A walk out the rear door of the visitor center and museum at Watkins Woolen Mill State Park and State Historic Site takes you into a pastoral setting of tall trees lining a sun-dappled lane that leads to an elegant home and three-story woolen mill from the 19th Century.
With sheep grazing in pens and chickens clucking in coops on the manicured grounds, the historic site today is a tranquil picture of a country scene.
But Mike Beckett, facility manager of the 1,500-acre park and historic site, says that snapshot is a bit deceiving.
“When you walk down that lane, it’s very bucolic, very peaceful,” Beckett said. “But what was it like when you had a dairy barn and a mule barn on an active working farm with the smoke and noise coming from the mill?
“You put that agricultural and industrial factor together, this place was very busy.”
The displays in the visitor center tell that story, and it all comes to life during “Fall on the Farm” from noon till 5 p.m. on Oct. 5, when some two dozen costumed interpreters portray the rural life of the 1870s. The demonstrations include corn shelling, cider pressing, gardening, blacksmithing and Victorian games, as well as tours of the mill.
“When you step out that back door of the visitor center, it is like stepping back in time,” Beckett said. “You’re walking on the original lane that the Watkins family used.”
A Feel for the Family
Waltus L. Watkins, a native Kentuckian, moved his family in 1839 to this site in northeast Clay County, about 30 miles north of Kansas City. By 1880, he owned more than 3,600 acres with 1,242 of it called Bethany Farm, where he planted an orchard, raised livestock and grew corn, hay and oats.
Originally living in a log cabin, Watkins completed by 1854 a two-and-one-half story Greek Revival home built from bricks fired on the grounds. The interior featured walnut trim, including a handsome circular staircase with a large newel. Some of the fine detail elements - the doors and windows and their frames - were shipped from Kentucky.
Today, the home contains most of the Watkins’ family furnishings, with a summer kitchen, fruit-drying house, smokehouse, icehouse, chicken yard, beehives and vegetable garden out back.
“With such a large percentage of the original furnishings, you really get a feeling for the house when the Watkins family lived there,” Beckett said. “It’s a nice cross section of furniture from the mid to late 19th Century.”
A Special Place
By 1861, Watkins had completed construction of one of the largest woolen mills in the region as sheep production and the woolen industry grew in the area. By 1870, there were some 850 woolen mills in the Midwest. The mill employed up to 40 skilled workers, who turned out blankets, shawls, yarns and other fabrics that were sold locally and shipped to stores as far away as St. Louis and Chicago.
But Waltus Watkins grew ill and sold his holdings to his three sons before dying in 1884. The woolen industry also was declining by the late 1890s, killed by more efficient competition, outdated machinery and declining sheep production.
Efforts to save the mill building and its machinery succeeded, and the property was turned over to Missouri for a state historic site in 1964. The mill is now part of a National Historic Landmark and is the only 19th century textile mill in the country with its original machinery still intact, including its steam engine and riverboat boiler.
“When you walk in the front door of the mill and see and smell the interior with all the machinery, it really is a special place,” Beckett said.
The ‘Oh Wow’ Factor
Two other brick buildings on the grounds are architectural gems in their own right.
The Mount Vernon Church, with its tall windows splashing light into an interior that contains original pews and pulpit, was built in 1871. Waltus Watkins, his wife, Mary Ann, and their oldest daughter, Kate, were charter members.
“It served as the church for those who worked in the mill, the Watkins family and neighbors,” Beckett said. “It held services through the turn of the century.”
The nearby Franklin Academy, an octagonal building, was constructed in 1856 and served as a school until 1870, with at least five of the nine Watkins children attending classes. The building is topped by a cupola, which casts a soft glow on the desks and blackboard in the interior.
“A one-room schoolhouse is unique by itself, but here you have a brick one that is eight sided,” Beckett said. “And with the cupola to provide light and ventilation, it has that ‘oh wow’ factor when you walk in there.”
The church and school are open to the public at special events, including “Fall on the Farm.”
Favorite Time of the Year
With the Kansas City metropolitan area just minutes away, Watkins Woolen Mill State Park and State Historic Site is popular for its historical and cultural aspect, as well as its recreational offerings.
The park, which consists of about half of the 1,500 total acres, features a 100-acre lake for fishing and small boats, with a beach that is open seasonally. A 3.75-mile paved trail encircles the lake and is a favorite of hikers and bicycle riders. There also is an equestrian trail.
The park has nearly 100 campsites in a wooded area, with restrooms, hot showers and laundry. Several picnic areas and an open shelter are scattered within the park.
“If you want to come out for the weekend and camp, and also take in the historic tours, they’re right here,” Beckett said. “The real plus is you have all these options. There’s just a lot to do and not leave the facility.”
Since the time of Waltus Watkins’ arrival nearly 175 years ago, the landscape has changed from mostly rolling prairie to a mature forest with large oaks, maples, sycamores and walnuts. That makes the Oct. 5 “Fall on the Farm” a more colorful event.
“Fall is a good time to come out to the park,” Beckett said. “It’s my favorite time of the year.”