Sunday, April 26, 2015

Solo Trippin': An Ozarks Mill Tour

A beautiful day in the Ozark Mountains calls for only one thing: road trip. A lazy Spring day under crystal blue skies is the perfect backdrop for filling the tank, sliding behind the wheel, and driving back in time where waving at each passing car is ritual and cellular reception is non-existent. Ozark County, Missouri, offers all the elements needed to float away from the stresses of the week and remember how it felt to be free.

The Ozark Plateau in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas is rich with the history of pioneers - tough souls who carved out a meager but pleasant existence in the rocky hills and back wood traces somewhere in the middle of the 19th century. Early settlers arrived for the promise of cheap land and little government oversight, and over the years they scraped and cut and built their little corner of paradise on whatever plot of land they called their own. Each hilly tract was, for the owner, a little piece of heaven. To this day, the spirit of these first settlers runs through the veins of those who come to this region, whether by birth or by choice. It is that spirit that can enliven the visitor with a new-found sense of what is important in life. (Here's a hint: it's not your iPhone.)

Several old grist mills still dot the edges of small rivers in this area, hearkening back to a simpler time. Ozark County, Missouri was once home to over 1500 mills lining the edges of these clear waters and bringing commerce to the communities. Today, less than eight remain. In this tour, we'll visit four, but we'll begin with something a little different.

Peel Ferry, Peel, Arkansas (map coordinates 36 29 32 N, 92 47 12 W)

Directions: From Highway 62 between Pyatt and Yellville, Arkansas, turn north on Highway 125. At junction of Highway 14, turn left. After several miles, turn right on Highway 125 and follow to the ferry landing. 

The day's journey began in northwest Arkansas where I drove north on Highway 125 toward the last public ferry in the state of Arkansas. The Peel Ferry carries vehicles across a stretch of Bull Shoals Lake in the northern most part of Marion County. Holding six vehicles, on this sunny Saturday, my car was the only passenger, giving me a chance to visit with the ferry captain and deck hand. Each has worked on the ferry for over a decade.
Arkansas lake ferry boat
The ferry arrives, carrying two cars from the other side.
They were fascinated with my camera at first, and we talked about the advances of technology in the last 20 years, a strange topic perhaps when traversing a small arm of a lake on a ferry, which was installed only when the original highway was submerged by the creation of the lake 60 years before. A bridge would cost too much to build, considering the number of cars that travel that particular road.

The fifteen minute ride across the clear blue water was transcendent. As I stood on the deck, I remembered when I lived in Mountain Home, Arkansas, as a teenager and the hundreds of times I must have ridden the ferries across Lake Norfork. Those ferries, one on Highway 62 and one on Highway 101, were replaced by bridges in the late 1980s. The breeze in my hair this day, the lapping of the water against the barge, the beautiful suspension of boat along the water transported me to a time 30 years prior, when life was simpler and the only stress experienced was whether or not you would miss the next ferry run and be late for your appointment. I could have stayed on that ferry all day.

Dawt Mill, Tecumseh, Missouri (map coordinates 36 36 35 N, 92 16 38 W)

Directions: From the Peel Ferry landing, stay on Highway 125 North for 10 miles. Turn right at Highway 160 East and travel about 37 miles. (On this piece, you will drive through the town of Gainesville, and if you need fuel, this will be a good place to stop because there are few choices where we are going.) Turn left on Highway PP and drive about one mile. Turn left the the sign for Dawt Mill, which is County Road 318.

Nearly 20 years since I last saw it, much has changed in the life of Dawt Mill. Originally built in 1897, after replacing a former mill built in 1866, the location along the banks of the North Fork of the White River was ideal for harnessing the power of water to grind corn into meal. Due to the soil conditions, local farmers had more luck with corn than with wheat, which also explains why cornbread is more of a meal-time staple in these parts than wheat breads.
By 1995, the current owner of the property purchased the old mill and the surrounding land but had no immediate plans to refurbish the site. By 2008, the State of Missouri was preparing to condemn the mill and have it demolished from its perch along the river. The owner made a plan to refurbish the structure, using as much of the original materials as possible and preserve this landmark in some new incarnation of its former self.
The entrance to the restaurant and bar at Dawt Mill.
The entrance to the restaurant and bar at Dawt Mill.
It was reborn as the Grist Mill Restaurant and Gravel Bar. Overlooking the river, the setting could not be more peaceful, enhanced by the fact that my cell phone read those magic words "No Service." The restaurant manager, Dallas, gave me a tour of the old mill and explained the restoration process. He took me to an overlook behind the cash register for a view of the dam across the river, which in its day, funneled the water to the mill race and turbines.

"You see that hole in the dam?" he asked. "It used to be about as big as a fist but the water has worn it to where you could drive a bus through it now." He went on to explain that the owner would fix it immediately, if only the state and federal governments could agree on the method of repair. The two offices have argued the issue since 2008, while the hole expands to the point where the mill cannot be used to grind corn anymore.

"With the hole, we can't get enough constant pressure to run the turbines," Dallas explained. "We could fully operate the mill if we could just fix the hole."

For now, the site stands as a restaurant, serving an American fare menu at a reasonable price and in one of the most peaceful locations in the Ozarks. Also included in this bustling wide-spot in the road are several lodging options, where old homes once part of the old mill community have been transformed to overnight lodging, and proudly highlight two amenities in the brochure as no television and no in-room telephones. A hideaway, indeed. Rounding out the community is a general store, ice cream shop, camping area, canoe rental, and fishing guide service. Everything one would need to escape for a weekend is right here, within walking distance.

Hodgson Mill, Sylamore, Missouri (map coordinates 36 42 35 N, 92 16 1 W)

Directions: From Dawt Mill, return on County Road 318 to Highway PP. Turn left on PP and drive 4 miles. Turn left onto Highway H and drive 6 miles. Turn left onto Highway 181 South. After about 4 miles, the mill will be on the left. 

Hodgson Mill may bear a familiar name, as it is indeed the origination of Hodgson Mill  products seen in grocery stores. While the old mill is now closed and for sale, the manufacturing base for the product line is just down the road. The last time I saw this mill was in the mid-1990s when it was home to a gift shop and a proprietor eager to share its history. While still in good shape today, the building seems to whisper a cry for someone to inhabit it again and share its story. Until then, its bright red facade glows from the skirting of spring green at its feet. A picnic area under the trees across the road gives a quiet spot to admire the view.
Hodgson Mill with its trademark red paint, shines from behind the trees on the banks of Bryant Creek.
Hodgson Mill with its trademark red paint, shines amid the trees on the banks of Bryant Creek.
Zanoni Mill, Zanoni, Missouri (map coordinate 36 41 10 N, 92 19 54 W)

Directions: From Hodgson Mill, continue south on Highway 181 about 5 miles when you will see a sign for Zanoni Mill Road on the right. The mill and house sit back from the highway on the right. Just passed Zanoni Mill Road is a gravel road to the right which leads to the mill.

Zanoni Mill harnesses the waters of Pine Creek in a rare function called an overshot mill wheel. The water is channeled to a mill race that drops water from the top onto the mill wheel, rather than traditional wheels where water flows beneath the wheel. The two-story colonial home constructed next to the old mill is a private residence, whose owners own the mill also. Formerly a bed and breakfast, the business has since closed and the owners have reclaimed the home as their private residence. Be respectful of this if you visit since this mill sits on private property. I viewed it from the road on this trip, but in 1996 I spent a night in the house when it was a bed and breakfast, and enjoyed the quiet surroundings.
This photo is from my stay at the mill 20 years ago.
This photo is from my stay at the mill 20 years ago.
Rockbridge Mill, Rockbridge, Missouri (map coordinates 36 47 22 N, 92 24 34 W)

Directions: From Zanoni Mill, continue south on Highway 181 for 2 miles. Turn right on Highway N and drive almost 10 miles. Turn left on County Road 142, at the sign for Rockbridge. The mill and surrounding buildings are about 1.5 miles down the road.

Rockbridge Mill was built at the edge of the Spring River in 1865, and expanded in 1888. By the early 20th century, a small village of buildings surrounded the mill, including a general store, a bank, and several small homes. By the mid-1950s, the collection of buildings, including the mill, was transformed into a private trout hatchery and fishing resort. On this visit, the current location was active with eager fishermen. A restaurant, fishing guide service, and lodging facility rounds out this tranquil patch of Ozark ground.
The old mill now houses a fine restaurant to feed hungry fishermen.
The old mill now houses a fine restaurant to feed hungry fishermen.
After the visit to Rockbridge, it was time to point the car back home. I made my way to Highway 5 South and decided to go through Mountain Home, Arkansas, my old stomping grounds. Just the drive along that highway brought back so many memories. Each curve in the road seemed to have a story, and by this time of the day, my mind was thoroughly free from thoughts of work.

I opened the sunroof, rolled down the windows, and let the spring breeze carry me home.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely day trip and tour you just took me on. I'm adding Dawt Mill to my list of stay-overs for when I visit... no tv and no in-room telephones are definitely highlights worth noting in my opinion :) I think you should forward a link to this post to the Ozark Mountains Tourism Commission (or similar) - it's a wonderful read. I bet you had many fascinating conversations with some of the locals throughout your day and I'm very happy to see spring has finally arrived for you.


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