Before there was an Ashcroft, there was Harper’s Mill on the Bonaparte

Harper’s Mill on the Bonaparte River, pictured in the 1890s. The road connecting the site to the Cariboo Waggon Road can be seen in the background. (Photo credit: Ashcroft Museum and Archives)Harper’s Mill on the Bonaparte River, pictured in the 1890s. The road connecting the site to the Cariboo Waggon Road can be seen in the background. (Photo credit: Ashcroft Museum and Archives)
Harper’s Mill on the Bonaparte River, 1890s. (Photo credit: Ashcroft Museum and Archives)Harper’s Mill on the Bonaparte River, 1890s. (Photo credit: Ashcroft Museum and Archives)

If Thaddeus Harper had been half as good a businessman as his brother Jerome, or if the CP mainline had been built on the west side of the Thompson River at its confluence with the Bonaparte instead of the east, or if it had been easier for steamships to navigate the Thompson from Savona to Ashcroft, or if a cable ferry across the Thompson had been possible, then the town now known as Ashcroft might well have been called Harper’s Mill, or Harpertown.

That is a lot of “ifs”, but such is history, which sometimes turns on the slightest thing. Perhaps a grist mill on the Bonaparte, to grind wheat into flour, was always doomed to failure, but had just one of those “ifs” gone in another direction, the history of Ashcroft might have been different.

Bread has been called the staff of life, and is one of the oldest human-made foods, with a prominent place in most cultures. Flour is its most essential component, and since the dawn of the agricultural age humans have ground just about anything suitable in order to produce it. In European culture, wheat is the most commonly used grain, and when British Columbia began opening up to Europeans in the 1850s, they brought their desire for bread, and the wheat flour to make it, with them.

Flour is remarkably versatile, but it is also heavy and bulky in any kind of large quantity. At a time when settlers had to either pack everything they needed on their backs, or pay to have it transported, having local access to flour was highly desirable. Just as there were many would-be gold-seekers who decided it was more profitable to operate roadhouses or stores that catered to miners than to mine themselves, some saw gold in grist mills.

In 1865 J.H. Scott established a grist mill at Parsonville, across the river from Lillooet. Scott had land there where he initially grew tobacco to supply to the miners passing through the area, but when this venture failed he set up a grist mill instead; one of the first in the province.

It was not long before he had competition. Almost immediately, John Marshall established a mill on the Lillooet side of the river, and although Scott had been there first, he soon realized there wasn’t room for two grist mills in such close proximity to each other. In 1866 he decided to move the mill to Pollard’s Ranch near Clinton, where he felt there was ample opportunity to grow wheat, and no competing mill a stone’s throw away. The building was taken apart, the pieces were carefully labelled, and it was shipped north and reassembled.

The new owners were brothers Jerome and Thaddeus Harper. J.B. Leighton, a pioneer of 1863, knew both men, and in a letter from around 1938 — when he was 86 years old — Leighton wrote about them.

“Jerome Harper the elder man was the main man and made the big money. Thaddeus was never mentioned. Jerome’s mind gave away, [he] was taken to California in 1870 and died there some time after that.

“Everything that Jerome touched was a success — at one time [he] was supposed to be worth $200,000. Thaddeus was no manager and in about 10 years he was a business wreck and lost everything — was a pleasant man to meet — but no head.”

In the Feb. 9, 1939 issue of the Journal former editor R.D. Cumming — who as a boy in the late 1880s had worked sacking flour in Marshall’s mill in Lillooet — noted that grist mills had sprung up “like mushrooms” following the completion of the Cariboo Waggon Road in the early 1860s. In addition to Marshall’s, and the Harpers’ at Clinton, there were mills at the Cornwall brothers’ property (now Ashcroft Manor), at Pavilion, at Dog Creek and Williams Lake and Soda Creek.

Around 1878 the scarcity of wheat in the Clinton area prompted Thaddeus Harper to look at relocating the mill, and he settled on a location south of Clinton, on the mouth of the Bonaparte River where it meets the Thompson. Despite Leighton’s asserting that Thaddeus had no head for business, it seemed a sound decision. It was known that the Canadian Pacific Railway would be constructing its mainline beside the Thompson in that area, and although there was no town there yet, no railway or depot or station, there soon would be, which would make the shipping of wheat to the mill, and the shipping of flour from it, an easy matter.

Thus it was that the mill — which had already been taken apart, shipped, and reassembled once — was again dismantled, and the building and machinery were freighted down the Cariboo Road, “the heavy timbers being carefully marked so that in rebuilding they would take up their original positions,” wrote Cumming in 1939, when the mill was still standing. “The numbers marked on the ends of the framework with a ‘paint pot’ can still be seen in the interior of the building.”

The mill was again put together, like the world’s largest Lincoln Log set, in 1879 on the north side of the mouth of the Bonaparte River. There was no Ashcroft at the time, and thus no road leading to the eventual townsite, so the mill was reached by a road zigzagging down the hillside behind it that connected to the Cariboo Road, and ran along the north side of the Bonaparte River through what is now the Schalles Ranch.

All seemed set for a successful enterprise, but unbeknownst to Thaddeus Harper, a series of setbacks were in store for his business, beginning with what appears (in hindsight) to be a bad omen: a freak landslide downstream on the Thompson River only a year later, which put the mill in grave peril, and produced one of the few artefacts from Harper’s Mill that survives to this day.

Next time: A minor decision by the Canadian Pacific has a huge impact on Harper’s Mill.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Local History