For over a hundred years, the grist mills that dotted the rural Ozarks were an important hub of commerce and communication for the farmers and families who brought their wheat and corn to be ground there. For our ongoing local history series, Sense of Place, KSMU’s Emma Wilson explored one of these old mills in Ozark County.
[Sound: rushing water]
The rust red Hodgson Water Mill is nestled into a bluff above a spring that gushes up from far below the earth’s surface. It’s not far from Dora, Missouri and may look familiar at first glance—that’s because its image is used all over the world on Hodgson Mill Flour Product packages. It is also one of the most photographed mills in Missouri, and it’s easy to see why.
“It’s like a magical place almost, you know?”
That’s Lin Waterhouse, a writer and genealogy buff who lives just over the hill from the mill. She’s written two novels set at the mill and has helped with the restoration projects over the last ten years.
Waterhouse says, “When we first moved here, I was totally unfamiliar with the area. And that was about the same time as Hank and Jean bought the mill. And we got to know each other and she asked me if I’d like to volunteer at the mill and I said, ‘Oh, that’d be wonderful, I could meet people that way.’”
“I’ve always had a great reverence for beautiful land and settings, and when we saw Hodgson Mill, I basically fell in love with it.”
Hank Macler and his wife, Jean, bought the mill and launched a major renovation of the then half-collapsed building. Their goal was to restore it to its original condition, as it would have looked when it was first built by Alva Hodgson. Again, Lin Waterhouse:
“This was, like, state-of-the-art, back in 1897 when this was built—with the metal turbines that were imported from the Pyrenees Mountains—I mean, he just went ‘top-drawer’ when he built this mill.”
Jean and Hank Macler worked to maintain the original integrity of the mill by turning to local’s memories of the place. Hank says that with the help of local historians and others interested in the restoration, they assembled focus groups in West Plains and Gainesville to determine what changes would need to happen to restore it to its former beauty.
“The groups met separately, but they all gave us pretty much the same suggestions. So that’s how we kicked off the project and there was an amazing amount of support from the residents in the area,” Macler says.
The main concern of the community and the Maclers was to make sure the mill wouldn’t collapse, since a century of almost yearly flooding weakened the mill’s stilts and foundation. They brought in local Amish craftspeople to rebuild the entire support system as well as the parts of the roof that had already caved in. Lin Waterhouse says that even though it has not been restored to be a working mill, the Hodgson Water Mill Restoration has helped to turn the mill back into the meeting place it once was.
“This was such a gathering spot for the community. My husband grew up here and he said that this is where everybody went. You came here to the mill. And you swam in the spring branch and you picnicked. This was the place where the community gathered, it was really the center of life for the Dora, Sycamore area here.”
Darlene Smith is a lifelong resident of Gainesville, about 15 miles away. She works at the mill during the summer months. She showed me around the building, pointing out curiosities and sharing stories from different folks who had visited. A cave cuts into the hillside behind the mill. Several years ago, cave-divers explored the cavern in an attempt to find the source of the spring. Though there’s another spring pool in the cave, they were not able to go deep enough to find the source.
[Sound: footsteps, gushing water]
“It goes back about 50 or 75 feet, drops off about 30 [ft] to the spring and there’s 23½ million gallons of water a day [that] comes through it. And it kind of comes under the building right here, and you can see, here by the wheel, that it goes through here and comes out the front.”
Smith says that the amount of water coming out of the spring rarely changes and does not seem to be affected by heavy rains or drought. This consistency and the cleanliness of the water indicate the extreme depth from which this spring, well, springs. The massive flow of water also made this an ideal location for a mill at the end of the 19th century. For more than half of the 20th century, the Hodgson Water Mill served many of the farmers within a twelve mile radius. It was incorporated into the Hodgson Mill company in the late 1960s and ground grains until the late ‘70s.
And while folks no longer camp out next to the spring while they are waiting for their corn to be ground, Jean Macler says that it has continued to be a community hub and a popular spot for weddings, baptisms, and family photos.
“We enjoy when families come up and there’s, for example, three generations. The grandparents who had their pictures taken as children and then they brought their children and now their bringing their grandchildren. There aren’t a lot of places that are still in their original state that you can do that, and I think that is one of the things that makes Hodgson Mill special.”
Before I left the mill, Lin Waterhouse showed me around the grounds so I could see the bridge over the spring branch and the cabin that the Maclers had built when they were restoring the foundations of the mill.
[Sound: walking, rushing water.]
“It just kind of fits into the air of the place. The feeling that it’s a world set apart, that it’s a piece of time lost or still perpetuated despite the craziness of the rest of the world. That a place like this still exists, and kind of exists the way it did one hundred years ago.”
[Stand up: looking up at the mill from beside the blue, spring fed pond, it is hard not to be totally transported into a memory of the Ozarks from long ago.
For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.]