Rose Kentish, who travels to France twice a year to make her own wine, and her husband, Sam Harrison, an accomplished artist, have four children. Yet, remarkably, they find time to restore Middleton’s historic flour mill as their home, part-time coffee shop, a place to buy restored furniture and a wine tasting venue.
They say in the heat of a summer’s night you can hear old Frederick Ellis shuffling his feet whilst doing his rounds upstairs of The Mill in Middleton. Rather surprising, actually, considering he died upon being run over by a railway truck underneath the verandah in 1889.
Sam Harrison, who now owns this magnificent state heritage building with his wife, Rose Kentish, describes the growing embellishment of Frederick’s ghost as sheer nonsense, but let’s not ruin a good story with the facts.
The folklore may, however, encourage some to at least take a glance of The Mill for the first time in years. It is one of those rare places of interest that we tend to take for granted. You may observe the old railway loop line has long gone; the 70ft chimney stack was completely demolished in 1943.
However, this flour mill, the last remaining of 16 built along our southern coastline and once the biggest building on the southern Fleurieu, has recovered much of its other splendor and continues to breathe its heritage.
We can thank Sam and Rose for their restoration work over the past seven years including a new roof, replacement of giant blue gum beams, and other new infrastructure – a continuation of the equally amazing preservation work of those long before them who also saw the need to revive our past.
The Mill, according to history lines delivered so diligently in a book by Jack Peake and Peter Humby, Middleton South Australia 1849-2009, was built for the Basham family in 1850, with the first occupants being brothers William and Alexander Bowman.
The restoration, and recording, is important because some other classic stone dwellings in Middleton have been crushed over the years. The fight to save the adjoining Mill House – once home to the Bowmans, with its 10ft passageway used by the Reverend John Anderson to hold Presbyterian Church services from the 1850-60 era – continues, and hopefully may be won with imminent listing under the South Australian Heritage Register.
Sam and Rose first ran The Mill as a restaurant, but it was also their home, and with four young children it became a difficult mix. These days Sam exhibits art, including his own creative works – predominantly figurative and abstract with a European feel from his occasional trips to France with Rose, a winemaker of note. She treks to Corsican for vintage every September-October and returns in December to prepare the final blends bottled under her own label, Ulithorne, and imports them.
There is also the cellar door, a café bar and brilliant creations in the form of furniture that makes The Mill a ‘must drop-in’ spot for locals and those on the tourist trail, but of course, the activity could not be compared with this grand building’s halcyon days.
Sam and Rose, with their undeniable talent to see life in all forms of creation, said from the moment they walked into this mill they sensed the nostalgia of what it was really like until it ceased grinding in 1915 when hit by a cruel drought and its workers marching off to World War I.
“The Mill was in good condition when we bought it in 2006,” Sam said. “It was owned by Chris Norris for 20 something years, and he ran it as a big enterprise with 50 people working for him making sandstone, forge and ceramics, and then another artist, David Bromley, had it for seven years and did a lot of renovation.
“Rose and I share this very strong feeling of being a custodian. These places live and breathe; you feel it when you walk into a space like this… it already has emotion and a soul. It goes beyond the initial wow factor; it is the personality of the building that is special. It feels natural to people who value its heritage, while others may be just overwhelmed by an old building.
“This was built only 20 years after settlement, and obviously the logistics were amazing. Some of the timber came out on boats from England. Most was pine from around here, and the stone from a quarry out the back of Middleton. They had amazing building techniques; the walls haven’t cracked after 158 years.
“The lime mortar, which has allowed the building to breathe, has disintegrated over the years, and when we do work we use mostly lime again.
“There are now three kitchens and eight bathrooms, but of course when this mill was in her full glory it was a different set-up.
“The grain came by paddle steamers to the River Port of Goolwa, and here by train. There were two gantries, which remain on the eastern side of the building, over a loop line. They used machinery to haul the bags of grain to the top floor where they were emptied into a chute for gristing.
“Once it became flour, pollard or bran it was bagged and loaded on the railway trucks for return delivery up the Murray from Goolwa, or to Port Elliot and Victor Harbor to be shipped to Port Adelaide. After 30 or so shipwrecks at Port Elliot and Victor because the waters were too shallow, they took it direct to Port Adelaide by wagons.”
Sam likes to believe the building still has the capacity to be a flour mill again. “The Goolwa Museum has various pieces of equipment, including the original bell which we believe should be on loan here,” he says. “A few pulleys remain, and the old boiler used to run pulley machinery is still out the back.”
But the next moment, Sam concedes it’s just a dream. Rose smiles, and adds: “As a gallery and cellar door space it gives people an opportunity to live the heritage of the mill. This is where we live, and we could do this somewhere else, but as part of our community feeling we open part of our private home so people can feel the history.”
Sam said numerous people had called into The Mill with a story to tell, including someone recently who was a relative of the Bowman brothers. “They recalled their family experiences that were passed down through generations like they were yesterday,” he said. “It’s why we are pleased to share our home, and why we see ourselves as the custodians.”
But at the same time Sam and Rose lament so many people also drive past and only see a giant stone building with two ‘sheds’ hanging over the eastern side without thinking of it as a special place in local and state history. Forgotten is the fact this mill also played a huge part in the once thriving paddle steamer industry at the River Port of Goolwa, and the shipping from Port Elliot and Victor Harbor.
The Mill died with the beginning of South Australia’s industrial revolution, and perhaps forgotten have been all the small things that make places like these so great. Forget England’s recent triumphs in the cricket, rugby tennis, etc; let’s dwell on the fact our Mill took out first and second prize at the British Empire Exhibition in London during the late 1850s. No wonder Frederick Ellis doesn’t want to leave the place. Or is this ghost merely that prize-winning flour sifting from the giant beams?