Missouri’s bounty of rushing springs and streams presented the early settlers with the water power they needed to grind grain and saw timber. A 1902 map shows more than 900 grist mills stretching to every corner of the state.
“People looked forward to going to the mill,” said Lesley McDaniel, administrator of the Bollinger Mill State Historic Site near Cape Girardeau in southeast Missouri. “You’d see people you hadn’t seen for a while, catch up on the news, get your mail. They were the hub of the community.”
Most of the mills are long gone, replaced by modern machinery. But a few remain in remote corners of Missouri, like relics of a time gone by. Their stone-and-timber buildings and sparkling waters provide some of the most scenic picnic spots in the state.
They may require a drive to get to, but the effort is like a treasure hunt with a picturesque reward waiting at the end.
Four of the more popular mills are Bollinger, Alley Mill near Eminence, the Dillard Mill State Historic Site south of Steelville and Hodgson Mill in south-central Missouri near the Arkansas border.
Here’s why these four are well worth a visit:
Bollinger Mill State Historic Site: The four-story stone-and-brick building sits on the Whitewater River, next to the 140-foot-long Burfordville Covered Bridge. Completed about 1868, the bridge is the oldest of the four remaining covered bridges in Missouri.
“The mill building is pretty massive,” McDaniel said. “It’s one of the rare places on the American landscape where you can see a covered bridge and a mill in close proximity.”
Impressive wood beams line the interior, where exhibits explain the history of the mill and the milling process. Outside, a picnic area sits in a grove of trees looking out over the river. A short hiking path leads to the Bollinger family cemetery.
“There are tables and benches where people can sit and take in the beauty of the facility, and listen to the water flowing over the dam,” McDaniel said. “It’s a really peaceful place.”
Bollinger Mill is reached by exiting Interstate 55 at Highway 72, heading through Jackson and west on Highway 32.
Alley Mill: Along with the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the barn-red mill on the turquoise waters of Alley Spring is one of the most photographed scenes in the state.
The spring pumps out 81 million gallons of crystal clear water a day that tumbles through lime-green beds of watercress over moss-covered rocks on its way to the Jacks Fork River.
The mill is part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, a national park that preserves stretches of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers, the jewels of the Missouri Ozarks. The mill, which was built in 1894, is open to visitors.
A short path circles the spring, where hikers can peer deep into the spring boil and enjoy the wildflowers that cling to the face of the bluff from which the spring rises.
From Eminence, take Highway 106 west nearly six miles to the Alley Spring picnic area on the right. The spring and spring run are closed to fishing and swimming.
Dillard Mill State Historic Site: The quaint mill building reflects in the stillness of a fishing pond, while Huzzah Creek cascades noisily over a rock dam and natural waterfall.
Yvonne Bobbitt, an interpreter at Dillard, said local artists often set up their easels just beyond the split-rail fence to try their hand at recreating the picture-postcard setting.
“It’s just so calm and relaxing,” Bobbitt said. “And you should see the red mill after a nice snow.”
The first mill was built on the Huzzah near what is now the town of Dillard in the 1850s. It burned in 1895, but some of the original timbers were used in construction of the current mill, which was completed in 1908.
Dillard Mill is special in that it has most of its original equipment, and works. Turn a metal wheel to allow the creek water in, and the gears grind, leather belts slap and lines of wooden grain carts clatter along.
“The building has that nice, old rocking motion,” Bobbitt said.
From Steelville, head south on Highway 49 through Cherryville to the tiny town of Dillard.
Hodgson Mill: This is the most remote of the four mills, located in Sycamore. The town is little more than a road sign posted along Highway 181, which twists and turns through the Mark Twain National Forest toward Arkansas.
Milling operations began at the spring site in 1837. A second mill built in 1861 burned down, and the sturdy three-story building standing today was constructed in 1882.
The abundant spring waters flow from the base of a fern-covered limestone bluff into nearby Bryant Creek, a lovely floating and fishing stream.
A doctor from St. Louis bought the mill building in recent years and hired Amish carpenters to replace the foundation of wood beams. The mill remains in private ownership.
The mill is named for Alva Hodgson, a pioneering Missouri millwright who formed a grain-grinding company. The company is still in business, making stone-ground bakery products at relocated, modernized mill facilities.
Hodgson Mill makes a nice side trip for people visiting the area to float the North Fork of the White River, a little-used but pristine, spring-fed stream that is one of the few in the state where wild trout breed.
From Interstate 44, take Highway 63 south through Cabool, catching highway 181 south to Sycamore.
Tom Uhlenbrock is a staff writer for Missouri State Parks.