Dawt Mill, Ozark County, Missouri

The Mills of Ozark County

A Tour Of The Past

By Phyllis Rossiter

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In the Ozarks, things have a way of skewing into the fourth dimension. Time seems somehow out of synch: A high-speed highway slices through a farmer's hard-cleared field and deflects the hot rays of the sun into a tumble-down log house. You boat upstream on a wilderness river cosseted by forest, then round a bend and confront the towering reality of a concrete dam. The soaring flight of a turkey buzzard, with but one lazy wingflap, overlooks the tangle of primeval life in a secluded hollow--and that of the multitrafficked craft fair on the ridgetop.

And the ancient hills watch it all with a brooding expectancy. They seem to wait--oh, so patiently--for the next act in the eons-old drama we call the Ozarks. While we, the players, try to straddle the barriers between past and present--struggling to keep one foot firmly in the Ozarkian past and one in the easier-living present.

Betwixt and between, modern Ozarkers are, living on the ragged fringes of our time frame. And no where is that more apparent than at the surviving water mills in Ozark County, Missouri. For nearly a century these old mills embraced the pace of the olden times--and to a large extent they still do.

Once plentiful in this region of abundant water, Ozarks grist mills demonstrate the best of our interaction with the land--a natural union of the power of nature and the needs of man. They were the centers of community life until the coming of the automobile--and easily accessible store-bought flour--took folks to town in the 1930's and 40's. There was usually a blacksmith shop, a general store with a post office, and often a sawmill or a cotton gin run by power from the mill. When a gasoline pump became necessary, it was added to the mill scene. People came from miles around to visit, exchange news, and even vote. Some mills boasted indoor privies with not-quite-plumbing that took advantage of the fast-running water below.

Since most hilly-region Ozarkers preferred cornbread to biscuits--mostly because corn was easier to raise here than wheat, the mills' main business was grinding corn. Flour was milled more frequently in flatter, open areas more conducive to wheat growing. Many folks were particular about getting back the meal from their own grain rather than that traded to them by the miller from his holding bin, minus his "toll." Most washed and cared for their own white woven sacks through many uses. And while they waited for their meal, they caught up on the latest news, had a horse shoed, or perhaps traded for some piece goods at the store.

Dawt Mill

Dawt Mill, Ozark County, Missouri
Visitors to the time warp that is the Ozarks can still find a glimpse of that world. Our self-guided tour of the past begins at Old Dawt Mill, on a back road a couple of well-marked miles from the intersection of Highways 160 and PP east of Gainesville in Ozark County. Just upstream from Tecumseh, Dawt Mill perches on a high bank of the North Fork (of the White) River. It is said that in 1874 President U. S. Grant conveyed the "patent" for the land to one Rhuhama J. Isom. The source of the name Dawt is lost in the past.

Though the tin roof is rusted and the wood siding scoured by wind and time, the building looks much as it has since its construction in 1900 by Alva Hodgson, master millwright. The front steps and porch are worn smooth--and sag under the passing feet and river floods of a hundred years. A tired wagon leans against the wall where the miller might have parked it many yesterdays ago. From the corner of your eye you can almost glimpse a riderless horse hitched to the rail in front, or a barefoot lad shooting marbles in the dusty road while paw's corn is ground inside.

The North Fork is still as much a part of the mill scene as the venerable three-story building itself. Thanks to its protected origins in the Mark Twain National Forest, the spring-fed river flows as crystal clear and cold as in days of yore. Because most of its watershed is still relative wilderness, it is virtually pollution-free. A hydrologist for the United States Forest Service calls the river "the jewel of the Ozarks," and trout fishermen from all over the country revere it.

Mill Dam at Dawt Mill, Ozark County, Missouri
Looking upstream in the glint of morning sunlight, there's that curious sense of timelessness again. But this time the vision is real: a line of canoes snake silently around the bend. The North Fork River affords some of the best white-water action for modern canoers in the Missouri Ozarks, and the dam at Dawt Mill is part of the challenge. Since it's known as a "canoe buster," most non-experts slide their canoes through a shallow chute near the end farthest from the mill--or portage around the dam.

And Old Dawt is more than a left-over curiosity from the past or a living history lesson. Besides picnicking, there's a secluded campground soothed by river sounds and swimming in spring-chilled water--as well as the unsurpassed canoeing. And a new hot-weather sport: riding the river in inner tubes. Indoors a gift and souvenir shop features handcrafted items and original paintings. Dawt Mill caps and tee shirts are seen far and wide in the Ozarks. Some proudly proclaim, "I shot the dam at Old Dawt Mill!"

Dawt Mill
HC 1, Box 1090
Tecumseh, MO 65760
(417) 284-3540

Hodgson Mill

Hodgson Mill, Ozark County Missouri
Next on our tour is Hodgson Water Mill, only a few minutes away through famous Ozark County scenery. From Dawt, return to PP Hwy. and turn left on PP to H Hwy. Turn left on H and go north to Hwy. 181. Turn left again on Hwy. 181 to Hodgson Mill.

Built in 1861 to harness the power of a massive spring flowing into Bryant Creek and rebuilt in 1897, the tall, three-story frame building nestles against a bluff of the Bryant. Though the mill no longer grinds grain, it still houses the old milling machinery. (The nationally distributed line of stone-ground bakery products bearing the Hodgson name is now produced at a modern mill in nearby Gainesville.) Standing nearby is an old round gas pump, its glass top now clouded and stained.

The spring still spews nearly 3,000,000 gallons of clear, cold water a day. Besides the mill, it once powered a cotton gin, a lumber mill, and a clothing factory. In pre-REA days, the power of the water also generated electricity for all the mill-site enterprises. And, once upon a time, thanks to the constant 58 degree temperature of the spring, the mill was a popular site for neighborhood dances.

Issuing from the bluff under the mill building, the spring is still picturesque. It nourishes native ferns and mosses clinging to crevices in the sheer rock wall. Some of the water is diverted to the mill pond, where watercress and other marine plants thrive. Inside the mill building, an opening to a cave in the face of the bluff provides natural air conditioning.

A modern day facility in nearby Gainesville, MO is still producing and distributing the all natural stone ground flours of the past under the Hodgson Mill name.

Zanoni Mill

Zanoni Mill, Ozark County, Missouri
Continue south on Hwy. 181 for about five scenic miles and watch for Zanoni Mill on your right near a dazzling white mansion that is also a bed and breakfast establishment. Though not open to the public, Zanoni Mill is visible from the highway. It’s worth slowing down to catch a glimpse of this well-preserved example of a rare overshot millwheel. For a longer look, a graveled turn-around is on your left.

Zanoni Mill Inn
Innkeepers: Dave & Mary Morrison
HC 78 Box 1010
Zanoni, MO 65784
(417) 679-4050

Rockbridge Mill

Rockbridge Mill, Ozark County, Missouri
Home of an excellent restaurant, Rockbridge Mill is next on the tour. Continue south on Hwy. 181 to N Hwy., then right on N. Just north of the Junction with Hwy. 95, follow the signs to Rockbridge which was, until it was burned during the Civil War, the county seat of the original Ozark County after 1841. A new village grew up around the mill built on the banks of Spring Creek in 1865.

B. V. Morris bought and enlarged the mill in 1888. In 1894 he built a two-story general store from pine lumber cut from the virgin forest. The store was considered one of the largest and finest in the Ozarks and once offered everything from food to hardware--including coffins. A bank building was added in 1904.

After witnessing the stirrings of growth and change in the Ozarks, the general store and the bank closed in 1933; the mill in the late 40's.

But in 1954 the tiny mountain hamlet of Rockbridge saw the establishment of a private trout hatchery and fishing resort. Because it was seriously damaged in a flood, the millhouse has undergone restoration. Still, a rocking chair in its shelter, almost directly above the falls at the handmade dam, allows an opportunity to experience Ozarks serenity firsthand.

Rockbridge General Store and Restaurant, Ozark County,. Missouri
Until destroyed by fire in 1986, the old general store served as headquarters for the resort and hatchery. A new structure, designed to resemble the original as it appeared in the 1890s, was erected on the site. Once again visitors can dine in a world-class restaurant while watching ruby-throated hummingbirds at feeders outside the large windows overlooking the mill and Spring Creek. And a fresh trout dinner followed by blackberry or apple cobbler is the perfect complement for our tour of the old mills. Reservations Recommended.

Rainbow Trout Ranch
Rockbridge, MO 65741
(417) 679-3619

Hammond Mill

Hammond Mill, Ozark County, Missouri
The next part of the tour is optional but if you plan on touring the Glade Top Trail you may wish to consider driving by Hammond Mill. From Rockbridge take Hwy N back to Hwy 95 then turn southwest towards Hwy 5. Make a right on 5 and follow it northwest for a few miles to Wasola. Turn left and follow Hwy 95 south to Hwy D. Turn left on D to find Hammond Mill.

Dating to 1907, Hammond Mill was built by John W. Grudier, one of the founders of the town of Hammond. Three stories tall, it was built of wood and stone and boasted a basement and a rock floor. Milling ceased about 1940, when the machinery was removed and water diverted from the mill dam. Hammond was located on the old Jacksonport Salt Road, a main route betwee Springfield, Mo. and Jacksonport, Ark. during the Civil War. The bank vault still stands near the ruins of the mill to mark the site of the town.

The mill is in ruins and may be disappointing after the long drive. But there are rumors that the owners might restore it someday. Please respect their private property rights and for your own safety do not approach the building. Yet even the sight of these ruins is a link to the past and a reminder of the continual change that affects our lives even here, in the ancient Ozarks.

We come away convinced that the Ozarks water mill is historical--and living--proof that man's industry needn't destroy, but can become one with, his environment. And as long as these old mills still stand, we'll go on straddling that barrier between past and future that is so much the essence of the Ozarks.

Now return to Hwy 95 and head south to Longrun and you will be at the southern trailhead of the Glade Top Trail scenic byway.

This article first appeared in The Ozarks Mountaineer of July-August, 1990. 1990 by Phyllis Rossiter

Photo Credits: Phyllis Rossiter, author of A Living History of the Ozarks, and Marilyn Luna Tilley of the Ozark County Times staff.

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