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A Vibrant Palette of Colors Draws Global Tourists to Alley Mill

Jennifer Moore

Our Sense of Community series, "Take It Outside," continues at one of the Ozarks' most iconic water mills: Alley Mill, near Eminence in south-central Missouri, has been featured prominently on scenic calendars, travel magazines and Pinterest.

You can't see the mill from the parking lot; it's hidden by trees a few hundred yards away.  But the path is wheelchair accessible all the way to the mill.   And when you come around a corner, the iconic, towering, bright red building is worth stopping to just gaze at.

As you get closer, you can hear the water rushing from the enormous Alley Spring, which powered the flour mill when it was in operation.

Inside, we find a couple of park rangers, both named Alex:  Alex Sipes and Alex Cox.

Credit Jennifer Moore / KSMU
Park Ranger Alex Cox works at Alley Mill near Eminence, Missouri.

Cox says Alley Mill has a reputation for being the most photographed water mill in the world.

“We’ve had people from Japan before. We’ve had people from Australia, Asia, all over Europe. You name it,” Cox said.

He opens the cash register and pulls out a roll of quarters. On the tail side is the very mill we're standing in.

“It was a pretty big honor to have us featured on the back of the quarter. They’ve had the America the Beautiful series for quite a while now.  And we were honored to be able to be a part of that, and have it released here on our grounds,” Cox said.

The severe floods that hit south-central Missouri in the Spring of 2017 did some damage to this historic mill. 

Credit Jennifer Moore / KSMU
Wildflowers grow along the trail circling the large, colorful Alley Spring.

The floors needed replacing. But it's been fully repaired, and it's open to the public for hourly tours.

The mill’s story

“Alley was its own town. It had, at one point, about 200 people,” said Ranger Alex Sipes, who works as a guide in the mill.

In 1894, this magnificent mill was built by two McCaskill brothers, Sipes says, who wanted in on the cutting edge technology and where it was going.

“White flour was kind of a newer innovation with the development of a new machine called the roller mill, which replaced the old stones that they were using,” Sipes said.

The new, roller mill could grind the flour down to a much finer grade.

But the brothers encountered a couple of hurdles. Farmers here didn't really grow wheat. Despite that, the brothers placed their bets in rumors of a railroad coming through here soon.

“But unfortunately, the railroad actually went thru Summersville, not through Alley. So they really didn’t have a lot of product to grind down into flour,” Sipes said.

It traded hands every few years because no one could make money off of the mill, he said. Then it became a state park in 1925, later becoming part of the National Park Service.

Credit Jennifer Moore / KSMU
Water flowing from the Alley Spring near the mill becomes the Jacks Fork River.

There were three different levels of grinding the wheat down, using rollers generated by the power of the water outside to crush the wheat. 

When it came through the final sifter upstairs, it was sent back down to the first floor where bags were waiting below to be filled and shipped off to customers.

Upstairs, a museum display has a voice recording of a man sharing his memories of the old logging and railroad tie-hacking industries that dominated these parts in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Hiking options at Alley Mill

When you step outside the mill, you have the option for a couple of different hikes:   one climbs up to the cliffs for over a mile, and the shorter one is only 1/3 mile, looping around the enormous, turquoise colored spring.  The color of the turquoise, dotted with bright, emerald green reeds flowing deep in the crystal clear water, combined with the purple wildflowers, creates an explosion of color. 

Two people out for a hike are Kathleen Eagan and her husband, from St. Louis.  They're celebrating their 25th anniversary and they're touring several of the springs in the area.

“So today, we’ve been to Blue Spring. And now, here at Alley Spring. They’re actually both beautiful, and surprising in the color and the volume of the water,” Eagan said.

“This one’s a lot more accessible than Blue Spring, but Blue Spring was worth the drive and the walk in to see it,” Eagan said.

The hiking trails are not wheelchair accessible, and there are a few stairs along the hikes.  

Before the turn of the century, Alley Mill was vital to community life. And today, this region relies heavily on eco-tourism as one of the main drivers of the regional economy.

For more information on visiting Alley Mill, you can call 573-226-3945.

As News Director, Jennifer oversees news gathering and production for KSMU-Ozarks Public Radio; in her role as Content Coordinator, she makes sure all programs on KSMU, including those produced locally, nationally, and internationally, flow seamlessly over the air. She trains the student reporters and announcers and hosts the monthly program Engaging the Community. Follow her on Twitter @jennwritesmoore.