Take a Tour of The Ozarks Mountain and Mill Country

Reader Contribution by Mike Mcarthy
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I’m very excited to be doing my first blog posting for Mother Earth News. I thought I would start with an intro and sampling of a popular Ozarks’ subject which also happens to be the theme of my first book, Historic Ozarks Mills. The following entries are excerpted from the book, which is available for purchase on my website, www.Photozarks.com. 

The Ozarks Mountains and surrounding region are haunted by many old, historic, water-powered gristmills among the many other splendors of this rugged and beautiful land. These rustic treasures from the past remind us of simpler times gone by. During the pioneering days of the 1800s and early 1900s, they were the centers of activity, especially in the rural areas of Missouri and Arkansas. Folks lived, died, were married, traded stories, goods and services, and even got their haircut and horses shoed, all while visiting the mill to have their corn and wheat ground into meal and flour. Some of these mills even distilled spirits and cut timber as-well, and at least one used beasts of burden for its power source. Those that still survive are cherished and are living examples of the yesteryears. Although this era is often thought of with a mind full of romantic reminiscences, these times were usually difficult and filled with uncertainty, especially during the Civil War. A trip to the mill was viewed by many as a happy social occasion sometimes with celebrations, festivals, and revivals, in addition to the work and tradin’ that needed to be done.  

If these old mills could talk, what a story they might tell.    

All of the mills included in this blog still exist as of its posting and can be visited. Some are on public lands, others on private and can be viewed by the public, thanks to the graciousness of the owners. If you go see them, please obey any posted signs, seek permission if needed and remember you’re probably treading on a designated “National Historic Site.” My book features more than 25 mills. We will touch on a handful here.   

Let’s get started on the tour! Are you ready?  

Falling Spring Mill will start the tour. It’s one of my favorites to photograph and visit. It’s located in a remote area of Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest. The mill is picturesque and well-hidden from the world on a narrow gravel road in Oregon County, Missouri. It’s literally part of a ghost-town and was powered by a small spring that spills from a hole in the bluff behind the historic structure. It used a rare, wooden overshot wheel (which means the water drops over the top of the water wheel). Constructed in the 1920s along Hurricane Creek and the old Thomasville Trail, the mill was once a busy hub for the local rural communities. It ground corn, was used as a sawmill, and even generated electricity for a short period of time. Some of the machinery is still part of the old structure, along with the mill pond and the builder’s old log home, called Brown’s cabin.    

The mill was in use until at least the late 1950s. Walter Brown, son of the original builder and homesteader, sold the property to Emil Slovak, the last owner before the National Forest Service took-over the area. Slowly the forest and time have over-taken many of the old buildings that once made up the community here, but there is still much to see. The Eleven Point River is nearby and the remnants of Turner’s Mill too, with a giant 30-foot iron waterwheel, still standing in the spring channel. In mid-springtime the beautiful wildflowers begin to bloom. They line the roadside on route to the mill.

The area also has lots of wildlife because it’s surrounded by national forest lands. More mills of the Eastern and Scenic Riverways regions are part of this tour (described and mapped in my book).

Hodgson Mill dates back to the early 1860s. There was once a post office and general store at the mill site. The mill continued to run until 1977 when a larger, more modern milling operation bought the rights to use the “Hodgson Mill” brand name for its operation. Hodgson Mill operated first with an undershot wheel and later a turbine system. Hodgson is filled with an Americana pioneering spirit and has a long, eventful past. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is also one of the most photographed and visited in Missouri (This mill is the cover image for my book).    

The mill can be visited year round, but if you want to tour the inside you’ll have to visit from May through mid-October. Hodgson Mill products are still being ground and sold, but are no longer made at this location. Much of the internal workings are still inside the mill, and a cave up the bluff near the entrance makes for great natural air-conditioning. The cold water of Hodgson Spring that powered the mill sits beneath it and reportedly is the 15th largest in Missouri. It spills forth around 29 million gallons of water a day into Bryant Creek. Mills that you can visit nearby are Zanoni, Dawt, Rockbridge, Topaz, and Hammond.

Hiding along a south bank of the West Fork, an upper tributary to the Black River is Reed Spring Mill. Named after the spring that powered it, this old mill looks like a log cabin with an over-shot wheel attached. The stone foundation with spring water running through it and the hand-hewn logs create wonderful scenery for pictures. The backdrop of an old family farm and residence adds to the charm of the site. Upper Reed Spring that powered the mill cascades down from its source up the hill, through emerald pools of cold water. A local entrepreneur by the name of Nathaniel Scott erected the mill in 1881 to grind wheat and corn for Centerville and the surrounding communities. A demand
for lumber spawned a sawmill on the site sometime later. The region was recovering from the Civil War which hit Reynolds and nearby counties extremely hard. The area was slow in regaining its population, but locals needed lumber in order to help rebuild new farms, businesses, and homes in the county. The mill site even generated some electricity for the local area after 1910 and up to the Great Depression. Reed Spring Mill had the distinction of being on exhibit in the 1939 World’s Fair at San Francisco, CA. The mill was disassembled and shipped to the fair. This was quite an undertaking for the time period, considering the local terrain and lack of transportation sources in the region then.

Located on War Eagle River in the northwest Arkansas’ Ozarks, War Eagle Mill has had four incarnations at this site, dating back to 1838. The most recent was completed in 1973 and is a fully functional, hard-working mill complete with a waterwheel supplying the grinding power. Accompanying the mill is an old wood and iron bridge that is historic and enhances the scenery in the beautiful river valley they occupy. When the builder of the first mill, Sylvanus Blackburn, settled in the luscious War Eagle Valley in the early 1830’s, I’m sure he hadn’t dreamt that over 175 years later a mill would still be operating on the same site. The original mill built by Blackburn in the 1830’s was the victim of flooding on the river in 1848. Flooding was a danger for many of the early mills locate along streams. During the Civil War the homestead was taken over by the Confederates and used as headquarters for a short time. Prior to the Battle of Pea Ridge, the mill was burned to the ground to prevent Union troops from taking it over during their advance. Again the mill was rebuilt. In 1873 the son of Sylvanus, James Blackburn, erected the third mill on site, but in 1924 it also burned down.   

In 1973 the fourth mill to occupy the War Eagle River banks was completed and is grinding grain once again in the historic valley with stone buhrs and an 18-ft. undershot waterwheel. Zoe Medlin Caywood, Leta Medlin and Jewell Medlin, recreated the 1870’s style of the old mill in this latest version. War Eagle Mill is open for business most of the year, sometimes weekends only during the slower months of the year. The mill has fresh ground meal, flour, and other products. Here you can witness first hand the old-fashioned way of milling grains, just as
they did in the 1800’s. The river, mill, and old bridge make a picturesque scene. Movies have been filmed here. The site is home to one of the largest craft fairs in the nation, with regional arts and crafts featured. 

There are more than 20 additional Ozarks mill sites to tour, along with directions on how to get there, and lots of beautiful photos in the “Historic Ozarks Mills” book. Go to my website and click on “Historic Ozarks Mills” book for more. 

Contact me at mike_mca@msn.com or call (636) 399-2715 with inquiries and comments.

Happy mill-hunting!

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