Watkins Mill frozen in time at birth of machine-age mass production

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The house built by Waltus Watkins in 1854 has been restored to the era of about 1870.

After our visit to Fort Osage, Dan and I headed to Lawson, Mo., to see Watkins Mill. This consisted of a house built in the 1850s, a mill constructed in 1860, other buildings and a large former farm.

What is most unique about Watkins Mill is that the mill has been untouched since its abandonment 100 years ago or more.

I was there at least once when I was a teenager. My Grandmother Vest’s younger sister, Jeraldine Holmes, took us there. She lived in Missouri and loved history. I remember her saying that she wanted us to see this mill before somehow it burned down.

We arrived at the site at around 3 p.m., and it closed at 5 p.m. The site is run by the Watkins Mill State Park and State Historic Site. It cost only $7 to tour both the house and mill.

A bargain!

They held up the house tour until we got there. We had a little walk but arrived in a timely manner and had an extended tour in the company of a couple of elderly women.

Waltus Watkins was born in 1806 in Kentucky and came to Missouri in 1830. He had a background in mills and as a machinist on a riverboat. In Liberty, Mo., he sat up a carding and spinning mill, a circular sawmill and gristmill.

Watkins married Mary Ann Holloway in 1834. Later he sold part of his milling business and started buying land in northern Clay County. He named the farm Bethany. By 1880 he owned 3,660 acres, which included prairie and timber.

The land was farmed and livestock were raised on it. Watkins main business was raising shorthorn cattle, but he also kept sheep, horses and swine. The farming included corn, oats, hay and large orchards.

He later started making bricks and operating a gristmill and sawmill.

The Watkins family moved into their first house, a log cabin, in 1839. In 1850 Watkins started building the house, which took four years to complete. Bricks were made on site along with the materials made of wood. In 1854 the ninth of 11 children was born just after the house was finished. Two of their children died in infancy, but they also raised two foster children.

Watkins’ mother and a younger sister also lived in the house. Several hired workers also lived in the house, along with visitors who sometimes stayed for a month or more. As many as 20 people lived in the house at a time.

To support the large household, the Watkins family produced several types of food. Butter, cheese, honey, beeswax, cured meat, stored ice, canned fruits and vegetables, dried fruits and other items were secured. During the planting and harvest seasons, another 25 farmhands would be employed and fed. Surplus food was sold locally for additional income.

The house has been restored to represent the era around 1870. Several of the buildings have also been restored or rebuilt. I asked about the missing outhouses, and the guide pointed out where they once were. As I noted in my previous story on Fort Osage, the public nowadays is squeamish about acknowledging outhouses.

Construction of the mill began in 1859 and was finished in 1860. It was built from materials produced on the farm and secured over time. It took several years of planning to obtain the supplies.

The 60-horsepower steam engine and boiler came from a sunken steamboat and was shipped from St. Louis by river. It produced 100 pounds of pressure to operate the machinery of the mill. Oxen had to bring the machinery in over frozen ground. The engine is still there to this day, like a machine in the garden.

The other machinery came from manufacturers in the eastern U.S. and shipped by rail. It was the finest machinery of the day, according to the tour guides.

The mill produced cloth, blankets, knitting yarns, shawls and batting and also did custom carding. At the peak of its production, the mill employed 40 highly skilled and well paid workers who came from the eastern U.S. and Europe. There were 25 men and 15 women who worked as weavers and 5 children who were apprentices.

It was costly to employ these operators, but the mill still turned a very handsome profit, and Watkins became very rich off the labor of his workforce. It is notable that mill workers first started organizing themselves into associations and unions at about this time in U.S. history but far from Missouri.

It was very costly to transport products from the east, so mills such as the Watkins Mill became very prosperous. About 800 woolen mills rose up in the Midwest by 1870. Watkins Mill sold products in a 60-mile radius. It also had a retail store in the mill.

In the middle 1860s, a grist mill was moved inside the factory. It produced cornmeal and flour, which was sold on consignment in area stores.

In 1882 Waltus Watkins became ill and sold his holdings to his sons. He died in 1884.

By 1886, the equipment in the mill was starting to wear out. Parts could not be obtained for the obsolete equipment, and gradually over time fewer and fewer items were produced in the mill. One of the last parts of the mill to operate was the grist mill.

Accounts vary about when the mill shut down completely. Some accounts say 1890 and others 1905, and I heard on a tour years ago it was in 1914, when woolen blankets were the last items made.

Wool was not the fabric of choice by this time. Consumers wanted lighter-weight garments. In addition, mail order catalogs such as Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward began selling ready-made clothing that was less expensive than homemade and could be delivered to your home. It is similar to what Amazon.com is doing today to bricks-and-mortar retailers.

The mill was finally closed up and never touched. It had a sentimental value to the family. All of the equipment is still there as originally installed, a relic of the early industrial revolution in U.S. manufacturing.

Some of the old machines are very rare and are now the only existing specimens of their type in the country. The mill never had electricity and when you tour its three stories, they are only lit by a dim, natural light just as they were during its production heyday. It is dark but full of atmosphere.

The mill is not handicapped accessible, and there are a lot of steps. The bottom floor is brick.

The family continued living on the farm and in the house. In 1943 the last Watkins daughter, 89-year-old Carrie Watkins, moved to the state of Washington. Electricity was finally installed in the house when the state of Missouri took it over and used it for offices.

The farm was sold in 1945.

In 1958 the land was sold, and another group from Allis-Chamlers bought the mill at auction — but not the land — in order to preserve the equipment. During the auction, the auctioneer would not go into the mill because of all of the junk placed there.

At first it looked like the mill would be torn down, but the original buyer pulled out. He had given the buyers of the mill a short time to move the building. Another buyer obtained the farm and rented the land that the mill was on to the mill buyers.

A bond issue to purchase the property was passed by Clay County voters in 1963, and the county transferred it to the state when it became a historic site in 1964. It is now part of the state park system of Missouri.

There is also a church and a school on the property, but they are not open to the public.
The site is fascinating, particularly the mill. It is all there just as it was 150 years ago. For only $7 you can see both the house and the mill. We did not have enough time to see much in the visitor center.

A gem like this makes you realize what other fascinating places there are that are not so far from home. Get out and see some of them, both in Iowa and surrounding states.

This ends our Missouri journey. I hope to soon visit the John Wayne Birthplace in Winterset and see the Quebe Sisters in Des Moines, so look for more stories on these adventures in ThePerryNews.com.

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