Written by Larry Stone & Jenna Pollock
Nestled among the bluffs of Clayton County in Northeast Iowa stands a six-story limestone gristmill built in 1868-69. Constructed from local limestone and timber, Motor Mill and four other buildings at the Motor Mill Historic Site harbor a century-and-a-half of secrets and stories captured in stone. The Mill, on the banks of the Turkey River at the town of Motor, once held great promise for grain processing. Crop losses from chinch bugs and drought, floods that washed out a proposed railroad, changing agricultural practices, and disputes among the Mill owners all contributed to the failure of the enterprise after about 15 years. The one-time flour mill found new life as a barn, however, when the Klink family bought the land and buildings at Motor in 1903. With its milling equipment removed, Motor Mill housed livestock and hay as part of a working dairy farm for about 80 years.
The founders of Motor Mill - John Thompson, James Crosby, and J. P. Dickinson - had big dreams. Thompson, the entrepreneur and major partner, had built several other successful mills. A dam across the narrow Turkey River that provided water power for a sawmill may have prompted Thompson to buy the site in 1847. He envisioned Motor as a state-of-the-art facility that would be the premiere operation in the region. Crosby, who was an attorney, surveyor, construction engineer and one-fourth owner of the Mill, often walked several miles from his home in Garnavillo, Iowa, to monitor the operation.
German stonemasons did much of the work, using limestone quarried from an adjacent hilltop and delivered to the site by an ingenious, gravity-powered cable car system that ran on wooden rails. With foundation walls five feet thick and massive oak support beams, the Mill towered nearly 90 feet. The structure cost about $50,000. Thompson and his partners spent another $40,000 on outbuildings and equipment, including four sets of premium quality millstones from the Buhr region of France. Water diverted from the 200-feet-long, 12-feet-high dam powered the mill by way of three adjustable turbines, which could generate about 250 horsepower. The water ran into the mill basement, then down through the turbines to spin their vertical shafts.
Other buildings in the Motor Mill complex included the inn, where farmers sometimes stayed when they brought their grain for grinding; the livery stable, where horses were kept; the cooperage, where barrels to ship flour were made; and an ice house. The adjacent town at Motor boasted a general store and several residences for mill workers. A one-room school was built across the Turkey River in 1871, and it operated until the early 1900s.
The mill custom-ground grain for farmers, and produced fine flour to sell to bakeries in Dubuque and elsewhere. With the mill up and running, construction began on a railroad to Elkader, about four miles upstream. Crosby also filed a plat for the town of Motor, but the dreams faded. Floods washed out the railroad, crops failed, and the mill owners argued. By 1879, the Mill was rented to other operators, and in 1889, the partnership was disbanded. By 1891, the town also was dissolved.
The site was not abandoned, however. In 1898-99, Clayton County built a new, two-span iron bridge across the Turkey River to replace a wooden structure constructed about the same time as the Mill. In 1903 the Louis Klink family bought the Motor Mill property and began converting it to a farm. Almost all of the original equipment was taken out. Only a few remnants of grain and flour chutes and equipment supports remain as clues to what the milling machinery might have looked like.
The Klinks and later farm tenants removed flooring and floor joists from the mill to make room for hay storage. (Much of the lumber was re purposed to build other buildings on the farm.) One of the fourth floor windows also was enlarged, and a hay track was installed to allow loose hay to be raised to the upper levels of the building. The icehouse, the stable, and the cooperage also were used for hay or grain storage.
Les Klink, now age 89, recalled when his grandfather, Louis, stabled at least six draft horses on the first floor of the mill. Les Klink also remembered when his grandfather replaced the original sloping roof on the livery stable with a hip roof in the 1930s to make more room for hay storage. Stanchions, concrete floors, and gutters also were added as the dairy operation expanded.
Recognizing the heritage of the site, the Klink family nominated Motor Mill for the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. In 1983 the Clayton County Conservation Board, with the assistance of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, purchased 100 acres at Motor Mill from the Klink family heirs. The County acquired another 55 acres in 1992.
In 2004, the Motor Mill Foundation was established “to protect and preserve the architectural integrity, history, natural beauty and serenity of the Motor Mill site and its surroundings and to develop appropriate uses and interpretation as a regional treasure for the benefit of future generations.”
Volunteers have been working since then to install new windows, repair support beams, and replace floor joists and flooring in the mill. The Foundation received grants to help replace the Turkey River bridge, which reopened in 2012, but fund raising continues. Work is ongoing to restore buildings at Motor Mill and to interpret the area’s rich agricultural history.
The goal could be summed up by the words of James Crosby, more than 140 years ago:
“Beautiful in its proportions, solid as the rock from which it was made, the old mill stands in white relief against the forested hills, a delight to the eye in its perfection and its picturesque setting.”
Motor Mill, 23002 Grain Road, Elkader, IA 52043