Steam-Powered Gristmill is New Again
This approximately 12hp Southern engine at Wommack Mill was built in about 1900. It has an 8in x 8in bore and stroke. Photo by Ron McGinnis.
When Wommack Mill’s boiler gave up the ghost a couple of years ago, the 1883 Missouri mill’s unique status as one of only two operating steam-powered gristmills in the U.S. appeared to have ended.
Thankfully, Leon Beaty, board chairman of the Fair Grove Historical and Preservation Society, found out about Jeff Lund. Jeff, who operates Lund Machine Works in New Ulm, Minnesota, specializes in historical boiler replacement. Among his credits are two boilers for steam locomotives at Silver Dollar City, a theme park in Branson, 50 miles south of Fair Grove.
“I quit teaching high school music 15 years ago, and haven’t looked back,” Jeff says. “Working on steam boilers is very interesting.”
Evan and Steven Barry help position the new boiler at Wommack Mill, while Carl Buckner and Leon Beaty give directions to Franklin Hodges in his skid loader. Photo by Ron McGinnis.
In one recent project, he restored the boiler for an extremely rare admiral’s boat. Steam Cutter #873 NJ1, a 40-foot launch, was assigned to the battleship USS New Jersey BB 16 when it was commissioned in 1907. After a nine-year restoration, the small boat will be displayed in the Annapolis Maritime Museum. It is the only one of its kind known to exist.
Steam sets Wommack Mill apart
Just two weeks before the 2018 Fair Grove Heritage Reunion, Leon and Carl Buckner, president of the historical society, made a 25-hour round trip to the Lund Machine Works in New Ulm. Their mission was to pick up the mill’s brand-new boiler.
“I only stopped for an hour’s nap on the way home,” Leon says. Time was running out: The small Missouri town’s 41st annual two-day festival would begin Sept. 29.
Shane Nations welds a pipe for the steam whistle. Photo by Ron McGinnis.
Before the boiler could be placed inside the mill, an octagonal base/ash box for it was constructed at D&D Welding & Fabrication in Tin Town, 8 miles northwest of Fair Grove. Owner Dennis Dukes thought the Wommack Mill boiler project was important enough for welder Tegan Wallace to interrupt his work on an ornamental stair railing commissioned for Missouri Governor Mike Parson’s new home.
After the new boiler was in place, a crew from Springfield Mechanical Services piped it into the system that supplies steam to a horizontal single-cylinder engine built by Southern Engine & Boiler Works, Jackson, Tennessee, and an upright E.H. Wachs single-cylinder engine manufactured in Chicago.
Mark McCarty adds steam from the boiler to the single-cylinder Southern engine that operates Wommack Mill’s original 42-inch French burrstones and one of its Barnard & Lea steel roller mills. Photo by Ron McGinnis.
Instead of utilizing a water-powered wheel or turbine to turn the mill’s grinding equipment, as was typically done in many early milling operations, Fair Grove’s mill was fitted with a steam power plant that required only enough water to keep its boiler filled. That also meant that milling operations could continue year ’round, independent of a river’s fickle temperament spurred by drought or flood.
Old mill buttoned up
My involvement with the old mill dates to 1974, when, with permission from Ethel Wommack, I inspected an old mill near her home. She and her husband, Clifford, had operated it until his death in December of 1969. Signs reading “keep out” and “no trespassing” were painted on its doors.
Heather Tucker stokes the firebox while her husband, Joel, checks the boiler’s sight gauge to make sure the water level is correct. Photo by Ron McGinnis.
Not long after I looked inside the teetering old structure, I read A History of the Village of Fair Grove. Written in 1932 by early resident William Long, the book explained that John Boegei and Joseph W. Hine had the mill constructed in 1883. They installed one run of burrstones to grind corn and one run to grind wheat.
When he was a kid in the early 1920s, Fred Williams used to stop by the mill to visit with his father, who was in charge of the steam boiler. In 1981, he shared memories with Jerry Thomas and me of how the machinery there worked.
This E.H. Wachs upright single-cylinder steam engine dates to about 1900. Nicknamed “Annette Funicello” by a mill volunteer (in honor of his favorite actress), it supplies belt power to a 10-inch International feed grinder and a Type 3 10-inch Cinch Mill cob crusher at Wommack Mill. Photo by Ron McGinnis.
Rebirth of the Wommack Mill
In 1984, the Fair Grove Historical & Preservation Society purchased the tumble-down building and 2 acres of land from the Wommack family. After a dozen years of restoration, the structure was in good enough condition that work on the machinery could get underway.
The Wommack Mill today. Photo by Ron McGinnis.
John Lovett, a millwright who owns and operates Falls Mill in Belvidere, Tennessee, sharpened the burrstone’s furrows. He said the stones had come from the Paris Basin in France, likely brought across the Atlantic Ocean as ballast in the bottom of a sailing ship. John figured the two stones cost about $2,000 when new, but were well worth the expense considering their grain-grinding qualities.
French burrstones are made of silicified fossiliferous limestone where the calcareous cement of the limestone has been replaced by silica cement and the fossil shells have dissolved. If crystals are visible, it is called quartz; if they cannot be seen, it is called chert.
The Wommack Mill in 1979. Photo by Maurice McGinnis.
According to a 1934 inventory recorded by mill owner Frank King, much of the machinery, along with the 42-inch burrstones, came to Missouri from Nordyke & Marmon Co., Indianapolis.
During an initial two-year trial period after restoration, power was provided to the burrstones via the belt pulley of a 1939 F-20 Farmall tractor. Later, a retired steam engine built by Southern Engine & Boiler in about 1900 was purchased at an Oklahoma sawmill in 1983 and hauled to Fair Grove. In 2004, it was restored and put into service at Fair Grove’s mill by members of the historical society.
The upper millstone at the Wommack Mill. The mill’s top burrstone (which measures 42 inches in diameter) is called the “runner stone.” It has 15 sections and weighs about 1,400 pounds. Powered by an endless flat belt from a single-cylinder 30hp steam engine, it moves counter-clockwise at 100rpm, and can grind 200 pounds of shell corn into meal per hour. Photo by Jerry Buckner.
I’ve worked in Wommack Mill since the mid-1970s, and have been the miller for the past 20 years. I’m now teaching Steven Barry and his son, Evan, what I have learned while operating the machinery, especially the burrstones. It will soon be their responsibility to grind corn in Fair Grove the way it’s been done since 1883. FC
For more information:
Wommack Mill, 81 Main St., Fair Grove, Missouri; (417) 759-2807. To see Wommack Mill grinding grain under steam power, attend the annual ice cream social in mid-July and the Fair Grove Heritage Reunion held during the last full weekend of September.
Dan Manning has been writing freelance magazine articles for 40 years on everything from early-day machinery to draft mules. The third volume of his memoirs, Fish Kisses, comes out next spring. Email him at email@example.com.
Email photographer Ron McGinnis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Lund operates Lund Machine Works in New Ulm, Minnesota. Email him at email@example.com.
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