Operating gristmill uses century-old equipment in the Ozarks
The gristmill, once an integral part of every rural community, is a thing of the past.
But the past remains alive in southeast Missouri, where the Dillard Mill continues to churn along much as it has for decades.
Rick Brown is the water-powered gristmill’s caretaker and operator. He’s quick to admit that he took the position with no background or experience in mill operation. It would be a daunting task for many, but not for Rick.
“Well, the first time I ever went up in an airplane,” he said, “I jumped out of it.”
In other words, Rick, who once served in the Army’s Special Forces, dives right into challenges. The mill has responded to his style: The hundred-year-old equipment there hums along just as it did in 1957 during its last official working days.
Its history, though, goes back to the mid-1800s.
The road to becoming a historic site
The first mill on the site, Wisdom’s Mill, was built in the 1850s. The small community of Dillard grew up around the mill. That mill was destroyed by fire in 1897.
Three years later, two Polish immigrants, brother and sister Emil and Mary Mischke, began building a new mill at the site, using timbers salvaged from Wisdom’s Mill. The Mischkes modernized the mill, installing steel roller mills instead of burrstones for grinding. They also installed a 23-inch Samson vertical water turbine (built by Leffel Turbine Mfg., Springfield, Ohio) to power the mill, pump water and, later, to generate electricity.
The mill re-opened as Dillard Mill in 1908. The turbine operated the mill using an 8-foot head of water. At full power, the turbine produced 24.2 hp, used 1,974 gallons of water per minute and turned at 200 rpm on the main shaft.
By 1917 the mill was a roaring success. When farmers brought their grain in to be milled, they also purchased goods at the local general store. After Mary sold her portion to Emil, he ran the business for 10 years without a partner. He must have been lonely, because at the age of 66 he did what a bachelor out in the sticks might do to find a wife – he sent for a mail order bride from California.
Mrs. Mischke, however, was not enthralled with the Ozarks and the gristmill. After a few years she convinced her husband to take her back to California, and in 1930 Emil sold the mill to Lester E. Klemme. Klemme continued milling flour and livestock feed, and also built cabins on the site and opened a resort called Old Mill Lodge. For $7, a person could swim or fish in the pond, stay overnight in a cabin and eat with Klemme in his home.
By the middle of the century, though, industrialization was closing gristmills throughout the country. Klemme shut down the milling side of his business, but kept the resort open until the 1960s. In 1974, he sold the mill to the not-for-profit L-A-D Foundation in St. Louis. In 1975 the foundation leased the mill (plus 132 acres) to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Today, it is listed as a state historic site.
Vintage tools and techniques works best for a vintage gristmill
Rick Brown, with hands-on experience, would be the first to agree that the gristmill is an antiquity. He has spent countless hours in the mill’s basement workshop, putting vintage tools through their paces as he repairs, rebuilds and maintains the mill.
Rick spends at least 18 hours a week keeping the mill in running order. Some of the repairs are conducted in the workshop area under the first floor; others require him to be up on the catwalks on the second floor above the machinery.
The mill’s machinery has not changed since it was installed in the early 1900s. Two reel sifters (one built in St. Louis by Richmond Reels, and the other by Nordyke & Marmon Co., Indianapolis) sift flour. Bran and germ are separated from ground wheat. The remaining grinds are separated into various grades of flour. Craftsmanship on the old equipment bears stark contrast to modern machinery: Trap doors, elaborate metal catches, fancy knobs and hand-carved wooden paddles are rarely seen today.
Rick speculated that such attention to detail was a sophisticated form of marketing: “Since they did it in St. Louis, in the city, they had other people looking at their work, and that’s how they would get more business. If you made your machine look better than the other machine, you got more business.”
Vintage tools and techniques work best on the old equipment, Rick said. For example, the numerous leather belts used to drive the mill’s machinery must be maintained and occasionally replaced. Although some mills have switched to canvas, Rick said, Dillard Mill still uses historically-correct leather belts. He crimped a metal belt connector (similar to those once used in hay balers) to the belt with an original tool designed for the task.
“This thing is a bear to work with,” he said.
The old tools may be the best match, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easier to use.
Operating the Dillard Mill
In a section of the mill above the turbine, large main bevel gears transmit energy from the turbine to the mill. On the turbine shaft, the teeth on the upright gear are cast iron; the teeth on the mill shaft’s horizontal gear are wood. If the machinery jams, the wooden teeth shear off. Originally made of hop hornbeam (an extremely hard wood), the teeth are made of maple today. “The turbine has so much torque,” the original turbine operator’s manual notes, “that with two metal bevel gears, you would run the risk of breaking two gears, or twisting the main shaft out of line.”
On the mill’s second floor, under a high open ceiling, stand separators, sifters, a purifier, storage bins, and sieves with their accompanying chutes, pulleys, belts, horsehair brushes and babbitt metal bearings. Because the mill isn’t operated very often, Rick said, he pays special attention to lubricating the bearings.
When wheat enters the milling system, it goes first to a Eureka Dustless Separator, where large debris is divided from the grain and any other small objects. The debris is then blown out of the side of the building by a fan, and the remaining material goes to the second machine, a Eureka Horizontal Separator & Scourer. The horizontal separator loosens dirt and small debris and disposes of it by, once again, blowing it out of the building. Both Eureka machines were built by the Howe company. After the cleaned grain leaves the separator, it travels to the “clean wheat” bin and on to a Barnard Roller Mill on the first floor.
The wheat “middlings” (large chunks) are separated in a Whitmore Air & Sieve Purifier, and sent on to be ground or sifted again. (A wire reel sifter made by Barnard & Lea in Moline, Ill., sifts corn meal into a metal bin below the machine.)
The main floor houses grain breaks, grain bins, a corn meal grinder and the original Howe Floor Scale. The first and second grain breaks are in the Barnard Roller Mill. The roller mill grinds the wheat into flour using two sets of steel rollers, each referred to as a “break.”
Back in the days of the working mill, after the wheat was ground into flour, it was stored in a bin until the miller put it in sacks or barrels. A flour packer, using a counter-weighted scale system, automatically loaded a preselected weight of flour into containers.
After Rick explained the entire milling process, from bottom to top and then back down again, he opened the valves, allowing 1,974 gallons of water per minute to rush through the turbine. The mill’s wooden structure responded and came alive with pumping and whirring and zinging and spitting. And Rick grinned from ear to ear. FC
For more information: Dillard Mill State Park is located south of Cherryville, Mo., on Hwy. 49 in Crawford County. Follow signs. Tours are available for a nominal fee, daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Picnic sites and a 1.5-mile hiking path are also available. Mailing address: 142 Dillard Mill Rd., Davisville, MO 65456; (573) 244-3120.
Barbara Baird is a freelance writer in the Ozarks of Missouri.