Steam-Powered Gristmill Brought Back to Life

Southern Engine & Boiler Works steam engine powers restored Wommack Mill in Missouri

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A Gardner governor, manufactured in Quincy

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Twenty years ago, a stationary steam engine arrived in poor condition at its new home in Fair Grove, Mo.

Manufactured about 1900 by the Southern Engine & Boiler Works of Jackson, Tenn., the old power plant spent many years of service at an Oklahoma sawmill. Today, that engine runs again, this time as power for the Wommack Mill, a historic gristmill in Fair Grove.

The engine had seen better years when it arrived in that southern Missouri hamlet. Little attention was paid to the engine’s mechanical maintenance in the decades it spent turning an Oklahoma sawmill blade. Most of its open-bearing surfaces were damaged, and the internal components of the cylinder and steam chest were assumed to be just as worn.

Regardless of the engine’s poor condition, the tired hulk of cast iron was an affordable prize for a handful of private individuals, business owners and organizations working to restore the old gristmill. Together, they paid $500 for their grimy prize and, over the next two decades, painstakingly moved it to a half-dozen temporary storage places until a suitable and permanent home for the century-old engine was located at the Wommack Mill.

A long road to revive the past

Restoring an old mill and the steam engine to power the operation wasn’t a simple endeavor. Jerry Thomas, a life long Fair Grove resident and historic preservation activist, spearheaded the search for the engine about the same time he and other members of the fledgling Fair Grove Historical & Preservation Society bought a tumble down gristmill in the middle of town. After some investigation, Thomas and others determined that the mill’s machinery was powered for nearly 50 years by a single-cylinder stationary steam engine. A victim of progress, the engine gave way to subsequent power sources such as electricity, gasoline and diesel engines.

Few townspeople recall the mill’s steam-powered days, but Fred Williams, son of the mill’s original steam engineer, Steve Williams, spent many hours there during the 1920s. Fred worked after school and pushed wheelbarrows filled with split wood to supply the steam boiler’s firebox. Fred also shared information about most of the remaining equipment, which was beneficial for the restoration effort because the mill had been out of operation since Clifford Wommack, the last miller, died in 1969.

The historical society bought the dilapidated, three-story structure and 2 acres of land where the mill stood in 1984 from Ethel, Clifford’s widow. According to Will Long, a local historian and property abstract, Joseph W. Hine and John Boegel began a joint milling operation in 1883. The mill immediately became the largest business enterprise and social gathering place in northern Greene County. For nearly 20 years, the entrepreneurs used stone burrs to grind wheat and corn, but incorporated a steel-roller milling process in about 1900 to produce high-grade baking flour.

Instead of utilizing a water-powered wheel or turbine to turn the mill’s grinding equipment – prevalent techniques to power most early milling operations – Fair Grove’s famed mill was fitted with a steam power plant that required only enough water to keep its boiler filled. Thus, Boegel and Hine were able to grind grain year round, independent of a river’s fickle temperament when flows were reduced to a trickle during droughts, or flood-waters washed away milldams and destroyed structures, as well as expensive equipment.

After the historical society purchased the Wommack gristmill, it was designated as a Greene County Historical Site and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Society members began an extensive restoration project that remains a work in progress. During the past 20 years, workers have lifted and re-leveled the mill building, repaired its crumbling rock foundation, replaced rough-cut timbers and siding, added a new roof, and completely replicated the nonexistent engine room, using only a remnant foundation, roof line and an old photograph to serve as reference.

Diligent workers accomplished those tasks, and corn meal has been ground for the past seven years using the mill’s original 42-inch French burrstones. Future plans include an effort to re-establish the steel roller system with three heavy milling machines, similar to the original “breaks,” which were purchased at auction in North Carolina. To get the mill back on line, a 1939 Farmall F-20 tractor initially performed belt-pulley duty to power the mill’s network of shafts that drive the grindstones. Like everything in the old mill, those shafts needed work, but ran smoothly with newly-poured babbitt bearings.

Southern Engine & Boiler Works company proved difficult research

Restoration of the Southern Engine & Boiler Works engine, serial no. 2294, and its adjoining boiler (donated by Mat Martin of Alton, Ill.), wasn’t a quick or simple task. Since little was known about the 8-inch bore by 8-inch stroke engine or its parent company, a great deal of research and countless hours of labor by individuals too numerous to list went into the engine’s restoration.

What’s known, however, is that the company manufactured both gasoline and steam engines briefly at Jackson, Tenn. The firm then moved to Nashville, Tenn., and added a line of automobiles under the company name, Southern. Another company already had claimed rights to the Southern name, so Southern Engine & Boiler changed the car-manufacturing name to Marathon – while still producing the same model. After the move, workers at the vacated Jackson shop opened their own engine works, producing Heathcock & Rush power plants.

Restoring the steam engine and boiler

The engine was salvageable, but needed many new and refurbished components. Most importantly, the piston was unusable, so the restorers fabricated a new one and fitted it with new compression rings and the connecting rod. The original slide valve was milled to offset some wear on the eccentric and coupled with a replicated valve-rod assembly, and the original cylinder oiler was reconditioned and put to work with reproduced linkage.

The engine’s original governor was missing when the consortium purchased the engine. To replace that essential component, the team overhauled and installed a 1-1/2-inch Gardner-type flyball governor, complete with newly turned pulleys at each end of the “endless” governing belt. A remade boilerplate steam chest cover substituted for the original cast piece that was cracked in half. The drive pulley was also missing, but one retired from a different sawmill engine served as a suitable replacement.

Like the engine, the boiler needed work as well. Its original flues were unusable, so they were removed with a cutting torch, replaced and rolled. Work on the ancient upright “tea kettle” included new steam fixtures, smokestack, grates and a firebox door. New schedule 80 water pipes connected the boiler to the rebuilt engine, making a fine pair to power the old mill. Worthwhile endeavors are often rewarded, and the Missouri boiler inspector approvingly “tagged” the steam system at the Wommack Mill ready for active duty in 2003.

Initial operation during annual Fair Grove Heritage Reunion

During the 26th Annual Fair Grove Heritage Reunion held last September, nearly 50,000 people participated in one of the premier heritage events in the Missouri Ozark Mountains. Demonstrations included working draft teams, threshing and baling with antique farm machinery, mountain man and Civil War encampments, crafts, traditional music and dance.

Folks from all corners of the country also witnessed the initial operation of the reconditioned steam engine and boiler at the mill. Nearly three quarters of a century had passed since a shrill whistle called out on a cool autumn morning to signal the daily start of mill operations. Visitors observed grain transformed into meal, a once common occurrence at the 120-year-old facility. Most importantly after all those years, the work was again powered by steam, which made the annual step back in time more special than ever before. FC

The Wommack Mill in Fair Grove, Mo., may be the only steam-powered stone burr gristmill in the United States – or perhaps the world – grinding on its original site. As a member of the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills, Dan invites anyone with information about other such steam engine milling operations to contact him to exchange technical data. Write Dan Manning at P.O. Box 115, Fair Grove, MO 65648.

Wommack Mill’s Steam Engine at a Glance

Like many turn of the century steam engine manufacturers, information about the Southern Engine & Boiler Works is difficult to find. Some collectors say the company made both gasoline and steam engines, and moved from Jackson to Nashville, Tenn., sometime after 1900.

There, the company branched out and produced automobiles called the Southern, but changed the name to Marathon because another company also built cars it dubbed Southern.

Engine makers from the South were few and far between because most industrial operations were located north of the Mason-Dixon line, which some say makes the Wommack Mill steam engine especially rare. – Dan Manning

Southern Engine & Boiler Works
circa-1900 stationary steam engine
City Built Jackson, Tenn.
Serial No. 2294
Horsepower about 12
Bore 8 inches
Stroke 8 inches