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Culture

A Hidden Gem, Topaz Mill In Southern Missouri Has An Illustrious Past

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Provided by Kaitlyn McConnell
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Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a website that is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of local culture and history. To visit the site, click here.

Buried deep in the hills of Douglas County is a nearly nonexistent town called Topaz. Serene scenery and a gushing spring say you’ve arrived, after traveling a crunchy gravel road. Perhaps some of those same stones carried locals who, in the past, brought their wheat to be ground at the town’s mill. 

Nowadays, things are much different.  Instead of finding dry goods or flour, getting a haircut or posting a letter, as local folks once did, visitors find something else. They discover a picture of the past. Because the town’s former general store, barbershop, and mill have been preserved and show a way of life once common – but now long gone – in the Ozarks.  

Today, Joe Bob O’Neal and his wife, Betsy, are the caretakers of Topaz and live on the property. They eagerly share their unique destination with the world, giving tours and time to anyone who wants to come learn.

The area’s first mill was built around 1840, but Joe Bob shares that its modern history actually goes back much deeper, and ties to Henry Schoolcraft.

“In 1818, 1819, Henry Schoolcraft and Levi Pettibone were the first travelers to document their travels through this part of the country,” shares Joe Bobl. “On Nov. 20, 1818, according to their diaries … he came across a spring that was mammoth size and it flowed out of a rock ledge and ran about 200 yards and ran into the river, and doubled the size of the river. Everybody says that was Topaz spring.”

The first mill at Topaz was thought to have been built around 1840. No one knows for sure what happened to that one, but it was only the first phase of the community, which evolved greatly in the late 19th century. In the early 1890s, the post office was commissioned, and in 1895, the current mill was built.

Unlocking its door today unlocks a whole new world – but really, one that’s old.

“The equipment that’s in this mill, to make flour with, came from Great Western Manufacturing in Leavenworth, Kansas,” says Joe Bob. “I have the receipt here for when this equipment was bought, dated May 2, 1903. I’ve had people tell me this is the most valuable piece in the whole building because they’ve never seen anything like this.”

In addition to the original mill equipment, a black and white barber chair sits and waits for customers who will never come. On the wall, faded lettering still advertises haircuts and tonics for a quarter and a dime apiece. Outside, the spring roars.

Joe Bob shares the relevance and role of the mill and town years ago, which history shows was likely a hub in the area. It was likely quite populated in the past. However, time was not kind to Topaz, and by the 1940s, the town had nearly disappeared. One of the last remnants at that time was the store. Part of that was in response to changing times, ease of travel and less need for the community’s amenities.

In the 1950s, Joe Bob's family purchased the mill. His grandparents and aunt and uncle were dairy farmers near Republic, and were in need of a good water source during a time of drought. They discovered the property, and moved to Douglas County. An interesting fact: Joe Bob's grandfather actually worked in mills, similar to the one at Topaz, when he was a young adult.

“I didn’t realize this until just recently, but he would’ve know everything about this mill because he would have used it,” says Joe Bob.

Maybe it was the personal connection to milling. But whatever the reason, the O’Neals opted to keep the old store and mill around. Eventually, restoration happened and over the years, visitors began stopping by.

“My uncle, if he was around here, and somebody came looking for the place, he’d stop what he was doing and give them a tour just like I do," says Joe Bob.

Growing up, Joe Bob spent summers at Topaz. In 2013, he and Betsy moved there from Kansas City.

Today, the O’Neals welcome visitors to Topaz, and give tours so others can learn from the store and mill.

“There’s people from Australia, and there’s been people from the Netherlands, and Japan. The people from the Netherlands couldn’t speak English,” says Joe Bob.

And while they have organized as a non-profit so they can accept donations and grants for the buildings’ upkeep, the O’Neals give all tours for free.

I tell people – they say, ‘Do you charge?’ and I say, ‘No, there’s a donation box in there and I don’t care if you put anything in it, I’m going to give you the same tour whether you do or not. It doesn’t make a bit of difference to me,” says Joe Bob. 

For Ozarks Alive: Time Capsule, I’m Kaitlyn McConnell.

Want to visit Topaz? Visit the Friends of Topaz Mill page on Facebook for more information about how to get in touch with the O’Neals.

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