Alton Mill – Where History and Art Live Side by Side

Posted : April 11, 2014

Our blog is chock full of great ideas for fun things to see and do in York Durham and Headwaters. We are always adding new content and updating old posts, but sometimes you might stumble upon something from our vault. If this article has inspired you to hit the road, be sure to double-check that the featured stops in this post are still welcoming visitors.

Interior of Falls Gallery at Alton Mill Arts Centre

Falls Gallery. Courtesy Alton Mill Arts Centre.

The village of Alton, located in the gentle hills of Caledon, Ontario, is a small, historic town. Historic houses, shops and buildings of minor commerce line its single main street.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this village has a historic mill, too. Like so many small towns which lie outside Toronto’s urban cityscape, the bones of this industrial complex are tucked out of sight from passers-through, and quietly attest to the existence of the once thriving Beaver Knitting Mill.

But Alton Mill is far from the crumbling, derelict building you might be imagining. Instead, it has been resurrected from the annals of history, and is now an oasis of culture surrounded by babbling streams and the kind of vivid scenery that can only be found in rural places like Caledon.

Despite its renovation, the character of a bygone era has been lovingly preserved and married with the crisp, fresh lines of modern times. Here, the echo of creaking wood from the beams above, exposed brick and rough, timeworn plaster are juxtaposed against fresh hardwood, floor-to-ceiling panes of glass, and clean, modern fixtures.

The turbine room at Alton Mill Arts Centre

The historic turbine room. Courtesy Alton Mill Arts Centre.


It’s your classic Cinderella story. Today, the Alton Mill Arts Centre is a vibrant attraction, and houses the collections of career artists who are still carving their names into the woodwork of today’s art scene.

I came to the mill to attend Out of the Cage, an exhibition held in the Bartlett Gallery for Canadian recluse-eccentric Mendelson Joe, and to write a blog post about the event. It was fascinating; I had a great time. But when I sat down to write, I found that I had so much to say about the exhibit, and even more to say about Alton Mill itself, that I couldn’t fit everything into just one post.

(As an aside, I didn’t ask if I could commandeer space for two posts, so if you’re reading this, it means Central Counties’ marketing department has been gracious enough to indulge me.)

In an effort to add some culture to our lives, I convinced my husband and son to come along. Because we thought that Christopher, whose entire six-year-old world centres on Pokémon and Skylanders, probably would not be interested in art, I was left on my own while the two of them high-tailed it to the general store for candy.

Woman teaching class at art workshop

Workshop. Courtesy Alton Mill Arts Centre.

Imagine our surprise when, upon returning to pick me up, Christopher insisted on touring the gallery. He proceeded to lead me by the hand, from collection to collection, upstairs and down, examining with awe the colours and craftsmanship. “Wow, Mommy, they did a really good job!” became his mantra.

I had a death-grip on his sticky little hand for the first ten minutes (the last thing I needed was to ruin a contemporary masterpiece with half-dissolved Nerds and Pop Rocks smudges). But I soon learned that he intuitively recognized the unspoken trust and respect that came with these items being close enough to touch.

None of this surprised Meg Floyd, Alton Mill’s general manager. When I related this anecdote to her, she said, “It’s amazing. Kids—they go into museums and other art galleries where the things are at a distance, and you can’t touch them because an alarm will go off. But here it’s so close that they get it.”

The mill pond at Alton Mill Arts Centre

The mill pond. Courtesy Alton Mill Arts Centre.

We were not the only ones there with a young person in tow—a handful of other kids were touring the gallery with their families that day. From the looks of awe on faces old and young, I understood that this place, the Alton Mill Arts Centre, has a magic that appeals to a wide-ranging audience. You don’t have to be “into art” to enjoy Alton Mill. When you’re there, the place transforms you and the way you think of art.

It transforms the way you think of yourself in relation to art. Alton Mill brings you into another world where past and present live side-by-side, and where art is so much more than swirls of paint and chiseled sculptures. It’s a living, breathing entity, as real as the talented men and women whose working studios are housed within.

It left an impression on me. When you go, you’ll see what I mean for yourself.

Katie Ryalen is a freelance writer and copyeditor. She lives in Durham, Ontario with her husband, son and three spoiled cats. Blog: Twitter: @KatieRyalen

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