howes added.

“There’s some really interesting diversity in here,” she said, referring to the balsam fir, red oaks and naturally occurring butternut trees.

Solarizing tarps sporadically appear alongside the trail to allow for the planting of native species.

Occasionally Howes points out the high-pitch of the kestrels, although the birds never appear from the bush to show themselves.

“We anticipate as the (area’s) population increases, this will become a primary destination,” said Howes, referring to a new subdivision being developed in the nearby Angus.

Bike racks will soon be installed for those arriving on two wheels.

Near the area’s entrance are two eco-washrooms, hailed as Ontario’s first and the only ones currently open at a local conservation area. They are powered by foot pedals and use natural processes to recycle waste through the use of a septic field and an open-bottom vault.

Antler said there is still a lot of work to be done. There are plans to concentrate on the roof and siding of the mill.

The hope is to also link the two sections of the trail with a pedestrian bridge over Bear Creek. Currently there is a plan in the works to also include hikes with goats from a local zoo.