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Rural Missouri Magazine
Milling around Missouri
Missouri is home to a group of publicly owned
gristmills which take visitors back to another era

by Jeff Joiner

Although few of the machines still operate, visitors to Montauk State Park can get a good idea what the mill looked like at the turn of the 20th century. Montauk Mill is one of four restored mills in Missouri owned by the state park system or the federal government which are open to the public.

Silence fills the large, dusty building now, but it’s not difficult to imagine a time not so long ago when this place bustled with activity and the clatter of operating machinery inside competed with sounds of passing horse-drawn wagons and conversations outside. And always in the background could be heard the sound of rushing water.

Montauk Mill is a little more than a century old and in that time operated only about 20 years. But before trout fishermen flocked to Montauk State Park, farmers came from miles around to deliver their corn and wheat crops to be ground into meal and flour.

As it was at Montauk, the gristmill was the center of commerce and society in hundreds of places around rural Missouri which took advantage of the state’s abundant water to provide free power to operate milling machinery. But with a fast-changing world descending on them, most of these early 20th-century mills would be out of business in the next few decades.

Missouri is fortunate to have many surviving mills, most of which are in private hands. Some have been restored and a few of these privately owned mills are open to the public (always obtain permission before attempting to visit a private mill.)

The state of Missouri and the federal government own a collection of four restored, water-powered gristmills which are open to the public and offer visitors a chance to see the workings of the past.

The mill at Alley Spring was once part of a state park until the federal government created the Ozark National Scenic Riverways in the late 1960s. The pristine mill contains much of its original equipment but is not operational. The first mill on the spring was built in 1870 with the current mill being built in 1893.

Montauk Mill is one such mill. The mill at Montauk State Park ceased operation in 1927 at the time the area around the mill and the nearby Current River was bought by the state and opened as Missouri’s fourth state park.

Other gems in this group of publicly owned mills include Dillard and Bollinger mills, owned by the state, and Alley Spring Mill. Alley was once a state park beginning in 1925, but became federal property in 1971 when it was included in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, a national park encompassing the Current and Jacks Fork rivers.

These four mills are fascinating to historians of the milling process because they retain much of their original equipment and, in the case of the mills in the Missouri state park system, still function, allowing visitors to see corn being ground. In fact, the mill works at Dillard and Bollinger are still water-powered.

While the common romanticized conception of a gristmill is an overshot mill, which used extremely large wheels turned by water falling on the wheel from above, most mills in the Ozarks used less-picturesque, but more efficient, turbines set into a pit below the mill building.

Water from a stream or spring is diverted and dumped into the pit from above and spins the turbine. The turbine powered a variety of machinery through a series of drive shafts and belts.

Cave-certified divers prepare to enter the mouth of a cavern in Alley Spring to map a huge, underwater room. Alley Spring Mill, part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, is one of the most picturesque, and popular, mills in Missouri.

“The first thing they’d do is bring the grain in and weigh it,” says Jamin Bray, naturalist at Montauk State Park. “Then they would send it to a machine which used an ancient technology to grind the grain which has been used since Roman times.

“The corn is ground between two flat stones that don’t actually touch each other. There’s just enough space between them that there is a shearing action, almost like scissors. They might do that two or three times and then they would clean it and sift it to make a real fluffy corn meal or a fine flour.”

This fall the original grinding stones at the Montauk Mill were restored and used once again to grind corn, though this time powered by a tractor rather than the water turbine that is still in place in the mill. The park has plans to rebuild raceways from the nearby Current River so the mill can once again operate by water power.

The oldest mill in this group is Bollinger, a massive four-story structure towering over the Whitewater River and the Burfordville Covered Bridge built alongside in 1868.

The mill was built a year earlier on the foundation of a previous gristmill burned to the ground in the Civil War. Bollinger operated commercially until 1948 when its owners gave it to the Cape Girardeau County Historical Society, which donated the site to the state park system in the 1960s. The historic site now features three floors of displays and machinery chronicling decades of changes in milling technology at the Bollinger Mill.

Bollinger Mill is the state’s largest, standing four stories tall.

Dillard, in Crawford County, is the longest operating mill which remained in business until 1956. Dillard Mill is the only one of the four that still has all its original equipment in place and operational. It’s a unique experience for visitors to hear the sounds of the turbine slowly beginning to spin as water is diverted from the mill pond. These are the same sounds millers heard here for more than half a century.

One thing today’s visitors to gristmills won’t experience is how hazardous the work was. Milling work was dangerous and unhealthy for several reasons. Chief among the hazards was the dusty nature of grinding grain. Fine grain dust is extremely combustible and explosions were common.

“One of the most important jobs of the miller was to go around and make sure all the machines stayed greased and lubricated so you wouldn’t get any sparks,” Bray says.

One of the reasons so few gristmills survived was that many of them burned to the ground, often because of dust explosions.

The fine cornmeal and flour also caused health problems for millers who suffered from a condition known as white lung, similar to a coal miner’s black lung. They breathed in so much fine powder that they developed chronic lung disease.

Dillard Mill, in Crawford County, contains all of its original equipment which is still operational. State park employees demonstrate how the mill operated.

And if that wasn’t bad enough it was rare for millers to have all their fingers. “Back in those days everything was open around all the machines and belt drives,” Bray says. “Can you imagine what this place was like with belts running around you and machines operating without any kinds of guards or protections?”

Though each of these mills once had towns which sprang up around them, little signs remain of the other businesses that mill customers relied on for their needs. For farm families in the early 1900s, a trip to the local gristmill was a busy, exciting time when people shopped for tools, canned goods or the latest style in Sunday dresses and caught up on local news with neighbors.

“People usually brought their grain in and left it at the mill and then went to do other things while it was being ground,” says Bray. “They would visit the dry goods store or the blacksmith shop. Usually it was a long wagon ride to the mill and they would get as much done there as they could.”

Changes in technology and lifestyle in the 1920s and ’30s began to spell the end for water-powered gristmills. Probably one of the biggest changes was improvements in roads and automobiles which allowed people to drive to nearby towns to buy grocery items including corn meal and flour and, later, even fresh-baked loaves of bread.

Three mills have stood on the site of Bollinger Mill.

It was no longer necessary to grow corn and wheat for your own consumption. Soon the gristmills were no longer needed except in occasional places where they were used to grind livestock feed. Local mills also began to see more competition from large industrial mills in Midwestern cities that processed grains far cheaper than water-powered mills could.

Fortunately, Missourians saw the value of preserving a few of the remaining water-powered mills in operating condition so visitors could experience a time when nearly everything a family relied on came from just a few miles from home. Today these mills offer just a hint of the past.

For information about Missouri State Parks and Historic sites write to: Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Division of State Parks, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, Mo., 65102; or visit www.mostateparks.com. For information about Alley Spring Mill contact the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, 404 Watercress Drive, P.O. Box 490, Van Buren, Mo., 63965.

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