Courtesy of Ron McGinnis
Twice a year, corn is ground into meal at the Ice Cream Social in July and at the Fair Grove Heritage Reunion during the last full weekend of September.
By Dan R. Manning
Mills in the Ozarks were places for people to socialize in the nineteenth century. While farmers waited for their grain to be ground, they conversed. Their wives chatted. And their children had a chance to play with someone besides brothers and sisters.
In Fair Grove, the post office was also inside the town’s only mill, so the patrons read letters from the outside world while their grains became flour. It was a true community center—a place to catch up with friends and neighbors, hear the talk of the town, and learn news from the world abroad.
Fair Grove’s gristmill was built in 1883 by John Boegel and Joseph Hine. They constructed steam-powered machinery that used buhrstones to grind grain, and the mill remained in operation for almost a century.
During World War II, a married couple, Clifford and Ethel Wommack, bought the mill and began working there side by side. After years of labor, Ethel closed the mill in 1969 following her husband’s death. For more than a decade following Clifford’s death, the building suffered from weathering and neglect. Yet, it was not doomed for demolition.
In 1977, the Fair Grove Historical & Preservation Society was formed. The society’s first restoration project was the town’s historic cemetery. But after members of the historical society read William Long’s 1932 history of Fair Grove, it was only a short matter of time before the group looked to the mill for another project.
Attached to memories of time spent with her husband at the mill, Ethel was reluctant to relinquish the mill. She rejected the society’s proposal to buy the old, deteriorating structure during their inaugural year.
It took seven more years and the approval of all six of her children, but in 1984, Ethel officially turned the mill over to the Fair Grove Historical & Preservation Society. Within the year, the preservation process started, breathing life back into a building that was long dormant.
The structure had already been designated as an important building by the Greene County Historical Sites Board and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but it was going to take years to restore.
The first step was raising the north wall several inches to repair the foundation. After an Amish crew jacked it up and placed temporary supports, volunteers reconstructed stonework and poured a new cement basement. Many rooms had to be reconstructed, including the steam engine and boiler room. In fact, a storeroom and an office were in such bad condition that they had to be totally dismantled before being rebuilt.
After years of weekend labor, volunteers made the structure solid enough to begin working on the machinery. John Lovett, a millwright and miller from Tennessee, helped recondition Wommack Mill’s buhrstones. The volunteers even rebuilt the steam engine and upright boiler.
Today, Wommack Mill hosts public events that offer thousands of visitors a chance to learn how Ozarks people used to live, work, and play. It also acts as a gathering place for Fair Grove organizations.