The Mills of Allamakee co.
Before Iowa became Iowa, before the land west of the Mississippi was opened for settlement, before Black Hawk defied the white settlers and precipitated the Black Hawk War, a sawmill was established on the Yellow River in what is now Allamakee County. There logs were sawed
for the buildings of a fort east of the river, and there the youthful and aggressive Jefferson Davis labored for a season. Thus, the first power mill established in the Iowa country was a government sawmill, known as the Jeff Davis Mill.
By June, 1833, the Black Hawk Purchasethe land acquired at the dose of the Black Hawk Warwas opened for settlement by the pioneers. But as yet there were no mills or milldams in the Iowa country. The Jeff Davis sawmill, then inactive, was perhaps the only evidence of such a
use of water power in all of Iowaland.
THE MILLS OF LITTLE SWITZERLAND
So interesting and attractive is the northeast corner of Iowa that it has come to be widely known as the "Switzerland of Iowa" or "Little Switzerland". There the Upper Iowa River, the Yellow River, the Turkey with its tributaries, the Little Turkey, and the Volga wind hither and yon through deep ravines creating abundant water power. There, too, in the early days were many water mills.
The Yellow River is one of the smaller streams in the area of "Little Switzerland". It is located south of the Upper Iowa and drains only the southern part of Allamakee and Winneshiek counties, but in the early days it contributed its full share to the development of water power. It was on this river that the "Jeff Davis" sawmill, the first water power mill in Iowa, operated in the early eighteen thirties.
On a map of 1859 seven mills were indicated on the Yellow River in Franklin Township alone. There was Werhan's Mill and Gibson's Mill, both in section five; Dawson's Mill in section six, and another gristmill "near by". There was Deucher's Mill in section nine; Blain's Mill in section fourteen; and Hardin's Mill in section thirty one. The latter probably came to be Burnham's Mill, which was later moved to Myron in Post Township.
In the decades of the sixties and seventies, however, the valley of the Yellow River was one of the liveliest industrial centers west of the Mississippi. The water power was extensively developed as gristmills, flour mills, sawmills, and woolen mills hummed along its banks and on the banks of tributary creeks. It is said that in 1878 there were between twenty-five and thirty mills in Allamakee County, and that the flouring industry was being "rather overdone". There came a time, however, when milling declined. The days of large wheat crops were over, and the Yellow River came to be known as the "River of Lost Mills".
Only two mills on this river survived the decline of wheat raising in north eastern Iowa. One of these was Werhan's Mill at Forest Millsa town known for many years for its milling activities. The other was the Tangeman Mill originally located at Volney where in 1877 it was running day and night, having "withstood several floods when the Yellow river went on a rampage." In 1902 the dam went out on the crest of a spring freshet and the mill was dismantled, loaded on wagons, and hauled up the hill and out on the prairie to Monona in Clayton County, where it resumed operation at first by means of steam and later by electric power. Meanwhile, however, the two old burrs continued to serve as the grinders.
Old Mission Mill was named because it was located near Old Mission Schoola school operated by the government in the decade of the forties, under the leadership of the Reverend David Lowry, for the benefit of the Winnebago Indians. In the days of its prosperity, Old Mission Mill "was a factor in the life of that community", for to it farmers drove oxen, and later horses, from distances of twenty-five or thirty miles bringing their grist to be ground.
Later, as other mills were built in other communities, trade fell away, and still later electric power took the place of water power in many mills. But not so at Old Mission. There the water wheel was used as long as grain was ground. When the mill was abandoned, after sixty years of service, it stood "in mute testimony of the heavy forests which once surrounded it". Massive black walnut timbers were used in its construction, while some of the parts were of hard maple. For a decade and a half after its grinding days were over Old Mission Mill stood as a relic of other days. The owner planned to tear it down, but the wrenching apart of its old timbers was a task that was long delayed. Meanwhile, the old water wheel and part of the machinery were removed for use elsewhere or sold for junk. The millstones, which had been imported from France, were abandoned. Sagging timbers revealed neglect and the millrace was filled with debris. A cable, stretched across the river from the mill supported a trolley car and served as a novel means of bridging the stream. Within the walls, hand made derricks, shafts, and bolting devices were still in place. An old "hand made level, pointed with a goose quill", became the property of a souvenir collector, but the old walls resisted time and dilapidation.
~source: the excerpts appearing above are used with the permission of the State Historical Society of Iowa. Originally published in Iowa, Land of Many Mills, by Jacob Swisher; copyright State Historical Society of Iowa, 1940.
~transcribed for Allamakee co. IAGenWeb by Roseanna Zehner & Sharyl Ferrall
~note: Above is not a complete list of the Allamakee county mills. The researcher will find photos & references to other mills throughout the pages of this website.
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