By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
When Dean and I get visitors from out of town who want to see something of the real Ozarks, we often take them down to Alley Spring down in Shannon County along the banks of the Jack’s Fork River. We bring our visitors here because we know that regardless of their age, physical ability or interests, everyone can find something to love about one of the Ozarks most beloved historic sites and natural areas.
Alley Mill is a century old, two story water-powered roller mill owned and operated as a historic landmark by the US Park Service as part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. It is one of a handful of roller mills still standing in the entire state of Missouri and probably the best kept example of the type of mill used during the early 1800’s. The Park Service manages the mill and other historic buildings on the site, as well as the picnic area and nearby campground, while the Missouri Department of Conservation owns and manages the 795 acre Alley Spring Natural Area, including the spring itself. Both entities do an exemplary job of preserving this historic landmark and the natural areas surrounding it.
The impressively large, but boxy three-story mill house is not necessarily the most beautiful in an architectural sense, but it does have its own charm and a sturdy presence that seems meant for the place where it stands. Originally painted a barn-red color, the paint has faded over time. The last time I saw the mill in person, the red paint had slowly faded into a startling, but not unattractive, shade of pink.
Inside, the building retains much of its original character and the machinery is still intact and operable, or has been made so. The basement contains the water-powered driveshaft and other machinery that powers the entire mill, including the belts used to lift, grind and sift grain. The first floor houses the grinding machinery and storage bins for finished meal or flour. These days, the first floor is also home to the park’s information center and gift shop.
The third floor of the mill is the original sifting room. As grain was ground it fell onto a belt that brought it up to the second floor where it dropped into one of the large, boxy swing sifters. The sifters shake back and forth, separating the fine meal or flour from the still-rough grain. The finer material fell through the screens to the storage bins, while coarse grain was directed back to the grinding wheel for further processing.
The second floor of the mill still houses the large swing sifter, but it is also home to a small, interesting museum that includes period tools, photos and various artifacts in multiple glass display cases. Each display offers a brief summary of what life was like for the settlers of that time.
At the back of the mill is the mill pond and trace where one can see how the water was used to generate the energy that drives the mill’s machinery. It is a potent reminder of the power of water and of a time when life was lived without the benefit of electricity. Occasionally, park staff will demonstrate the millworks for visitors.
The mill pond is cradled on one side by a sheer, half-moon-shaped cliff face and on the other by the mill itself and the earthworks of the mill pond. The spring itself emerges from the mouth of a cave at the base of the cliff, some 155 feet under the surface. The 7th largest spring in the state, Alley Spring has an average output of 84 million gallons of water per day and a flow of 130 cubic feet per second. The fast moving water fills the pond and gushes over the spillway and through the trace. Like most springs in the Ozarks, the water gushing from Alley Spring forms a swiftly moving, icy cold spring branch filled with watercress. This particular spring branch is a half of a mile long and ends where it meets the much larger Jack’s Fork River.
Aside from its functional role as a power source, the mill pond at Alley Spring is stunningly beautiful, if not downright dramatic. The color of the water is a constantly changing kaleidoscope of aquamarine, turquoise, emerald green and blue. When the light strikes the pond just right, it seems to glow - a moment worth waiting for.
Long before the mill or its builders arrived on the scene, Osage and Delaware Indians inhabited the area. It is said that they abandoned the area during a long period of drought, which stopped the spring from flowing. This seems to me to be an bit of historic invention meant to shine a happy light on the existence of the mill on a site that, without question, would have been a sacred place to the Osage for thousands of years.
First of all, the Osage would never have lived at the site; springs were much too sacred for such common purposes. As a sacred space, the spring and its nearby caves would most likely have been used for ceremonial purposes and very special gatherings. However, they most definitely would and did have seasonal encampments along the nearby Jacks Fork River and it is likely that they used the spring and spring branch to gather pure water and special foods such as watercress. But with the much more substantial Jacks Fork River less than a half a mile away, the water from the spring was never a necessity for survival – but rather, a center of spiritual power.
The truth about how the spring came to be owned by whites is probably more in line with what happened to every Native American tribe throughout North America during the early years of colonization – removal by force or intimidation or both.
In any event, the land around the spring was first homesteaded by James Tackett in 1848 and the village that sprang up from the establishment of the mill was known as Barkesdale Spring. That name stuck until John Alley established a post office at the site using his name. The original mill was replaced by the current mill in 1893 (with some sources noting the date as 1895). It was built by George McCaskill, a distant relative of U.S. Senator, Clair McCaskill of Missouri.
It is apparent that the mill was never a real money-maker. Some say that its failure came from being run primarily as a wheat (flour) mill in an area where corn was the chief crop, while others blame the mill’s closure on the simple fact that the technology used by the mill had become obsolete. In any event, it changed hands many times before Conrad Hug of Kansas City bought it, and the entire town surrounding it, with the idea of turning it into a resort. His dream quickly turned into yet another financial white-elephant and the mill was abandoned yet again. By that time, much of the area around the mill had been badly logged and many of the early homesteaders had left for greener pastures.
Hug eventually sold 427 acres of land that included the spring and the mill, to the State of Missouri, which opened it to the public as Alley Spring State Park in 1925. During the next five years, the Civilian Conservation Core (C.C.C.), which was very active in the Ozarks, helped build many of structures found in the park today and in 1934, they helped to restore the dysfunctional mill to its earlier glory.
In 1971, Alley Spring was transferred to the federal government as a part the Ozarks Scenic Riverways act. You can read more about the history and mission of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways in my article entitled, Ozark Riverways: A History in Perspective.
Today, Alley Mill is half park-like setting and half wilderness. Near the mill site are picnic areas, a campground and plenty of walking trails. We like to park at the very beginning of the parking lot and take our visitors on the little spring branch trail that runs along the bluffs and follow it upstream towards the mill.
The short hike exemplifies the natural beauty of the spring ecology and the few shallow caves along the way are interesting enough that even adults can’t resist crawling into them. But the best reason for approaching the mill from this route is the expansive and often startling view of the azure millpond as the last bend in the trail turns. That exact moment never fails to thrill me and to impress our guests and it is a moment for which I never tire.
In part two, we’ll look more closely at the wilder parts of Alley Spring and why this site and the surrounding natural areas require our continued protection.
If you long for the country life or love the outdoors, you will appreciate this beautiful and inspiring book. Set in the rugged heart of the Missouri Ozarks, A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted memoir filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Available in print and eBook through the Show Me Oz bookstore.