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Daily grind: Historic mills rockin’ and rollin’ at Missouri State Parks

Missouri is getting its two century-old, water-powered gristmills back into working shape.

A crew arrived at the Dillard Mill State Historic Site south of Steelville in late summer and finished repairs by mid-September. The workers will be heading next to the Bollinger Mill State Historic Site near Cape Girardeau.

Although open for visitors, the two mills had been idle for several years while awaiting repairs.

Yvonne Bobbitt, interpreter at Dillard, said the mill there is now in good working condition, and can be operated during paid tours, which are $4 for adults and $2.50 for children 6-12.

“It works great,” Bobbitt said. “The building has that nice, old rocking motion. It was a pleasant sound after years of not hearing it.”

Lesley McDaniel, park/site specialist at Bollinger Mill, was looking forward to completion of repairs there.

“This building just comes to life when the mill is running,” McDaniel said. “To hear those mill stones rumble, to smell the meal being ground, to feel it in your hands – it adds a sensation to your experience here.”

Thousands of mills used to operate across the country. A map of Missouri mills in 1902 shows more than 900 stretching to every corner of the state. St. Louis had 20 mills; Kansas City had 11.

But modern machinery replaced the old mills. The mill at the tiny town of Dillard and Bollinger Mill in the village of Burfordville remain as relics of the past.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Division of State Parks maintains the two mills in their bucolic settings as reminders of simpler times.

Bobbitt, the interpreter at Dillard, said gristmills, in their heyday, were the centers of the local community.

“This wouldn’t have been a mill sitting out in the woods by itself,” Bobbitt said. “There was a blacksmith shop, schools, a post office, a store.

“It wasn’t uncommon that the farmer would bring his wife and children. While the corn and wheat was being ground, it was quite a social gathering. The miller supplied the families with cane fishing poles while they were here.”

A peaceful place

Today, Dillard Mill sits in a picture-postcard setting on 143 wooded acres off Highway 49.

A short trail leads from the parking lot across a foot bridge over a gravel-bed stream through the woods and emerges into clearing with picnic tables looking out into the view. The metal sides of the barn-red mill reflect in the stillness of a fishing pond, while Huzzah Creek cascades over a rock dam and natural waterfall.

“We have people come out here and put their easel just beyond that split-rail fence and start painting,” Bobbitt said. “It’s just so calm and relaxing. It’s beautiful in the morning. And you should see the red mill after a nice snow.”

While Dillard Mill is quaint, Bollinger Mill is a stately piece of architecture.

The massive four-story mill is a brick building on a stone foundation next to the Whitewater River, which on this day was foaming brown from recent rains. Next to the mill is the 140-foot-long Burfordville Covered Bridge. Completed about 1868, the bridge is the oldest of the four remaining covered bridges in Missouri.

“It’s one of the most peaceful places I’ve been,” said McDaniel. “When I sit on the front porch and talk with visitors, it’s reminiscent of a time we don’t have anymore.”

A Civil War casualty

George Frederick Bollinger led a group of families from North Carolina to southeast Missouri and in 1800 began construction of a mill and dam on the Whitewater. Both the mill and Bollinger were successes. He served as a senator in Missouri’s first general assembly.

The original log mill was rebuilt with a limestone foundation in 1825. During the Civil War, Union forces burned the mill because the Bollingers were Southern sympathizers. Only the foundation remained.

Solomon R. Burford bought the property and in 1867 built the present mill on the old foundation. The adjacent settlement became known as Burfordville, and construction began on the covered bridge. Bollinger’s ancestors re-acquired the mill in 1953 and later donated it to the county, which, donated it to the state in 1967.

Today, the mill has been restored and its interior of plank floors and mammoth wood beams displays milling machinery. The 43-acre site along the river has picnic tables in a shaded grove, and a hiking path to the Bollinger family cemetery.

Visitors can still make out the initials SRB carved in the limestone near the mill’s main door.

Water power

The first mill was built on the Huzzah near what is now the town of Dillard in the 1850s, but burned in 1895. Emil Mischke, an emigrant from Germany, bought the property in 1900. He used some of the hand-hewn timbers salvaged from the first mill to build the second.

Mischke was something of an innovator. He used steel roller mills, instead of the more common buhr stones, for grinding and introduced a turbine instead of a water wheel to power the mill, which was completed in 1908.

A later owner, Lester Klemme, added a rustic lodge, where guests could fish, swim, eat and spend the night for $7. The mill ceased operation in 1956. In 1974, conservationist Leo Drey bought the property and his L-A-D Foundation donated a lease to the state to make the mill an historic site.

“Pretty much everything in this building has been virtually untouched,” said Bobbitt, the interpreter. “We had to replace two of the three roller mills, but got two of the same era in Indiana. It was kind of a rare find.”