Volume V, No. 4, Summer 1978
by Patsy Watts
Photography by Teresa Maddux
From the second floor window of the old mill I could see the valley stretched out before me. Tiny sparrows flitted across the rusty, broken-down barbed wire fence on the other side of the millpond. The pond was fed by a spring, hidden from view by the water above it. Directly bellow in a little stagnant pool of water, water skippers darted to and fro with a motion that made me dizzy to watch. Or maybe it was just that I had seen so much--relived over a century in less than the hour I had been here.
This mill had been built by Joseph Strain. In 1840 he came to Missouri from Tennessee over an old Indian trail. Right here, two miles south of a town now called Crocker, in an oak and sycamore grove, he found the perfect spot for his mill.
Nature provided the raw materials to work with and Strain proved masterful at using them. Dragging huge chunks of limestone from the bluffs of the river, he set the foundation and dammed up the spring for the millpond. He cut the timber, hand-hewed the pillars and beams. Evident in each heavily morticed joint, in each rugged scar left on the wood by the tremendous blows of his ax, was the iron grip and will instilled in this man. After four years of struggling, he completed what he called the Gasconade Mill and returned to Tennessee for his family. Later in 1862, intending to fight in the civil War, he sold his land to John Hensley, but instead he went back to Tennessee for good.
I glanced around me. The pillars and beams still stood nearly as steadfast as they must have then. Downstairs I could tell where the drive shaft that had attached to the water wheel had been. By rotating around, the shaft used to turn belts that had run from it to individual shakers and grinders. These machines had been started or stopped by slipping the belts on or off the drums connected to them. The drive shaft could probably also have been disconnected, but the water wheel ran constantly.
Complacently turning my attention back to the water skippers below me, I thought some more about the things I had learned.
John Schliclt, who immigrated here from Frankfurt, Germany, bought the mill in 1876. Having only twenty-eight dollars to his name, he had arrived in this country ten years earlier. But the Schlichts were highly educated, and John was the eighth generation of millers in his family. His ingenuity and resourcefulness enabled him not only to buy the mill but to make several improvements to it and the surrounding land.
He installed two more water wheels and built another pond as a source for power. He invented a roller mill machine to make flour as well as the meal and feed already ground by the stone burrs, and devised a revolutionary new way to bleach the flour he made. He diverted water from the spring to across the road where he also ran a general store, bar and barbershop.
It seemed that after he became the owner, John Schlicht's mill became more popular than ever. The name was changed from the Gasconade Mill to Schlicht Mill because of the owner's unfaltering hospitality extended to everyone. There seemed never to be a stranger to cross the threshold. From as far as forty miles around, farmers came by horseback, wagon, or any way they could just to get their grain ground at Schlicht's. Of course, since the area had developed into a busy little community, often people came to buy supplies, have their horses shod or just socialize a little.
Closing my eyes I saw the mill in operation once again. The sound of water bubbling up from the spring and rushing over the dam of the millpond and the whirring of the mill machines was nearly deafening. Scattered in dissorted array were farmers waiting to get their grain ground into meal or flour. People wandered in and around the post office and the excited shouts of children rang through the air. I listened closely--the clanging of the blacksmith was barely audible above the other noises.
Across the road, the cast iron stove puffed clouds of smoke from its pit. Men stood around it and lightheartedly greeted those who came in to trade for the supplies they'd need until the next time they came to town. There was an occasional pling of spittle hitting the side of the stove instead of the spittoon set there for that purpose, and once in a while someone would leave or join the circle, but the voices never dwindled.
Outside children were running back and forth, playing cowboys and Indians, or chasing the white geese that rested on the banks of the ponds and fish hatcheries. Suddenly a little boy, running from the Frisco station stop about a mile up the road, stopped at the steps of the mill long enough to yell, "The train is in!" And then he ran off toward the clubhouse where the guests would dine and dance. I watched him for a while but as he ran around the corner I lost sight of him and no matter how hard I tried I couldn't picture him again. My mind blackened.
When I opened my eyes, I was back in the present booking out of a window on the second floor of the mill. As the importance of water mills had dwindled so had Schlicht Mill. By 1945 the community had diminished, the people had gone home and the door had been locked.
But in spite of all this the mill waited. And still it stands, everything as it was except for the years of aging and neglect. It is waiting for someone who holds the key to the past to come and unlock the last half of the century--someone to go back in time to when the mill was operating, fire up the old iron furnace and unblock the dam of the millpond so that once again the stone burrs and mill machines can whir away at their work. It had been sold out of the Schlicht family in 1976 to new owners who have plans of restoration. Perhaps that could be an answer to the mill's silent plea.
I stood at the window a moment longer. Once again I scanned the countryside, but this time there was a newness that I hadn't been aware of before. The whole valley seemed alive and crawling with beady-eyed insects and rodents. From beneath the straggling briars and brambles sprang a new layer of greenish undergrowth.
Slowly I descended the rotting stairs. They moaned and creaked with each step I took. The boards of the walls were splintered and cracking because of the treacherous weathering they had survived. And the warped floor below had in some places fallen through to disclose disheveled nests of rats and mice. I walked down the weedy path to the road and looking back, I couldn't help but feel regret.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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