Preamble for the Conceptual Development Plan
History and Significance Watkins Woolen Mill is a National Historic Landmark and a National Mechanical Engineering Landmark, as well as a Clay County Historic Landmark. The woolen factory is the only one of over 2,400 textile mills operating in North America in 1870 that still contains its original machinery and equipment. As such it is a very important historic document of 19th-century life, working conditions, and industrial technology. Its value is enhanced by the preservation of Watkins' Bethany farm, Mt. Vernon Church and Franklin Academy. Bethany was a farming and manufacturing complex which reflected the development and change that occurred in the late 1800s as the United States moved from an agricultural to an industrial economy. The church and school, as complementary structures, provide social and community context.
Waltus L. Watkins established Bethany plantation in 1839 as an 80-acre livestock farm. Watkins raised livestock, crops and orchards, operated a dairy, a gristmill, brick kilns, sawmills, a broom factory and a blacksmith shop. In 1860 he constructed the Woolen Mill and its support buildings. The steam-powered mill employed some forty people and was large by Midwest standards. It served most of the communities in northwest Missouri and northeast Kansas, providing fabrics, shawls, blankets, yarn, batting and various custom services for over thirty-five years. In 1868 Watkins went into partnership with his son John. Their company, W. L. Watkins & Son, became a successful livestock dealership, farming and manufacturing business. By 1882 the farm had grown to 3,670 acres and Watkins sold the property to three of his sons who operated as Jno. H. Watkins & Bros. until 1888. The mill gradually closed down between 1886 and 1910. The family continued to farm the property until John's death in 1931. The mill was kept intact and many of the original documents and artifacts relating to the mill, farm operations, and personal affairs are still on site.
The property was sold to the Frass family in 1944. They sold the farm and mill at auction in 1958. Three men acquired the mill, house and surrounding land, formed the Watkins Mill Association, and operated the mill as a museum. In 1963 county voters passed a $184,000 bond issue to buy the property and turn it over to the Missouri State Park Board. Watkins Mill State Historic Site entered the state park system on January 1, 1964. The State Park Board constructed the 100-acre Williams Creek Lake in 1967-68 and developed a campground and day-use facilities around the lake. The facility was subsequently divided into Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site, containing the mill and other historic buildings, and Watkins Mill State Park, containing the recreation area. The park has become a major outdoor recreation resource in the Kansas City area. It now ranks in the top 25 percent in camping attendance for the state park system and is a significant element of this facility. In 1994 Watkins Woolen Mill and Watkins Mill State Park were consolidated into a single 1,442-acre facility to improve visitor services and to consolidate support services. The facility is very popular, with annual visitation of around 750,000 people.
Mission The mission of Watkins Woolen Mill State Park and State Historic Site is to preserve and interpret the historic structures and surviving remnants, cultural landscapes, and relevant artifacts associated with the mill, plantation, and the Watkins family, with emphasis on the last half of the 19th century. Recreational opportunities consistent with the facility's historic character and carrying capacity of the property will be provided.
Douglas K. Eiken, Director, Division of State Parks, 06/26/00
Jim Rehard, District Supervisor, Northern Missouri Historic District, 06/20/00
Ann Sliger, Site Administrator, Watkins Woolen Mill State Park and State Historic Site, 06/20/00