Missouri is home to a group of publicly owned
gristmills which take visitors back to another era
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 its 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.
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 states 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.
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
Missouris fourth state park.
Other gems in this group of
publicly owned mills include Dillard
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
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
The first thing theyd
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
The corn is ground between
two flat stones that dont actually touch each other. Theres
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
The oldest mill in this group
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.
Mill is the states largest, standing four stories tall.
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. Its 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 todays visitors
to gristmills wont 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 wouldnt get any sparks, Bray
One of the reasons so few gristmills
survived was that many of them burned to the ground, often because of
The fine cornmeal and flour
also caused health problems for millers who suffered from a condition
known as white lung, similar to a coal miners black lung. They breathed
in so much fine powder that they developed chronic lung disease.
Mill, in Crawford County, contains all of its original equipment which
is still operational. State park employees demonstrate how the mill
And if that wasnt 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.
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.