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Discover Mid-America — August 2007

Three Old Midwest Mills — Bollinger, Danish and Watkins

by Terri Baumgardner

Aaahhh, the simple pleasures of spending a late summer afternoon in the rural surroundings of a historic mill.

A picnic beneath trees tucked along a secluded grassy woodland nook.. A stroll across the rolling prairie hills where wildflowers dance in the breeze. Standing beside a rolling river, listening to the refreshing sounds as water flows beneath a historic covered bridge. And a drive along a historic road where an umbrella of trees shade a wood-planked bridge that leads to a serene landscape.

The exterior of the old mills starting with (l) Bollinger Mill, (c) Danish Mill and (r) Watkins Mill. (photos courtesy of the Bollinger Mill, Danish Mill and by Ron Johnson)

Then, of course, there's a walking tour of a historic mill that is sure to fascinate engineers, antiquers, history buffs and preservationists alike.

Historic mills are scattered across the Midwest landscape, but only a few are open to the public. Be it a destination or a stop along a vacation route, historic mills provide a glimpse into the past and a remembrance of the simple days of summer.

The Society for the Preservation of Old Mills

Established in 1972, The Society for the Preservation of Old Mills (SPOOM) is a national nonprofit organization. The Society has an international flair with chapters in Canada and Europe. The organization also is a member of the International Molinological Society, which is headquartered in London, England.

SPOOM is a rich historical resource that likely would fancy engineers and high technology professionals of today. The group’s library offers a range of resources as well as a list of mills open to the public, mills for sell, books and milling events.

Society members represent a range of interests, including preservationists, historians, scholars, writers, photographers and everyday folks who want to preserve the romance of days gone by before mills disappear from the landscape.

"In 1900, there were more than 650 mills in Missouri," said Jack Smoot, the Society's secretary. "They went into decline because they were destroyed in the Civil War. There were several things that continued that trend of decline, and technology was one major factor.

“In the early 1800s, technology for grinding grain improved dramatically with the introduction of the roller mill process. These machines are still used today, they replaced the old mill stones."

Of course, technology also brought about new modes of transportation, which contributed to the decline of mills.

"At one point, farmers had to haul grain to mills in wagons," Smoot said. "With the introduction of the rail system, grain could be hauled in larger quantities further distances. The rolling mill process allowed them to build larger mills, and the rail system allowed them to haul further distances to larger mills."

Mills were used to reduce the size of a product, whether it was tobacco, coffee, spices, grain or textiles, such as wool, or even gunpowder. There were as many kinds of mills as there were products, including gristmills, sawmills, windmills, watermills, roller mills and flourmills. Mills go back to ancient times with early structures noted in the Middle East and in Europe.

"When I first started working with mills, a lot of the terms confused me," said Smoot, who served as the site administrator for Bollinger Mill in southeast Missouri. "A lot of the terms were European, especially English terms that applied to our mills here. A good example is the size of a barrel. Used to be barrels held 196 pounds of flour. The reason for the odd number was based on English stone — 14 pounds of stone and 14 stones in a barrel."

Although the process for milling or grinding, such as grains, was uniform across the United States, each mill itself is unique.

"Every mill had to be tailored to the location," Smoot said. "They had to figure out how to utilize water power in that location. They did have to tweak equipment to accommodate the grain grown in an area. For instance, different types of wheat required different types of grinding. Mills were built with wood, iron and millstones. But generally, they had a limited palette of raw materials to work with in comparison to today."

Originally in the United States, mills were constructed along rivers and streams because they required waterpower to operate. But that changed with the advent of steam power.

"Steam power was around pre-Civil War," Smoot said. "But with the burning of mills during the war, the ones that were rebuilt were more likely to go to steam power. It gave more options, especially with the building of larger mills. Mills that could produce a few hundred barrels of flour per day versus mills that produced thousands of flour barrels."

Majoring milling centers around the country include Minneapolis, Buffalo, Philadelphia and St. Louis.

Bollinger Mill State Historic Site

Situated near Cape Girardeau along the Mississippi River just north of eastern Missouri's boot hill area, the Bollinger Mill State Historic Site sits along side the rolling waters of Whitewater River in Burfordville.

The interior of the Bollinger Mill. (photo courtesy of the Bollinger Mill)

Originally constructed in 1800, the site hosts the oldest of only four covered bridges in Missouri. The Bollinger Mill and the Burfordville Covered Bridge are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Located on 43 acres of Ozark land, the Bollinger Mill has a long history steeped in German heritage. The gristmill, which was used to grind corn and wheat, was originally built in 1800 by George Bollinger. The German native and North Carolina resident received a Spanish land grant in 1797, and moved to 640 acres of what would become Missouri.

"In 1800, he brought 19 families, including six brothers and nephews," Smoot said. "He built the first mill of wood in 1800. When he died in 1842, after building the second mill of limestone and wood, he only had one child, Sarah. She inherited the property, and with the help of two sons, continued to run the mill until the Civil War."

According to Smoot, no one knows why the first mill was destroyed and the second mill was built. But Union troops set fire to the mill so as to prevent cornmeal and flour passing to Confederate forces. After the war, the Bollinger family sold the mill to Solomon Burford. He built the third mill, constructed of red brick atop the original foundation built of stone.

"It was a grist mill, they ground wheat and corn," Smoot said. "There have been three mills on the site, the first was built 1800, and replaced about 1825. The second mill burned at the beginning of the Civil War in September 1861. The mill there now was built in 1867 after the war, it is water driven on the little river of Whitewater."

The Burfordville Covered Bridge was designed by a Cape Girardeau builder who used a Howe truss, employing diagonal wood boards from yellow poplar trees with iron rods.

"(With) the covered bridge, construction began before the Civil War but it was not completed until after the war," said Smoot, who served as the historic site administrator from 1983 through early 2007. "It crosses the Whitewater River; it was part of a toll road. It is 140 feet long, with a clearance 14 feet high by 12 feet wide."

The Bollinger Mill, now cared for by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, is still operational and visitors can observe corn being ground into meal. The historic site also features acres of rolling Ozark hills, a picnic area, a historical cemetery, a museum and land along the banks of the Whitewater River.

Bollinger Mill Historic Site host festivals throughout the year, including a Fall Folk Music Concert in September and Halloween Storytelling in October.

The Danish Windmill

The Danish Windmill sits amidst the rich farmland of Central Iowa in the heart of small town called Elk Horn.

Elk Horn is located about half way between Omaha and Des Moines, just a few miles north of Iowa's Interstate 80. The Danish Windmill is a different type of tourism destination, as it sits besides a gift shop in a town dedicated to Denmark heritage.

Owned and operated by a private nonprofit foundation, the Windmill stands as a landmark to the town's economic revival.

It is the last windmill to leave the homeland of Denmark.

Moving a stone in the Danish Mill. (photo courtesy of the Danish Mill)

"A law passed once it left Denmark that no more mills could leave the country," said Lisa Riggs, who manages The Danish Windmill. "It was like a wake-up call to Denmark to restore mills. It is the only imported windmill in the United States from Denmark. Some immigrants built Danish windmills, but this is the only one from Denmark."

The windmill was originally built in 1848 in town of Norre Snede, in the Denmark province of Jutland. It stands 60 feet tall with four wings that span 66 feet long. Each wing is covered with 80 shingles that measure seven feet long each. The wind moves the wings, which turns the mills' gears to grind grain.

"Every community had one," Riggs said. "Farmers used it to grind grain for livestock, for people to bake, and bakeries. Farmers brought grain in and waited for the wind to turn it. They gave money to pay for the grinding or a percent of the grain for payment. They mainly ground rye and wheat, later, they did grind some corn."

The Danish Windmill was used in Denmark from 1848 until about 1955. The Iowa town of Elk Horn purchased the windmill in 1975 and began the relocation of the historic structure.

"Harvey Sornson brought the idea of the windmill to the people of Elk Horn," Riggs said. "The town was dying, he wanted to keep it going with the windmill, to keep the town of 700 flourishing. Being the people of the town was one of the largest Danish rural settlements in the United States, Elk Horn had a lot of Danish immigrants, second and third generations. The windmill is a memorial to our heritage."

The townspeople began writing the Danish government, which refused the option of the town purchasing a windmill. So, residents began writing their Danish relatives to locate a historic structure. A cousin of an Elk Horn resident located the windmill, which was sold to Elk Horn for $11,000.

"We got a carpenter crew to dismantle it for $14,000," Riggs said. "The shipping cost $8,000. Nobody from Denmark came here to help assemble it. Rather, the main carpenter built a scale model with pieces numbered to correspond with the old mill so we knew where the pieces went. It took one year, with more than 300 volunteers to reassemble the windmill and a cost of $100,000, which restored it to working condition."

With the skills of mill experts, the windmill is kept in operational condition and does grind grain.

"We do grind grain but not often because it's on the first set of stone," Riggs said. "In it's glory, it powered three sets of stones. Every time you use it, it grinds the stone. We want to find another set of stones. But, we do have the grinding stones disengaged so we can turn the sails without turning the stones."

Shaped like lifesaver candies, the grinding stones measure 52 inches wide and weigh about 1,000 pounds each. The windmill rotates two grinding stones that sit atop a bottom, stationary stone.

"The wind generators used for alternative energy to get us off of oil are patterned after Denmark windmills," Riggs said. "We're a strange breed, those of us who like old mills.

“There's people who have a fascination for all types of mills. It's something old, something ancient, an engineering feat. It's amazing to look at our windmill and think it was built in 1848. How did they get those gigantic pieces of stone up there, know the gear ratios? We used cranes to put it up with modern machinery where back in 1848, they had 12 men every day for two years build it. It's amazing. And, there were mills in Iraq, Iran. There's sugar mills in the Caribbean. Oil, olive oil is all done by wind or water mills. They used horses, dogs on treadmills to power mills that cracked corn for farmers."

Aside from the international and engineering landmarks of The Danish Windmill, perhaps it's greatest accomplishment is how it revived the rural Iowa town.

"The restaurant was enlarged…tourist shops, a quilt shop, antique shop, B & B, boutiques — and the hotel was built by 30 different town investors," Riggs said. "Elk Horn now has a Danish immigrant museum, a winery, a five-acre vineyard. So we have a lot to offer tourists."

The tourism highlights of Elk Horn are two annual Danish festivals, the Tivoli Fest, which is held each spring and the Jule fest, a Danish Christmas festival held every Thanksgiving weekend.

Watkins Woolen Mill State Park and Historic Site

Nestled in the rolling the hills of northwest Missouri, the Watkins Woolen Mill State Park and Historic Site encompasses 1,440 acres of forested landscape.

Some of the unique, original equipment still on site at the Watkins Mill. (photo by Ron Johnson)

The land, which was settled by Kentucky native Waltus Watkins in 1839, features the historic 1871 Mount Vernon Church, the 1856 Franklin School, which was designed as an octagonal shaped building, an 1850 brick home featuring a semi-circular staircase, and a three-story mill.

"There's so few places you can see this type of equipment in North America, taking raw wool and producing fabric," said Mike Beckett, the facility manager. "It's steam engine driven. This type of equipment is no longer used, now it's all computerized.

He (Watkins) brought the gristmill into the woolen mill to utilize steam to power the grist. He didn't have fast flowing streams, so steam was the more efficient way to run these mills. Most mills are associated with streams."

Watkins Woolen Mill, located about an hour north of Kansas City, is the only mill in the United States that houses original equipment. As such, the historic mill site stands as a landmark on two fronts — it is listed as a National Historic Landmark and a National Mechanical Engineering Historic Landmark.

"It's rather unique," Beckett said. "Usually, these operations are stored in separate buildings. But, in Watkins' case, he decided to have a gristmill inside a woolen mill."

The woolen mill, which also housed a sawmill, was built in 1860. Employing high technology of the time, Watkins purchased machinery from Eastern manufacturers, including a 60-horsepower steam engine and riverboat boiler.

In its heyday, the mill produced bolts of cloth, blankets, knitting yarn, shawls and batting. The gristmill ground flour and cornmeal. The Watkins' products were sold in shops around the region.

Operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the historic site also features a living history program whereby park staff is dressed in period clothing and portray life in the late 1800s. The program also features heirloom gardens and orchards, and rare breeds of livestock.

The historic site also contains picnic areas, walking trails, a swimming area and small lake, and campsites. Festivals are held at the mill site throughout the year, including the Music Fest & Back Porch Jam in September, Fall on the Farm in October and Christmas on the Farm in December.


The Society for the Preservation of Old Mills

Bollinger Mill State Historic Site
113 Bollinger Mill Road
Burfordville, MO

Danish Windmill
Elk Horn, IA

Watkins Woolen Mill State Park and State Historic Site
26600 Park Road North
Lawson, MO

Other Midwest mills open to the public

War Eagle Mill
11045 War Eagle Rd.
Rogers, AR
866-4WarEagle (toll free)

Franklin Creek Grist Mill
1893 Twist Rd.
Franklin Grove, IL

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