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Watersheds The Old Water Mills

The Old Water Mills

When settlers were looking for a place to set up a mill, they often looked at springs. Springs flowed more reliably than streams and rivers in the dry times of summer. Rivers also have higher flood peaks that could tear up a mill. Some mills, like Dawt Mill on the North Fork, were placed on rivers. However, most were set on spring branches or small streams, like the mill sites at Zanoni, Hodgson and Rockbridge in the Bryant Creek watershed, or Topaz in the North Fork watershed.

People would come to the mill from their farms to have their grain ground. They traveled on horses and in wagons. Once at the mill, they might have to wait to have their grain ground because many others were there for the same purpose. It might take two hours to grind one hundred pounds of corn. Instead of receiving grain from the miller's stores, some folks wanted to be sure their corn meal came from their own corn! This could make the line move even slower. 

A family might need three hundred pounds each of corn meal and wheat flour to get through the winter. More corn was grown than wheat, partly because it was easier to grow in poor soil. Folks would often end up spending the night, camping around the mill. Eventually a blacksmith might set up shop by the mill to reshoe the customers' horses. A blacksmith also came in handy to fix broken metal pieces of the mill machinery. 

The mills tended to be nice places to spend time. Their scenic valleys and cool waters were sometimes complemented by a swimming hole created by the mill dam. The miller might charge a small fee for campsites and swimming privileges. People would come just to socialize with folks from farms they didn't see often, or for dances and other events. 

With all those services available, it's no wonder that communities grew up around water mills. The miller was often a sharp businessman who looked for ways to expand his business. He, or members of his family, might open a general store to sell staples like sugar and coffee, and a post office where folks could get their mail. 

The slow decline of the mill communities came about as modern times crept up on them. Better transportation, in the form of railroads and cars, made it easier for people and goods to travel longer distances to towns situated on major highways far from the mill. Increased prosperity made it possible for people to afford imported flour. 

Most mills stopped operating by the 1950s, although a few, like Dawt, grind grain even today. Still, there is something about those scenic old mills in their cool valleys that draws us back to them, just as the old settlers were drawn to them. It's partly the beauty of the scenery, but perhaps the old mills remind us of the pioneer spirit of self-reliance and community that was the bedrock of the old settlers' lives, and that lives on in us today. 

Sources: A Living History of the Ozarks,Phyllis Rossiter, Pelican.
Water Mills of the Missouri Ozarks,
George G. Suggs Jr. University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. 
Written for the Atlas by Hank Dorst.