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Why mills?  Simple;  lumber, grist/flour, fiber.

This page is devoted to a brief introduction to early mills with emphasis on the Fayette, Iowa area.  Good mills were absolutely necessary to the development of early farms and villages. Rough cut lumber, grist/flour, wool were all needed in quantity.  Often as the mill in area developed, so did the community.  Robert Alexander built the first mill at Westfield/Fayette in 1850, thus the village of Westfield was started and grew.  Second generation mills would be built at Westfield.  Because of the mill Alexander and his brother-in-law stayed in the Fayette area.  By 1855, they had acquired enough money from land speculation and milling that they could support their families idea of building a college on the knoll in Fayette.  Westfield was developing, while Fayette was little more than a very few log cabins and rough cut buildings, along with a couple of merchants and a small grist mill.  In two years, a large multi-story, elaborate (for the frontier times) College was erected from big blocks of cut limestone by frontier masons.  Upper Iowa University was the result, and thus led to the development and existence of the Village of Fayette as we know it in history, and even today.  No Westfield Mill, no Alexander/Robertson in the valley, no UIU, no Fayette.  A similar story could be told of the connection between the mills and all of the villages on the Volga River, or any river in the area.

The Albany, Fayette County, Iowa, Mill shown in a very rare 1869 pictograph on the fringe of one of the earliest functional Fayette County maps known, in the possession of the Fayette County Historical Society in West Union.  The first mill at Albany was a basic saw mill built on this site in 1854 by Albert Albertson who also built a large store at the same time in Albany.  Albertson sold the mill and site to Richard Earl in the fall of 1855.  Earl ran the first generation mill with improvements until 1865, when he built the large second generation flouring mill seen above.  The mill was constructed of limestone blocks quarried locally and measured 30x35 feet and was three stories high.  The mill dam was 160 feet wide, ten feet tall, and 27 feet thick at its base, constructed of heavy timbers filled with stone.   The Albany Mill was considered on of the best mills in the area from 1865 to about 1880.  Farmers would often travel to Albany from the western edge of Fayette County.  Near the Mill, back to the left of this pic,  a major chair, furniture factory was built about the same time.  Albany/Lima were booming pioneer villages from 1865 to about 1890.  The railroad would come to the immediate area in the mid 1870's.  Sad to say, today the villages are gone without a trace.  Few people are still alive with memory or living history of the towns.

The Albany Mill was an example of a second generation more elaborate mill built after the first more basic mills of the early 1850's, which supplied rough cut lumber and grist in sufficient quantity to support the rapid flow of farmers and villagers into the area.  By the late 1850's and into the 1860's a number of larger more elaborate mills would be built.  Most 3-5 levels high, often of native limestone blocks quarried locally my masons or the mill wrights themselves.  Usually these larger mills employed 10-30 local workman and were the "corner stone industry" in the village.  With the coming of the railroads and rapid mass transport into the highly populated areas of the country, the local village/county mills rapidly diminished in numbers, with most becoming extinct by the late 1800's.  

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Household chores were very tedious for pioneer families.  The most of the waking hours were spend in fairly intensive hard labor for preparation of basic needs.  No sheep, no wool, no yarn, no clothing.  No flax or hemp, no fibers, no rope/clothing.  No crops, no seed, no crops, no food.  Shelter/clothing/food were the absolute immediate, pressing needs.  Everyone, including children were intensely involved.  One of the problems was transforming the grain into the meal or flour. 

In many early settlements the pioneers produced the corn meal or a coarse grist of wheat or other grains by means of a mortar of stone or heavy wooden logs. The grain was put in and pounded for hours with a pestle of stone or wood,  and when sufficiently beaten the finer particles were separated from the coarser by a common sieve, or by swirling it in a bowl much like panning for gold, and removing the various levels as best they could.  The hand methods were marginally functional and not very efficient, taking long hours.   The finer grind could be used for making flat or heavy breads, and the coarser for hominy. Often an oak stump/log was just cupped out by burning and seeds pounded with a big piece of blunt wood to crush the seeds to a meal. The mortar/pestle  process was slow and wearisome, and other methods were needed.  Feed for animals was often made by crushing corn cobs with some of the corn left on.

When possible a kind of hand mill called a quern, rapidly supplanted the old mortar. It was constructed by putting the flat sides of two relatively large stones together, the lower one shaped until it had a raised rim into which the  top stone to rested.  Troughs were chiseled into the face of the bottom stone to channel meal to an opening on the side.  The bottom stoned was placed on a firm/solid surface. The upper stone lay inside the top stone, and had a different pattern of channels cut into it.  A hole was made to one side of the upper stone, into which was forced a round pin, used as a handle, to put the mill in motion by one hand, while the other was used to feed it through a hole in the center, a few grains of corn/wheat/oats/barley/rye/or often whatever seeds were available for food.  The upper stone was not easy to turn, but had to be heavy for  the grain could not be crushed. A quern would produce a very course crushed meal, not flour.  The family was certain of fresh meal as one could not grind enough to last for many days.  Simple as the mills of this kind  were,  they remained very scarce at first and used only by a few fortunate settlers. The majority clung to the old mortar and pestle, the noise of which sometimes could be heard long after the usual hour of retiring, usually women busy in the preparation of the meal and hominy for the morning's breakfast. The constant employment of about one member of each family was required to keep the family provided with flat bread.

Another method of providing meal in the early days was by the use of a grater. A plate of tin was pierced with many holes, so that one side was very rough. This tin plate was usually bent oval shape and attached to a board. The ear of corn was rubbed very hard on the grater and the meal was forced through the holes and collected in a vessel or a box.  These early grater mills used by the pioneers were sometimes termed as "Armstrong-Mills." 

Later the horse/ox  power mills were used, and they soon gave way to the water mills. Horse/ox mills where usually tread mills where a single or team of animals would walk on a huge wooden treadle wheel which turned, through wooden gears big mill stones.  These were low tech mills, and often the stones would be local  slabs of  pie shaped sandstone or limestone held together by forged iron rings, or sometimes big one piece stones. These stones were soft and did not last very long, but could be rebuilt on the site, as local stone resources were unlimited in most places in Fayette County.  For water mills, dams were constructed across creeks and rivers at convenient points.  The water going over the dam was used to turn a large, wooden water wheel which furnished the power to operate the stone-burrs of the mill which ground the corn/grain/seeds, or ran a reciprocating saw blade.


Almost immediately when the Neutral Grounds in Fayette County opened up to the whites in 1849-1854,  mills were rapidly established to serve their needs. The same was true on the Upper Iowa River at Freeport in 1853, and in Shelby County, Missouri in 1838.   These being my primary areas of interest as a couple of relative surnames were pioneer mill wrights at these dates.  

Grist mills to grind grain to flour and for animal feed, fulling mills to process wool for clothing, and sawmills to furnish lumber for building homes, churches and stores. The mills were located every few miles along the Volga to harness water power to run the mill machinery.  Because of abundant water power, pioneer settlement naturally clustered along the Volga and the villages of Westfield, Fayette, Albany, Lima, Wadena, and Volga City developed.


The first mills used undershot or overshot water wheels, with the water channeled under or over a big water wheel, the flow of the water causing the wheel to turn. This rotary motion was transferred through a system of  wooden gears, and leather belts over wooden pulleys to operate the mill machinery/  Later water powered turbines were used instead of mill wheels. The big water wheels required big mill ponds.  The first mills built on the Volga were much smaller than the ones that would rapidly replace them in the 1860's.  Even in the smaller mills, however, the overshot wheels were large, being generally from 15 to 25 feet tall and the large wheel was needed for a small amount of water weight/force to turn the gears/pulleys which turned a heavy set of grist stones or moved a saw blade up and down.  That is the reason for large wheels, to increase the mechanical advantage.  A small force turned through a large distance to turn a large force/weight through a small distance.  


The pioneer mill wrights knew their physics. There was a logical reason for everything they did.  Milling was learned from their relatives/clan by apprentice style.  In cold climates the mills were kept running if at all possible.  Many times the frozen wheel would need the ice chopped off before it had enough force to turn.  Milling was physically tough work for long hours. Mills were built several stories high when time and resources allowed, as the grain was fed from the top and gravity used to move it down a serious of steps leading the final produce. Second generation mills were big structures.  They had to be, as they housed large "machinery" and commodities.  Thus all the grain had to be carried by hand to the top floors, or a series of ropes and pulleys utilized so oxen could be used to hoist it up to the top level.  

The grist/saw mill in Lincoln's New Salem Pioneer Village near St. Petersburg, Illinois is a good example of a first generation mill.  Relatively small, build out of hand hewn and rough cut timbers and lumber, with a relatively small mill dam

The dams were generally made by digging timbers down into the bottom or by trying to attach base timbers to limestone bed rock with hand forged pins driven into holes in the stone, formed by metal stone drills hit with big hammers.  The problem with the first dams was withstanding the huge water pressure created at their bases by 6-15 feet of water, and then of course the winter ice when it went out in the spring.  If stone/rock was available it was almost always incorporated into the dams.  Second generation dams might be entirely rock. 


The first generation mills often had just one floor above the wheel and gears which turned two relatively small mill stones.  Milling of grain might be done in one room, with a small storeroom off to one side.  The same wheel and wooden gears would be used to move a stiff, thick saw blade back and forth to rough cut logs for timbers and boards.

In the model of the New Salem Village Mill, the mill stones can be seen on the left with the grain hopper sitting above them.  The saw blade and tract is on the right.  Almost every piece of the mill was wood.  

Second generation mills were much larger, multilevel structures, often built of native limestone blocks 5-6 feet thick at the base.  Big limestone blocks might also be used in the more elaborate dams.  

This mill is very similar to the first mill built in the Westfield/Fayette Valley by Robert Alexander in 1850.  Another page will be devoted to Alexander and his mill.




    Millstones were often imported from France and brought overland by oxen during the 1800's.  One piece millstones were not too common before railroad transportation to the Midwest in the 1870's.  France produced some of the worlds finest millstones from granite in their mountain ranges.  They were made of sections held together by an iron band, with grooves cut in the faces of the stones to channel grain/grist/floor toward an opening to the outside. Periodically new grooves had to be cut by hand with metal chisels  in the faces of the stones.  Big mill stones often weighed 1500lb each.  Even small stones weighted hundreds of pounds.  

When granite millstones were not available the locals often had to resort to using much softer sandstone or limestone. 

When a mill was running the water level in the mill pond next to the "mill house" would drop and would eventually have to be allowed to recover to its original height.

The second generation, bigger and more elaborate mills on the Volga often were capable of producing about 50 barrels of flours a day, so one must assume the first generation, smaller mills would grind 10-20 barrels a day, and would not be producing flour but a course meal or grist.  The second generation mills had time proven engineering and kept the flour grinding evenly through the machinery on all floors by a belting system from a line shaft powered by either bigger and better wheels or by vertical turbines located in the water of the mill races in the lower levels or basements. Turbines did not require the big deep mill ponds.  Good turbine and wheels could develop between 50 and 75 horsepower. The simple yet complex system of wooden gears and pulleys ran the machinery which converted the wheat/grain into flour, or sawed logs, or ran carding and other machinery.  

Roller mills would come into the county in the later decades of the 1800's.  These mills utilized rollers instead of millstones.  Instead of grinding they would "brake" the grain kernel. Starting in the first brake, the grain was rolled a little finer in each subsequent operation though a series of several brakes. The flour was constantly sifted though cloth, generally pure silk which was made on hand looms in Switzerland. This sifting is called bolting. The flour might go  though as many as 50-70 silks before being bagged from the finishing sifter.

Rough cut timbers and boards were needed for the rapid building of new structures on pioneer farms and in the villages.  It one does a close inspection of the remaining barns, houses, buildings out of the 1800's and early 1900's the timbers and boards will look like these freshly cut during the 2000 Lincoln County Missouri Old Thrasher's Days by using an 1870's steam engine for power and a big rotary saw blade, just like it was done until into the early 1900's.  The first generation water powered saw mills used a straight flat saw blade and often the cut was much rougher than that show below.  Oak and walnut where the favorites, but any wood available would be used in some fashion.  

During pioneer times paint was not used.  The boards often took on a graying, weathered appearance.  Sometimes lime, made locally by "burning" limestone, then mixing the lime powder with water, clay, and sometimes other local minerals, to produce "white wash" has wiped on the boards with rags or leather tied to a stick.  And later brushes.  If plant oils like linseed oil was available in quantity it was often wiped on the wood. Oil used seasonally would repel moisture and help preserve the wood.

The absence of good mill stones often limited the number of mills in the earliest days of the settlement of an area.  Mill stones were some of the earliest "imported" items in which men invested in during pioneer times.  Many were imported from Europe in the 1700's, and could be used as blast in ships. With the movement of the pioneers in the early 1800's toward the west, mill stones and millers became a very serious commodity and were in great demand.  Many people knew how to farm, cooper, smith, but to select the right spot to build a functional mill, and then to have the knowledge and experience to use local wood and stone to construct these very complex structures took true millers who had learned their trade young and had made the move west. These men build all cogs, gears, wheels for handmade leather belts from wood, stone, and a little forged metal, right on the mill site.  Many of the early mills had what is a big "overshot" wheel where the water runs over the top of a big wheel.  The type of mill wheel most of us visualize. These overshot mill wheels required very deep, large mill ponds.  

Mill wrights had not only to be capable of building complex mills, but had to understand the hydrology factors of building large log/earth/rock dams across streams.  Mills and mill dams were very large, complex structures generally build by 1-6 men using hand tools and ox teams.  Often one man with a young son or two, using only hand axles and blades, with one oxen would build the first mill on a small stream.  Or a couple of families in partnership.  They probably would have a relatively short, stiff "mule" saw blade.  My have ownership of a couple of smaller mill stones, or would shape some wedges of local limestone or sandstone and "bind" it in a home forged metal ring.  These first mill wrights would  make everything come together and work, and be the first to grind enough grain in an area to satisfy the local needs of 10-100plus entry level pioneer families. 


 Millers often became very successful for a number of reasons.  They were some of the first settlers into an area, they had multiple skills, they often had capital from another milling operation.  Millers were loggers, carpenters, coopers, smiths, masons, farmers, businessmen all in one package.  None of them could be lacking in drive, goals, ability very long and exist.  Their mills were generally the first "industry" in an area like Fayette, Iowa or Shelbyville, Missouri, entering with the first farmers.  Mills always attracted supporting craftsman and merchants, and were the roots for small villages to spring up.  The early millers often acquired substantial land as they were in the area early, bought land cheap, then sold for double or triple within only years.  May have moved on and started the process all over, or often their offspring had gained milling skills and knowledge by the time they were in their late teens or early twenties and would push out into newly opened territory.  Small milling stones would be in the 18" range, while the larger stones would be 4-6 feet across.  Stones could be made from granite boulders, or quarried, but local mid-western limestone would not work well, as it was soft and ground away.  Sandstone was similar. The best mill stones were one piece stones of good granite.  Local stones were used if nothing else was available.  Often large stones were made in pie like segments held together by a big strap of metal forged by the miller or a blacksmith.  A flour mill was often as good as it mill stones.  The legend of the early millers continued until all the land was gobbled up from the Native Americans, and the big industrial mills like the ones in the Duluth area took over with the advent and ability of the railroads during the later quarter of the 1800's.  

Early settlers would bring their corn/wheat, oats, barley, rye, etc. for miles around to these water mills to have their grist ground. It also has to be remembered that these mills often served two functions, grinding grist and sawing logs.  Most early pioneer mills had both grist stones and saw blades, and it was just a matter of changing the gearing to run either.  In the early 1850's in Fayette County, Iowa, the mills of Alexander at Westfield, Marvin at Albany, Earl at Albany would be of major consequence to the farmers of the area.  By the late 1850's through the 1870's, mills all along the Volga, at the settlements of Westfield, Fayette, Albany, Lima, Wadena, Volga would take on a similar function of being the center of local social/business gatherings.  Sometimes, they would have to wait for two or three days for their turn. This necessitated their coming prepared to spend a night or two at the mill, consequently they would bring along their camping outfits for the occasion. Going to mill was a great event for the household. The corn was shelled by hand at home, or wheat/oats thrashed, and made ready to be ground into meal when their turn came at the mill.  Generally the grain was placed into wooden "flour" barrels and loaded on an ox cart or later large "farm" wagons drawn by big Morgan or Belgium draft horses.  Skin bags could be used, and later when more cloth was available, flour bags.  Going to the Mill  was also an occasion for a lot of visiting while waiting your turn and visitors were able to get the latest news and gossip of the community. Many games, wresting, boxing and shooting matches were engaged in at these times. Only about two trips a year were made to the mill if you had a very long distance to go.  The mill in the Albany valley was a very favored mill during the 1860''s, and the area of Albany would have been an area of "rendezvous" for the early farmers. It also must be remembered that these milling villages were only a few years old, so everything was freshly built and cleared, or in a very natural state.  These were tough times, hard work times, but also very active, exciting times for the first "land" owners.

In these days very few people had the money to pay for the grinding of the meal. The miller received his pay by taking "toll", a portion of the meal that was ground. This extra meal that the miller acquired he usually traded it for pelts, beeswax or some other commodity that was used as a medium of exchange in those pioneer days.


Soon after the water mills came into use the steam mills were developed. With the coming of the use of steam for the power to turn the mills it was possible to construct a mill in practically every town and village in the county. In many cases the steam engine was used to supplement the water wheels for power when the water in the streams was low. Eventually, the water mills finally gave way to the steam mills as they in their turn have been replaced by mills operated by electric power.


The big woolen mill in Westfield (Fayette, Iowa)  was located near the north end of the old mill run, which today is the dry run under the bridge just to the east or town side of Klock's Island part.  It sat on the east side of this dry run 150 or so from the Volga River, into which the mill run emptied.  It probably like other woolen mills of the ear, 1860-1870's,  contained two sets of machinery and processed about 50,000 pounds of wool annually.  Thus one has to assume there were a good number of sheep raised in the Fayette area in the early years.  We know most settlers had to raise at least a limited number of sheep for the spinning of wool yarn for weaving into clothing if they were to be self-sufficient and capable of moving into an area and living very long without support from "back east."  And another consideration that must be remembered concerning life through most of the history of the world, money in any quantity within the general population is a recent occurrence. Wool clothing had to be made for survival on the frontier in most cases

The woolen mill in Westfield received wool from neighboring farmers and card or mechanically brush or pull it into fibers of even quality, and then to shape the wool into rolls. These were then returned to the farmers to be spun into yarn and woven into cloth. The cloth was again sent to the mill to be fetted or fulled and finished, after which it was returned to the owners and made into family clothing.

Woolen mills the size of the Westfield mill generally employed 20-40 workers, with 1 of 3 being women.  Pay would be from $10-20 per month by the 1870's.  All types of local mills started to have trouble competing with the big industrial complexes developing around the cities with rail transportation making it possible to move goods anywhere in America.  The "hay day" of local mill wrights was gone by the 1900's.  

The remains of a wooden second generation mill in NE MO during the 1920's


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