CBC News · Posted: Oct 29, 2023 4:00 AM EDT

Ben Andrews · CBC News · Posted: Oct 29, 2023 4:00 AM EDT | Last Updated: 4 hours ago

Residents, heritage group aim to halt demolition of ‘irreplaceable’ Lanark mill

Textile factory and outlet store was once centre of village economy, resident says

A group of Lanark residents and members of the Lanark Heritage Preservation Society stand outside the Glenayr Kitten Mill on Saturday. They say demolishing the mill would be a missed opportunity for the community southwest of Ottawa. (Ben Andrews/CBC News)

A heritage group in Lanark, Ont., is hoping to stop the demolition of the Glenayr Kitten Mill, a mid-19th century building that was once the cornerstone of the local economy.

The mill currently sits vacant and dilapidated on the banks of the Clyde River, about 80 kilometres west of downtown Ottawa.

Long home to the Glenayr Kitten textile company, the double-walled stone building is now slated for demolition.

But heritage group members and other residents say destroying it would amount to a missed opportunity to revitalize the once-proud property.

“The workmanship and the materials are irreplaceable,” said Linda Dunn, member of the  Lanark Heritage Preservation Society. “Once it’s down, it’s gone.”

‘Everybody had a Kitten sweater’

Made of local stone, the building dates to the mid-1800s or “just thereabouts,” said Susan Berlin, another member of the heritage society.

It started life as a general store but went through several incarnations — including as the Caldwell Woollen Mill — before a Toronto family bought it in the 1940s.

The Marckle family turned it into a factory and outlet store for the Kitten clothing label. They imported yarn before dyeing it on site and turning it into knit sweaters and cardigans, Berlin said.

That was when the building became known as the Glenayr Kitten Mill.

“Everybody had a Kitten sweater, or a Kitten sweater set,” Dunn said. “It was a very profitable, thriving business.”

The factory and store employed some 200 people at its peak, and several of its former workers still live in the village of Lanark.

“It was the heartbeat of the community,” Berlin said.

But by the 1990s, as much of Canada’s textile industry went overseas, the mill closed down.

Property records show the current owner purchased the mill for $57,000 in October 2011 and the building has sat largely unused since. They declined an opportunity to comment.

Today, fissures run between the stones of the main building, while a cinder block addition along the river bank sits exposed to the elements beneath a collapsed roof.

“It has been gradually coming down for the last ten years,” Berlin said. “And here we are.”

Building salvageable, architecture firm finds

Despite its condition, the heritage society believes the building can be salvaged.

It commissioned a report from Ottawa firm John G Cooke & Associates that determined the original stone structure, as well as some other components on the site, could be retained.

In August, the heritage society signed what Berlin called a one-year “option” to purchase the building from the current owner. They also shared the document with CBC.

Berlin said the year will give them time to conduct an environmental assessment and raise the necessary funds, should it decide to take ownership of the building.

“We’ve been advised by people in the field that it should be very doable, both physically and financially,” Berlin said.

But shortly after signing the agreement, the demolition order was posted.

Dunn said township council has shown a “complete indifference” to the building, and has cited the mill’s status as private property as a reason for taking no steps to protect it.

Peter McLaren, Reeve of the Township of Lanark Highlands, did not respond to a request for an interview.

‘Marker for what we could have done’

Lanark resident Cathie Green said she wishes the issue wasn’t dividing people in the community.

While some people believe the building should be revitalized, she said, others think it’s past the point of no return and isn’t worth the time or effort.

Green said nearby examples in Carleton Place, Ont., and Almonte, Ont., show revitalization is a viable option.

And Berlin cautioned that demolition would also come at a cost — but without offering any of the benefits that come with refurbishing the structure.

“We will be left with an industrial property at the entrance to the village which is completely useless, [which] nobody will ever buy,” she said.

“It will just sit there as a marker for what we could have done.”

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