The earliest industries established in Hamilton County were mills. They were vital to survival for settlers as they provided the lumber for shelters and flour for bread, a mainstay of their diet.
Listen to the audio and read along for the Mill Tour, download the updated (2015) map of the tour and take the enjoyable scenic drive, or download the Mill Tour pamphlet by clicking on any of the links below.
It is a trip back in time to the beginnings of our county.
The Mill Tour
The mill tour of Hamilton County will focus on four of the 17 mills that at one time or another were operated on the
Boone River and were located from one mile north of Webster City to the point where the Boone River empties into the Des Moines River. These four major mills are Chase Mill, Bone’s Mill, Tunnel Mill, and Bell’s Mill. The tour will pass by the site where Johnny Lewis built a Horse Barn and operated a racetrack. The Mill Tour route is circular and will take about an hour from start to finish.
The Water Mills on the Boone River
Shelter and food were the vital requirements of pioneer life. The settlers needed lumber for a dwelling and bread for their tables. Therefore, the major business of that time was the saw mill and the grist mill. The saw mills began producing boards and shingles, later adding burrs for grinding corn and later wheat. The corn was ground into corn meal from which could be made “samp” and cornbread. Samp was a porridge-like meal. Burrs added later to each mill provided the flour for the wholesome bread that was essential to the pioneer meals.
In central Iowa, the Boone River was the best mill stream. It was not too large to dam across and the water flow was reasonably constant. The steep bluffs provided good anchorage for the dams. As many as 17 mills have existed along the Boone River during our early history. The total fall of the Boone River from 8 miles north of Webster City to its junction with the Des Moines River is 133 and a half feet. In some areas the fall is as great as 8 feet per mile, but the average fall per mile is 3.73 feet.
Three kinds of water powered mills were used in the Midwest, and all of them were used in operation on the Boone River at some time. The most common of our mills were the turbine, which was a horizontal wheel with water pouring down into the wheel from the center. The overshot wheel, where water passed over the top of the vertical wheel, was another common mill. The undershot, where the water passed under the vertical wheel, was also used. All of the Boone River mills were turbine mills with the exception of Bone’s Mill and Chase’s Mill, which were operated as double turbine mills. Eckert’s Mill was the only overshot mill in our county.
The miller was a very important man in the settlements. The mill served as a gathering place to exchange news and gossip. Several of the mills had small stores and some served as official post offices. Settlers would often leave the mill, their wagons loaded with lumber, feed, flour, coal and sometimes fresh fish. The local Indians would go to the mills to trade beads and baskets for flour. Some sold maple syrup, too.
On March 4, 1868, four of Hamilton County’s flouring mills announced their intention to strike. The Harris, Bone, Bell, and Moore & Selder Mills refused to do any grinding for a “toll.” A toll was the barter method of pay that amounted to one-sixth of the flour ground. The millers wanted to exchange flour they had already ground for the farmer’s wheat, corn, rye, or buckwheat. An “indignation meeting” was held immediately by the farmers to take action against the millers. Harris Mill then withdrew from the strike and Moore & Selder announced that they would continue to grind for a toll. Sternberg’s Mill continued to run their ad in the Hamilton Freeman newspaper for another month, “Farmer’s how many of you spend as much time as your grists are worth going to the mill, when by going to Sternberg’s Mill you can exchange and take your grists home the same day? We warrant our flour.”
Some of the other mills were the Eagle Mill, Model Mill, Bruce Mill, Ten Eyck Mill, Lick-Skillet Mill, Turbine Mill, Fisher Mill, Groseclose Mill, and the Homer Mill. Some of these were different names for the same mill. As settlements developed, the mills moved away from the river into towns, using steam power. In December, 1860, Hamilton County had seven mills run by water power, four by steam, and two by a combination of water and steam. By 1880, that number had been reduced to seven mills that employed 13 people. Greater efficiency destroyed the water mills, silencing the musical hum of the wheels forever. The last operating mill on the river was the Chase Mill in Webster City. It stood empty until 1900 when it was torn down.
The tour begins at Chase Mill in Webster City. This site is located at the east end of Ohio Street where the street would run into the Boone River if it ran straight east.
The first mill in the Webster City area was built in 1855 by Walter C. Willson, and his brother, Sumler. The Willson brothers water powered saw mill produced about 8,000 board feet of lumber every 24 hours. In 1856 the mill was sold to Charles Stoddard and W. S. Pray, who added a planing mill and a furniture factory just north of the mill. During this time, a corn cracker was installed and J. D. Sketchley was hired to operate it. The settlers were pleased with this addition and brought their hand-shelled corn to the mill. The corn cracker quickened the process of making hominy. Corn meal also provided for “samp,” which was a corn meal mush.
John Hill bought the mill from Stoddard and Pray on April 8, 1868. Hill was a fine millwright who proceeded to build an entirely modern mill on the same site. He produced an excellent quality of flour. Judge D. D. Chase purchased a half-interest in the mill in 1873. Hill sold the other half to Chase four years later. Charles Closz rented the mill from Chase in 1882 and operated it for three years.
Frank G. Stearns operated the mill beginning in 1890. The mill had two large stone burrs and several silk reel sets for screening the flour. At that time mostly rye and buckwheat were milled. Stearns developed a large grist trade and in 1893 he built the Cream Ro ller Mills near the Crooked Creek Railroad Depot, producing the F. G, Stearns and Son’s Plansifter Flour. The Chase mill was abandoned when Stearns established his own business.
The Chicago & Northwestern Railroad came to Webster City on December 6, 1880. The railroad tracks separated the mill from town. Judge Chase sued the railroad for damages in the amount of $1,500 because the trains frightened the horses, causing a decline in trade. He won the lawsuit. Pioneers told of standing at the intersection of Bank and Superior Streets and being able to see the four-story water mill. No houses or trees blocked their view in the 1870’s. The Chase Mill dam backed up the water to form a small lake where boating and fishing took place. During the winter, the Artesian Ice Company cut blocks of ice from the millpond, packed them in sawdust and stored them in the icehouses near the mill until summer came. Captain Ed Mabbott carried passengers up and down the river in his little steamboat he dubbed the “Daniel Boone.” It carried up to 16 passengers at a time.
For years the Chase Mill was a landmark, being the last of the 17 mills along the Boone River to remain standing. The mill site was offered to the city to be used as a park, but the offer was declined by the city council. The mill was then torn down. D. C. Chase, the son of Judge Chase, had a picture postal card made of the mill and had this poem engraved in gold on the face, which he passed out to his friends.
The walls are tumbled down, where once the old mill stood;
No more is heard, the rumble of the mill stones turning ’round;
The waterwheel is gone; the gates that held the flood,
And the music of the flume, and the laughing water’s sound;
Yes, mosses green have overgrown the mill’s remembered place
And weeds chock up and cover o’er what then we called the race.
Yet once, it reared its height up proudly to the sky
And the dusty miller stood with a welcome at the door.
From all the countryside, the grists were piled up high
And the miller took his toll, in the good old days of yore.
Today, nothing remains of the mil that was located where today’s Ohio Street extended would intersect the river, the dam or the furniture factory except a few large limestone foundation blocks in the riverbank. A few of the logs and rocks can be clearly seen when the water level is extremely low.
From here, you drive south on Highway 17 about six miles to 280th Street. Turn west on gravel and follow the road down to the Boone River. You will see a sign post informing you that the Bone’s Mill was located here. The mill was located at the south side of the east end of the current Bever Bridge.
The site of Bone’s Mill was near where Wilson Brewer and four other related families decided to stop for the winter in 1850. Brewer referred to the area as Hope Hollow. During this winter Brewer searched out a site to settle his family, which he found six miles north along the Boone River. In 1850 he built his first cabin in what is now Webster City, and moved his family into the cabin in the spring of 1851.
Thomas Williams recorded the first official land entry of Hamilton County at Hope Hollow on June 25, 1853. His 400 acres are the earliest recorded. In 1854 Williams built a saw mill about 200 yards upstream from the Bone’s Mill site. This proved to be a poor location when the mill and dam were destroyed by ice and floods the following spring. Williams moved his machinery fromthis site and began building a new mill.
Three years later, Lambert Sternberg bought the property and put in a new dam and added machinery for grinding wheat. During this period the usual pay for a miller was every sixth bushel of wheat. This was called the “miller’s toll.” Sternberg sold the mill to Jay Sternberg in 1863. Jay Sternberg built the mill house at the close of the Civil War in 1865. This house is standing today. It contains many features from its pioneer heritage. The basement walls are 18 to 24 inches thick and are of native limestone. The native black walnut sills were peg-drilled together. The heavy beams are of oak, the paneling of weathered barn boards, and the fireplace is of river rock.
John Ross acquired the property in 1868. A tragedy occurred at the mill in the summer of 1869 when the body of Ross was found in the wheel pit with a bullet wound in the back. Ross had his 18 year old nephew staying with him for the summer. He came from Chicago and was unhappy with the quiet, but hard life of the miller. The nephew asked his uncle for money to go back to Chicago after he noticed the purse the uncle carried that contained about $500, which he was saving for payment on the mill. Young Ross was found later that day returning from Webster City. He had $20 in his pocket, which he explained was given to him by a stranger at the train depot. He had blood on his clothes, which he explained he got when he helped butcher a hog. The nephew was accused of the murder. His trial was the first murder trial held at the 1866 courthouse, then located at the southeast corner of the intersection of Seneca and Bank Streets in Webster City. The jury acquitted the young Ross and the murder remains unsolved.
Following the death of John Ross the mill property was transferred back to Jay Sternberg, who sold it to James Kimbell in 1870. Joseph Bone became the owner of the mill in 1871, and was the best known of all the millers on the Boone River. He made extensive improvements to make it the largest flour mill on the river at that time. The location of the mill was on the east bank of the river, just south of where Bever’s Bridge now is located. In 1880, the mill was named “Excelsior” to eliminate the confusion that arose from having two operating mills, both named Bone’s Mill. By this time, Bone had purchased what is now Bell’s Mill. Adam McKinlay, the grandfather of MacKinlay Kantor, was Joseph Bone’s miller so the company name until 1899 was Bone and McKinlay. Today the mill is best known as Bone’s Mill.
G. LeBarr purchased the mill and ran it fro m 1889 to 1895. When the mill was purchased by P. B. Osborne he modernized it by adding a steam boiler so it could operate when the water flow was low. The mill was destroyed when the boiler exploded in 1899 and was abandoned forever.
Continue across the bridge and up the hill to the west. On the north side of this road were several coal mines in the 1880’s. Continue for a distance of about a mile and a quarter where you will intersect the Tunnel Mill Road. Turn left (south) and travel about a mile until you come to a short street, 301st Street. This street leads to the site of Tunnel Mill, one of the most famous of all the Hamilton County mills. This street is a dead end so it will be necessary for you to turn around and return to Tunnel Mill Road, where you will turn south and up a steep grade.
Robert Watson, who was an accomplished surveyor, dug a tunnel 400 feet through a glacial mound in his horseshoe bend in the Boone River. Just when he did this is in dispute. Since Watson’s nickname was “Blue Jacket” Watson, it is easy to guess that he came here just after the war ended. In any event, it was an engineering marvel. Working only with a pocket compass and a level, he worked from each end of the tunnel. He missed the connection in the center by less than 18 inches. The tunnel was three feet high and two feet nine inches wide. A gate was constructed at the north end to control the flow of water through the tunnel to drive the mill wheel. The tunnel’s walls were lined with 3 inch planks of oak and walnut posts were installed to hold up a four inch plank at the top.
The fall in the river bend was six and a half feet; the dam was four and a half feet. With this tunnel, Watson gained an eleven foot head of water, which gave tremendous power for the mill. At first the mill was used as a saw mill, but later a corn grinder was added. Lyman Perry bought the mill from Watson in 1867 and his brother, Gilbert, joined him in partnership in 1870. Wheat grinding was added in 1871. This mill was financially the most successful of all mills on the Boone River.
Those living on the south side of the river always had a rowboat available that was tied up to the bank. They would pick up their mail, row back across and tie the boat up for the next neighbor to use. Each spring sections of the dam were damaged and had to be repaired. The dam was constructed of hardwood logs and large boulders. The upstream ends of the logs were laid lower that the downstream ends, so that when the ice went out it would slide up and over the dam without destroying it. Large areas of the dam were always in need of repair. The tunnel needed constant repair also, as the water rotted out the boards. On April 14, 1889, the tunnel caved in. The Perry brothers relined it and work at the mill resumed.
On November 14, 1889, after grinding buckwheat for three weeks steady, the mill was forced to shut down at 7:00 p.m. due to a hot box (an overheating bearing). At 2:00 a.m. the next morning the Perry brothers were awakened by their neighbors who rushed to the mill to report the fire and assist. The mill was completely destroyed. No insurance was carried on the mill and it was never rebuilt.
A unique kingdom of ants can be found downstream from Tunnel Mill. The ants are rare in the Midwest and are identified as the species Formica exsectoides, Forel, but are commonly called the eastern or Allegheny mound builder. Several hundred of these mounds are found on the Litchfield property in the clearing of the dense oaks and hickory forest. Active mounds are located only where there is a clear, unobstructed view of the sky directly overhead. The mounds are of extraordinary size, measuring 3 feet high and 12 feet in diameter and as much as 5 feet below the surface.
The ants have red heads, black abdomens, and are approximately one-half inch in size. Since the ants do not migrate, it is a mystery how they came to this area. It has been suggested that they may have been carried from the east in supply cases used by the company of Dragoons who explored the county in 1835.
Continue traveling south about three miles until you intersect 330th Street. Here you are to turn west and travel until you intersect with Bell’s Mill Road. Then turn north for about a mile. You will see a small cemetery, called the Neese Cemetery, on the west side of the road. Continue traveling north on Bell’s Mill Road and down the hill on a curvy road. Just as you cross the river (now heading east) you will find the Bell’s Mill Park on the south side of the road. Turn into the park and examine the river, a cabin, and a mill wheel.
Bell’s Mill was built in 1853 by David Eckerson, a Methodist preacher. It was run by a wooden overshot style water wheel that ground wheat and buckwheat. In 1867, the mill was purchased, rebuilt, and operated by Joseph Bone. He installed twin turbines, one of which is displayed at Bell’s Mill Park and the other in Wilson Brewer Park in Webster City. Alanson Bryan bought a half-interest in the mill two years later. Business was prosperous and Bone built a new home on the hill above the mill. In 1873, Bone sold his interest in the mill to John Atherton. Byran sold his half-interest to the Bell family in 1875. In 1878, Atherton sold his half-interest to Benjamin Bell and son,
John. Jasper Bell bought the mill in 1880 and ran it successfully for eight years.
On the night of March 2, 1888, Benjamin Bell died and before morning a flood had carried away the dam, stopping the wheels of the mill forever. As you stand on the concrete bridge at the park, the dam was on the south side, upstream and the mill was on the west bank of the river on the north, downstream side.
The Old Settler’s Reunion was for a long time held at Bell’s Mill Park on the first Sunday in August. The first of the Old Settler’s Reunions were held in Webster City in 1878. Later, interest declined so in 1909, Jasper Bell invited the settlers to the mill site for a get-together. In memory of the pioneers who settled this area, the Bell family donated eight acres, including the mill site, to the county to be used as a park. Bell’s Mill Park offers facilities to picnic, camp, and fish. The park includes a shelter house, the Marion Center School (moved to the park from its location seven miles away) and an old log cabin. The cabin was built in 1867 by Charles Smith about four miles northeast of the Boone River mouth. This was donated to the park by the Lynde-Quinn families in 1937.
Johnny Lewis Racetrack and Stables
As you leave the park, turn east and continue on Bell’s Mill Road up a steep hill and around a couple of curves. At 300th Street you are to turn east for about a quarter mile and you intersect with Fenton Avenue. Turn north on Fenton and continue to a small curve in the road to the east. Here on the east side of Fenton Avenue is the site of the Johnny Lewis Horse Barn. The barn was removed several years ago. Across the street to the west was the Johnny Lewis Race Track.
During the 1880’s Hamilton County had what was at one time a famous racing stable. Johnny Lewis owned the farm which had a half-mile race track and a string of trotting horses that were well known throughout the state.
Young Johnny received his father’s fortune, made following the discovery of coal in Boone County, when he married at age 18. The estate was large and the Lewises lived the life of a country gentleman and his lady.
Lewis bought the property in 1883, built an enormous three-story barn on the east side of Fenton Avenue, and graded the racetrack on the west side of the street. He put up a fine home and secured a string of race horses. The drivers, wearing the colors of the Lewis stables, were a very familiar sight to the residents of the area. The horses weren’t fast enough and the purses they earned were few. Lewis mortgaged the farm through an Omaha bank and struggled to regain his status. At the age of 21, the fortune and the wife were both gone. Lewis left Iowa and the farm was sold by the sheriff at auction.
Completing the Mill Tour
Continue traveling north about a half mile and you will intersect with 290th Street. Turn right (east) and drive on the hard surfaced road about a mile and a half to intersect with Tunnel Mill Road. This road will cause you to turn north on a curve and continue into Webster City. Traveling north for about five miles will bring you back into Webster City on Beach Street. Continue north until you pass Graceland Cemetery and turn back east on Ohio Street. Continue traveling east on Ohio Street until you intersect with the Boone River. Now you are back to the start of the tour.