Steam-Powered Gristmill Brought Back to Life

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

| January 2004

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.