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 Old Mills of Missouri

Early Mills

Grist Mills were often the nucleus of thriving villages and towns as  parts of Missouri were opened for settlement. A General store and Blacksmith shop soon followed, and as the population increased, Schools and Churches were built.

Water Power and Mills

On all the perennial streams of south and southwest Missouri, there is almost inexhaustible water power, and water power mills for grinding corn meal, making flour and carding wool rolls were early in use by the pioneers.

In the early settling of the country the mills were few in number and often ten to fifteen miles apart. But as population increased the number of mills increased until nearly neighborhood could be accommodated. In the mills the smaller streams, they had millstones for grinding only into meal, the wheat for making into flour being taken ills having bolting machinery attached.

On the small streams where the small mills were built, the working power was secured by damming the stream some distance above the mill and conveying the water in troughs to the top of the driving wheel, which had boxes or buckets fastened to the spokes radiating from the axis which were filled by the water pouring over the wheel and turning it by the weight of the water, each box or bucket being emptied when the revolution of the wheel brought it directly under the wheel. This slow process in grinding meal was not very satisfactory, but when kept steadily going would do a good deal of work in a day and meet the demands of customers in the neighborhood. 

On the larger streams like Shoal River, Spring River, Big Indian Creek, and Cowskin or Elk River, larger mills were put up with more elaborate machinery for making flour, and sometimes there was power enough derived from the driving wheel to run the machinery of a sawmill or carding mill. These larger mills were run by a working power caused by the turning of an undershot wheel, a wheel whose axis had radiating from it spokes, on the distal parts of which were fastened paddles or broad boards to catch the force of the water issuing from the sluice.

But to get this concentrated body of water with such strong pushing force as was required, preparatory work had to be done; a dam had to be constructed across the stream perhaps half a mile or more above the mill, and a race or short canal cut and the water turned into it, that it might flow with a descending velocity until it struck the paddles of the driving or undershot wheel.

When the mill was not running, the water in the race, was held back by a sluice, and when it was desired to start it up the sluice gate was opened. We called the water above the dam the mill pond, for it backed up sometimes a mile or so but when the stream was high and had scarcely any current from heavy rains, the water not needed in the race flowed over the dam, and when it was low, nearly all the water was turned into the race.

There are many fine water-power sites on all the streams of that section, suitable not only for mills but also for other manufacturing purposes, and they must assume greater importance in the future when our people will see the necessity of conserving the resources which nature has put into our hands. The streams of this western slope of the Ozark region are peculiarly adapted to milling and manufacturing purposes, for they are perennial and of medium velocity in their descent.

There are two water-power sites which deserve mention; they are the Shoals and Grand Falls, eight and twelve miles northwest of us on Shoal River, now in the suburbs of the city of Joplin. At the Shoals the water of the stream has cut a gorge through strata of solid rock, about two hundred feet wide at the water's edge, which descends at the rate of perhaps fifty feet in half a mile over boulders of all sizes.

The roaring of the water pouring through the gorge and over the Shoals on still evenings is often heard several miles distant, and naturally attracted the attention of the early settlers to the locality, not only on account of the picturesqueness of it, but as a suitable place for a water-power mill site.

Here the mill was erected on the bank of the stream near the head of the shoal and the necessary force of the water secured without the cost and trouble of making a dam and cutting a race.

This place, too, was recognized as suitable for a mill site and excellent grist, flouring and carding mills were put up there many years before the war, and had customers sometimes from a distance of twenty-five miles or more, even the Cherokee, Seneca and Quapaw Indians coming there from the Indian Territory, to have their corn and wheat made into meal and flour, and their wool carded into rolls.

Since the industry of that section has made Joplin a city, the value and importance of Grand Falls have been utilized; a dam has been built upon the ledge of rock, giving the water pouring over it a fall of about twenty-six feet, which has increased the power proportionately for use in manufacturing of electricity.

The power derived from these falls and the Shoals is probably worth to that section annually upwards of a million dollars, and as the stream rarely gets very low in the summer, dams could be made every three or four miles above the Shoals that would furnish power for doing a large part of the work in the territory drained by it, thus enabling the people to economize in the use of coal.

An the counties of western Missouri north of Jasper county the streams are not perennial, or rarely so; the terrain is generally flat; the streams are sluggish and flow in deep, narrow channels, the distance from bank to bank in some of them being not much greater than their depth.

These streams are not as much fed by living springs, but by the rains failing on the surface in the immediate vicinity and dry up nearly every summer, or become so low that the best of them do not afford water enough to run a mill. There were mills on nearly all these streams until the introduction of steam-power mills, and they could supply their patrons with flour a-rid meal the greater part of the year except during the dry season.

On account of the high banks of the streams the water held by the dam is turned aside into a sluice and opened to start the mill or the revolutions of the big wheel, making it unnecessary to have a race.

The mill was a place where the men of the neighborhood met and exchanged views on domestic, religious and political subjects. While each had to wait his turn, this did not mean that every time he took his rain to mill he waited for it to be ground, for in most cases he had it measured and exchanged it for the amount of meal it would make after taking out the toll.

This did not necessarily consume much time, and yet it might take several hours when the miller had a rush of customers and was obliged to measure the grain the toll of each and give him his proper amount of meal or flour.

It sometimes happened in dry seasons that the small streams did not afford water enough to run the mills on them, and then the people of the neighborhood were obliged to take their grain to the larger mills at a distance. If a farmer had to take his grain twenty to twenty-five miles to mill, he generally took a cart or wagon load at a time, and as the miller did not always have enough meal or flour on hand to exchange for that amount of grain, the customer might have to wait two or three days for his grist.

Nearly everybody living within two or three miles of the mill, took their grain in a sack that held two bushels, which was thrown across the back of a horse with the rider sitting on it. Any one having time to spend a few hours at the mill on almost any day in the year except Sunday and on all the converging roads, might have seen men and boys wending their way leisurely to mill, each sitting on his sack of grain thrown across his horse, and departing from the mill in a similar manner. A few people used ox-carts, which meant slow movement over the rough roads of the early days of that section. But the movements of the people were gauged by the ox-carts in nearly everything, for life was then less strenuous than later.

While it was difficult for the early pioneers to raise many sheep on account of the depredations of wolves, yet nearly every family raised a few head, more for their wool than for their flesh. Every family had to have wool for making their clothing, stockings and bed covering, and looked after their sheep as one of the most important factors of domestic economy, keeping them in pens during the winter to protect them from wolves.

After shearing the sheep in the spring, the wool was washed and dried and put away in large sacks, and carded by hand-cards into rolls, by the mothers and daughters as opportunity afforded, and laid away for spinning into thread for the loom. Practically all the pioneer women carded their wool into rolls with hand-cards; but gradually water-power and and take out horse-power carding machines came into use, which made a great saving in time and labor.

But as the carding machines were not always convenient to the families of some neighborhoods, quite a number of women adhered to the use of the hand-cards up to the war, using them with great skill and dexterity in carding rolls for the spinning wheel.

From the Palmyra Spectator, March 13, 1924.

A recent issue of the National Miller contained a write-up of some of the old water mills of Missouri, and among them was the old Bay Mill south of this city. The article, in part, is as follows: 

Perhaps one of the most noted of the early day grinding outfits was the Bay Mills, north of Hannibal, Mo. It had a tremendous wheel, and the machinery was wonderfully powerful for its grinding for Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois farmers, and the quality of its product had almost a national reputation. Later Capt. A. S. RoBards, a "forty-niner," established a large flour mill at Hannibal, and its flour took premiums at the World's Fair, New York, in 18S3. A barrel of RoBard's Premium flour was sent in gilded hoops to the Queen of England,

There were interesting features connected with the "Water Mill period" of the West, when most large streams bad waterwheels to do various kinds of work. The late W. E. McCully, at one time chairman of the Railroad and Warehouse Commission of Missouri, remembered the popular water mill operated by his father on the Chariton river, and what a social event "going to mill" was for the early settlers. Mr. McCully speaking, from his remembrance as a boy, described it this way:

"It was the event of the year when a farmer went to mill those days. Some of father's patrons drove down from Iowa, 100 miles or more. At times the offerings were so heavy that a farmer would have to wait two or three weeks for his turn. As soon as a new load arrived its turn would be  indicated by a red keel mark put on the sacks by the miller or his helpers. Any dispute about whose turn came next was settled by the miller. His word was the law of the river.

"It was also a part of his duty to referee bouts at fisticuffs and wrestling. The customers as a rule did not get impatient. They came prepared to make a long stay. They would bring with them plenty of provisions and fishing lines. I've seen 'em strung out for three miles up and down the river fishing, and they caught sonic big ones too, for the river was full of fish then. As the old buhrs would only grind two or three bushels of shelled corn an hour, it was necessary to keep the mill going all day and all night to come anywhere near handling the trade. There was a night miller, who worked by the light of tallow candles.

At midnight Saturday the water gate was shut until early Monday morning. The closing of the gate formed a trap for the fish, and during hours when work was suspended the catch this way was sometimes large. The Sunday catch was auctioned off the Saturday before to the highest bidder. If no fish happened to go into the trap the successful bidder had to "take his medicine," but generally the catch was worth the price.

Nothing but shelled corn was handled by the water mill man. He exacted one-sixth of the grain for grinding. The price was fixed by law. It would have amazed him had somebody offered him cash. The miller fed his corn to hogs. That's where he got his money.

Going to mill then was like going to a circus or a big political rally now. It was the place to swap news and jack-knives, engage in horseshoe throwing, cock-fighting, and all the sports of the period. You see, people didn't take sightseeing tours across the country then, and going to mill took the place of that diversion. The patrons were a great brawny set of American planters and woodsmen, full of grit and energy, and withal the kindest folk I have ever seen.

With all their cutting-up and yelling, they were never guilty of stealing or imposing on each other. Their fights were fair, and they carried no bad blood back home with them. It would be hard to get together now a more truly representative American gathering than those that assembled on the river banks during the water mill epoch of Missouri.

Postcards of Mills in Missouri

Links to Sites about Mills

Alley Mill

Bollinger Mill

Bollinger Mill & Covered Bridge

Brief History of Milbank Mills

Dawt Mill

Dillard Mill

Dillard Mill State Historic Site

Graham's Mill Images

Grist Mills of the Ozarks

Historic Grist Mills

Hulston Mill History

Livingston County Mills

Milling around Missouri

Milling around the Ozarks

The Mills of Ozark County

Mills: Tours of the Past

Missouri Ozark Water Mills

Missouri's Famous Old Mills

O'Donnell Photography
Water Mills of the Missouri Ozarks

Watkins Mills & Historic Site

Aid-Hodgson Mill 

According to the Missouri Department of Tourism, this is the most photographed mill in the state. It is located on Hwy 181 north of Gainesville, MO near the small village of Sycamore, MO. NOTE: As of 2/21/98, the Mill was closed and appeared to have been closed for quite some time. There was a for sale sign on the place that also had a sold sign on it; so perhaps it will reopen again sometime soon.

Alley Spring Mill  

Located near Alley Spring (76 million gallons of water a day) close to Eminence, MO.

Dawt Mill 

Also known for its stream that provides trophy trout. It is located off of PP Hwy which is off of Hwy 160 near Tecumseh, MO.

Gravois Mills 

Gravois Mills was a settlement (not a town) sometime before 1820. Missouri attained statehood on August 10, 1821 and in 1833 defined the initial boundaries of Morgan County in which Gravois Mills is located. At one point in time there were 3 mills located here, attracting local farmers to trade their goods.

Rockbridge Mill and Trout Farm 

One of the oldest mills still standing in Missouri. Located in the somewhat abandoned village of Rockbridge, MO.

Zanoni Mill  

Constructed in the early 1900s and located on Hwy 181 close to Aid-Hodgson Mill. NOTE: As of 2/21/98, this mill is privately owned and is the site of a bed and breakfast.


Schlict Mill

This mill is very interesting in a couple of ways. It was the first mill in Missouri to replace the old buhr stone grinding equipment with steel rollers, which produced a much finer meal and flour. Also, the water control system was rather elaborate. A fieldstone dam retained water to form the large pond, and several weirs, or walls, of stone kept fish and debris from clogging the turbine. At the upper end of the pond, a stone dam and flume generated electric power. Water from the pond was used for raising fish, generating electric power, watering livestock, and powering the gristmill. You will find this mill on Missouri Highway 133 about 15 miles north of Interstate 44 near the town of Swedeborg.

Simpson Mill - 

One of the first mills on the Eleven Point was built before the Civil War by Peter R. Simpson. The building stood below the mouth of Little Hurricane Creek. The mill was used for both grinding grain and sawing timber and served as a community gathering place. The Confederate Army also used it as a recruiting station.