The Moulin de Nouara, from the 15th century to the present day

A paper mill, a flour mill, and later a holiday centre, the Moulin de Nouara is a true jewel in the region’s heritage crown and reveals a slice of the history of the Ambert basin since the 15th century.
Left derelict for a number of years, the Moulin de Nouara has now been restored to its former glory as a unique venue for art, culture and holidays.
This new chapter ushers in a bright future for this mill that symbolises a history that we cannot allow to be forgotten.

A mill at the heart
of Ambert’s papermaking tradition

How papermaking arrived in Ambert is something of a mystery.
The various legends contradict one another, with some dating the paper mills back to the 12th century, and others to the 13th or even 14th century.
According to one of the legends, which emerged in Nouara, the French king Saint-Louis returned from the Seventh Crusade (1248 – 1252)in the company of a Syrian papermaker named Gour Bey.
It is believed that the king had commissioned him to set up mills in France.
In 1262, Gour Bey met Eléonore de Baffie – the heiress to the castellany of Ambert – at the royal wedding between Saint Louis’ son and the daughter of the king of Aragon.
It is not clear how these two people got to know each other, but legend has it that the papermaker moved to Nouara and Le Grand Barot in the Grandrif Valley.

However, these legends were undoubtedly propagated by the region’s papermaking families (the Sauvades, Montgolfiers, Malmenaides and Gourbeyres) at the end of the 18th century as a means of establishing their legitimacy and restoring the reputation of their trade which was in steep decline in the Livradois-Forez region at that time.

Papermaking in the Livradois-Forez region

It may come as a surprise that papermaking developed in the Livradois region.
The region’s geographical isolation was really not conducive to the development of such an industry, but the Livradois was one of the major papermaking centres in Europe!
The first paper mills began to appear on the banks of the River Valeyre, near Ambert, in 1460, and these benefitted from three events that explain their growth in the 15th century:

– Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1455, which enabled the mass production of printed matter;

– the relative proximity of Lyon with its merchants and booksellers who needed paper;

– the fall in the price of paper from Italy – the major producer in Europe at the time – that widened the market considerably.

These mills made paper from rags, so the region’s papermakers set up a robust network to collect this essential raw material.
The exceptional quality of their paper established their reputation among the merchants and booksellers of Lyon.
It is said that it was the clear, limescale-free water that made the paper produced in the Livradois-Forez superior to other French paper.
It is more likely, however, that the secret ingredient was alum, which was added to the pulp.

At the end of the 16th century, the mills of the Livradois-Forez region were hit by a first crisis caused by a series of wars and epidemics, but this slump proved to be short-lived.
The trade soon recovered with the arrival of new families and, above all, the opening up of the Paris market.

The Livradois-Forez paper mills reached their peak during the 17th and early 18th century.

They suffered a new blow between 1734 and 1763, when new technologies from Holland drove down prices.
The region’s mills remained attached to their traditional expertise and became increasingly unprofitable.
The Seven Years’ War (1756 to 1763) exacerbated the papermakers’ problems.

The publication of Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, a huge work that required a large amount of paper for printing, provided a much-needed boost.
During the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, the upturn continued until production exceeded the output during the most successful periods of the 17th century.

But the 19th century saw the spectacular decline of the Livradois paper mills, followed by their eventual disappearance in the early 20th century…

The Moulin de Nouara,
a Family affair

Historical records tell us that the first mention of a mill in Nouara was in 1463, in a declaration of taxes to the Lord of Ambert.

There followed a period marked by a succession of families whose names are still well known in the region.
First of all, the Joubert, Delaire, Chabanis, Vayssier, Gourbeyre and Faure papermaking families, and then the milling families the Tixiers and, of course, the Omerins.
The Moulin de Nouara provided the stage for a true family saga, a place where inheritances and sales shaped life beside the Gourre (or Nouara) stream which flows into the Valeyre.

The Papermaking Families between the 17th and 19th centuries

Historical documents tell us that the “Noyras” mills were bought by Jehan and Martial Joubert in 1606.
The Joubert family remained at the helm of the Nouara paper factory until 1653.
Following the sale of the mill to a certain Delaire, who only ever paid a flying visit to Nouara, two other families, the Chabanis and the Vayssiers (relatives of the Jouberts) bought it.
A few years later, Pierre Gourbeyre joined the family business following his marriage to one of the Chabanis daughters.
So, through inheritances and purchases, Pierre and Anne Gourbeyre regained sole ownership of all the Nouara mills.
Their son Claude was the first person to own the premises outright and was the progenitor of a genuine papermaking dynasty.

Several generations of the Gourbeyre family followed in Nouara, with Claude (1670 – 1733), Pierre (1702 – 1782) and Joseph (1734 – 1795) as their master papermakers.

After the French Revolution, the inheritance laws in France were amended, which resulted in the properties being divided up between the Gourbeyre heirs.
So, when Joseph Gourbeyre died in 1795, the six buildings on the Nouara site were split between his four children: Pierre-Joseph, Joseph (known as Grand José), Marie-Joséphine (who married into the Faure family) and Jean-Claude (known as Côte).
Once again, the Moulin de Nouara was divided up between a number of owners who each had their own aspirations.
Marie-Joséphine Faure was the only one who continued producing paper, in what was known as the middle factory, the iconic old Nouara mill that she inherited along with the Des Vernières mill.

Rags kill off the paper mills of the Livradois

Unfortunately, the paper mills of the Livradois, including those in Nouara, struggled to adapt to the changes that were transforming the papermaking industry.
Whereas papermakers elsewhere in Europe were embracing new production methods, particularly the use of wood cellulose, the mills around Ambert continued to use rags, which were becoming scarce.
In the mid-1850s, the Livradois-Forez paper factories had seen their best days and, one by one, they disappeared.
In Nouara, the Faure family tried to hold out until 1880, using rags which were “soaked in a lime and soda ash solution and then beaten and heated” in large rotating drums.
But their efforts were in vain. The end of papermaking here was inevitable and, by 1920, only two traditional paper mills remained in operation in the Livradois region.

The milling families arrived in Nouara at the end of the 19th century

During the second half of the 19th century, inheritances were complicated as a result of the mills being split between several families.
However, it seems that the Nouara paper mill closed down and was replaced by flour mills.
In 1873, Grand José’s elder son (the Gourbeyre family) sold the existing mill to the flour miller Jacques Omerin, the great-great-grandfather of Xavier Omerin, the current president of the foundation which now owns Nouara.

A few years later, in 1888, Jacques Omerin left his flour mill and sold it to Jean Tixier.
The Tixier family gradually bought up the buildings on the Nouara site, including the top mill in 1989, and then half of the middle factory and a third of the manor house.
The Tixier family also built a farm (in 1895) and the barn (in 1897) to replace the manor house and, in 1899, acquired the last part of the middle factory.

We cannot be sure how long this mill remained in operation, but thanks to a few clues – wear and tear on the millstone and repair work in the 1940s – we can estimate that it lasted for several decades.
Finally, in 1952, Jean Tixier’s son Adolphe sold some of his possessions to the L’Arche association, an organisation that runs holiday centres.
In 1969, the association acquired all the other buildings owned by the Tixier family.

Charming holiday centres in Nouara

In the early 1950s, the L’Arche association took over at Nouara and converted it into a holiday centre for children.
Abbé Jacques Duval, who is still fondly remembered by the people of Ambert, devoted his life to running and maintaining the facility.
With only limited financial resources, Abbé Duval managed to provide wonderful holidays for thousands of children who came to enjoy the natural surroundings every summer.
Some former monitors from the centre were so fond of Nouara and the Ambert region that they bought old paper mills or houses in the area.

In 1964-65, with the help of volunteers, Abbé Duval was able to extend the old mill by repairing a part of the building that had stood in ruins.
Vestiges from the mill’s papermaking operations were used to decorate the premises and gardens: tank bottoms, vats, pieces of machinery, etc. Using only the materials at hand, a small chapel was also built in one of the mill’s vaulted cellars (it is still there today).
Even though Abbé Duval did everything in his power to make the mill comfortable for the children, his budget would not cover proper repairs to the premises, which then deteriorated and ultimately became too dilapidated for use in 2003.
After that, Nouara was left derelict by the L’Arche association which retained ownership until 2015.
In the meantime, Abbé Jacques Duval fell ill and moved to Normandy in 2012.

The literary mill

Literature has played an important part in Nouara’s history, and in more ways than one.
Firstly indirectly, through its papermaking tradition which was obviously associated with the birth of the printed book.
But, more surprisingly, the Moulin de Nouara has earned a place in the literary world thanks to three authors who have a genuine affection for the place.

The local writer Henri Pourrat (1887-1959) never tired of singing the praises of the hamlet that he discovered thanks to another man of letters, Jean d’Angeli (a poet and writer whose mother lived in the Valeyre mill).
The author of the famous novel Gaspard des Montagnes wrote this wonderful description of Nouara: “This really is a fairy-tale place. It captivates your dreams like a glance, like naked fingers gripped in your palm” (Les Jardins Sauvages, p. 27). It was one of Henry Pourrat’s contemporaries who wrote the most beautiful ode to Nouara.
Claude Dravaine (1888-1957, real name Jeanne Lichnerowicz) is none other than the niece of Joseph Faure, Nouara’s last papermaker.
She even studied the family archives and wrote a book on papermaking.
Her book, Nouara, chroniques d’un antique village papetier, is a priceless historical source of information about the daily lives of the mill’s inhabitants in the 19th century.

Towards the end of their lives, Henri Pourrat and Claude Dravaine returned to Nouara on several occasions to meet the children in the centre run by Abbé Duval, and to share with them their love of words in unforgettable storytelling evenings.

It’s not difficult to imagine how Michel Bussi, who stayed at Nouara in the 1970s, would have loved attending lectures by his famous fellow writers.
His stays at the mill left him with wonderful holiday memories and also fuelled his imagination.
In his novel La dernière licorne (later retitled Tout ce qui est sur terre doit périr), he set part of his story at the Moulin de Nouara.
And in a nod to the L’Arche association, the fictional mill owner is called Noël Archer and welcomes his guests with the words: “Welcome to the Moulin de Nouara, an authentic paper mill from the 15th century. Left derelict for two centuries, it was restored after the war by an army of volunteers and converted into a holiday centre for city children. It’s a little gem!…”

France’s second most-read author with millions of book sales, Michel Bussi is now one of the cultural centre’s patrons.

The Moulin de Nouara – tradition and modernity

Papermill, flour mill, holiday centre… Nouara’s mills have seen several incarnations over the centuries.
Just like the other paper mills in the three valleys around the town of Ambert, the buildings in Nouara have seen many alterations over time: building work, demolition, fires, floods… the buildings on the site today are the result of the changes made at different times in their history.

Left to fall into ruin for more than a decade, the Moulin de Nouara could simply have remained a symbol of a bygone past. But, fortunately, the story continues!
In 2015, at the instigation of Xavier Omerin, the Omerin Foundation bought the mill, with a specific project in mind: converting it into a cultural and tourism centre.
Renovating Nouara was a complicated task which would take several years.
Large-scale work began to modernise and repair all the buildings, but great care was taken to retain the spirit of the place.
The old millrace was repaired and a new waterwheel installed in the original position to power a flour mill, just as it did at the end of the 19th century.
Many items from the old paper mill were used to decorate the centre.

Three architects, a scenographer and a decorator pooled their skills to redefine the spaces, improve circulation around the building and bring out all the beauty of this incredible site.
All building-related trades were involved and local businesses carried out the monumental renovation project.
Like a phoenix, the Moulin de Nouara gradually rose from its ashes and shook off the lethargy which had crippled it for far too long.
Now, art and cultural events are at the heart of everything that happens here.
If you’re fortunate enough to be able to stay on site, take plenty of time to appreciate all the history and charm of this now extremely vibrant space.

Source: Moulin de Nouara, des siècles d’histoire, Isabelle AUDINET / Omerin Foundation