Courtesy of Missouri State Parks
This interactive exhibit shows how a loom works at Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site.
By W. Arthur Mehrhoff
Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site is a National Historic Landmark and a National Mechanical Engineering Landmark within an enormously popular 1,500-acre state park in a rapidly developing section of northeast Clay County. The historic Watkins family farmstead and park provide the essential setting for the jewel in the crown, the only nineteenth-century US textile mill with its original machinery still intact. Less than an hour, but more than a century, from the Kansas City region, this apparent time warp gradually reveals the whole cloth of Missouri life.
The machinery from the original mill is still in tact at Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site.
Machines in the Garden
As you downshift from the interstate to country roads and the park road winding through woodlands, Watkins Mill already begins to accomplish its mission, which is “to preserve and interpret the historic structures and surviving remnants, cultural landscapes, and relevant artifacts associated with the mill, plantation, and the Watkins family, with emphasis on the last half of the nineteenth century.”
Writers since Virgil have contrasted rural peace and simplicity with urban power and sophistication, but the abundant American landscape made resolving that basic human tension finally seem possible, especially here in western Missouri. The mill and its machinery is surrounded by the historic and pastoral Watkins family farmstead.
The large brick and limestone visitor center recalls the mill, and a bountiful tree canopy softens its perception, making it appear a part of the landscape.
Operating the mill threatens its preservation, so the visitor center stresses meanings rather than ancient gears. Facilities Manager Mike Beckett explains that the center’s red brick, green and red trim, and wooden trusses recall those of the mill. In 1999, the Society for the History of Technology bestowed its prestigious Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits to the Watkins’ Bethany: The Family, The Farm, The Mills exhibit—one of a series of fascinating displays. Today, its popular, interactive loom exhibit immediately engages visitors. This small working model features four levers to raise and lower warp yarns stretched lengthwise under tension. Mechanized weaving at the mill made more intricate patterns in the fabric the looms produced.
The visitor center is also a reminder of a less visible warp thread of our culture. The endless, repetitive, and very loud sounds the large looms once made subtly recall the dynamic technological energy, unabated in our lives today.
Courtesy of Missouri State Parks
Costumed interpreters can be found near the Watkins Family's historic home.
The Protestant Ethic
The National Register nomination for Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site noted that Waltus Watkins bought eighty acres in 1838 ‘‘and built a log cabin residence.”
Watkins was a successful Jacksonian entrepreneur and soon expanded his holdings. In their book Watkins Mill: Factory on the Farm, authors Louis W. Potts and Ann M. Sligar concluded that Watkins “always kept his eye on the market.” For example, Watkins would grind his neighbors’ grain in exchange for a percentage of the product. He would then sell the milled grain at his general store for profit.
Like many Missourians, Watkins emigrated from Kentucky in the early 1800s to seek his fortune. A strong believer in education and moral uplift, Watkins took the temperance pledge. Following one of the great religious revivals sweeping the unsettled, unsettling frontier, his sister wrote in 1849, “He is regenerated and born again.”
Watkins’s conversion gave new meaning and energy—what sociologist Max Weber called the Protestant ethic—to his civic and commercial enterprises. Weber believed Protestants sought reassurance about their salvation in a rapidly changing world and interpreted their success as a visible sign of God’s favor.
Courtesy of Missouri State Parks
The Missouri Master Gardeners maintain an heirloom garden at Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site.
A Benevolent Empire
The temperance, diligence, and vocation fostered by his faith took shape at Bethany Plantation, the site of the Watkins family homestead and mill. By his death in 1884, the home place had grown to 1,300 acres, more or less.
He was continually buying and selling land, so the total acreage constantly varied. His total landholdings of about 3,600 acres spread across several counties.
Bethany had become an agricultural and industrial showcase with brick kilns, gristmill, sawmills, blacksmith shop, dairy, icehouse, barns, and other buildings. Several smaller sections, including two tenant farms, surrounded it. The civic-minded Watkins also helped build Mount Vernon Church and the octagonal Franklin Academy adjacent to the farm. A three-story Greek Revival house on his highest ground afforded Watkins a commanding view of his benevolent empire. Seen from another perspective, the stately house signified Watkins’ elevated status.
Like many farmers, Watkins practiced diversified arming. He raised cattle, mules, horses, swine, sheep, and poultry; grew various grain crops as well as hemp; and planted extensive orchards. His wife, Mary Ann, and he had nine children that survived infancy. She and their four daughters oversaw the dairy, dried fruit, maintained a large family garden, raised bees, and smoked the meat for sale. Bethany was highly self-sufficient but also sold honey by the hundred-weight and fruit by the ton.
Today, that plot of land shows 1870s rural life with period gardens, orchards, heirloom plants, and livestock. Ninety-five percent of the structures are original.
Courtesy of Missouri State Parks
The Franklin Academy is a historic one-room school at Watkins Mill State Historic Site.
A Republic of Technology
When the woolen industry reached Missouri in the 1850s, Watkins capitalized on his training with Kentucky textile technology, and he constructed his mill from on-site materials.
The four-story mill, large by Midwestern standards, contained more than fifty machines. The boiler that helped power the mill was salvaged from a steamboat. Watkins Woolen Mill sold quality yard goods, yarns, and finished blankets and also did custom carding for women who spun on a wheel at home.
After the Civil War, the busy mill annually consumed up to sixty thousand pounds of woolen fleece. Watkins attracted skilled workers, including at least one family from England, by offering housing. Many workers lived with their families in small houses on Smokey Row along the farm entrance.
An 1877 drawing in the Illustrated Atlas of Clay County, Missouri, which Watkins paid to include, showed both his farmstead and woolen mill. Likewise, the many A&M (agricultural and mechanical) universities created after the Civil War also recall that particular warp thread of American culture.
However, increased competition from large textile manufacturers and increased availability of ready-made clothing hastened the mill’s demise. Watkins died in 1884, and the mill closed its doors on this unique chapter of Missouri history in 1898. This apple of nineteenth century technology could not satisfy the changing culture’s appetite for more and less expensive goods.
Watkins Woolen Mill can be seen in the 1999 Civil War film Ride With the Devil.
Today, the state historic site embodies the American Association for State and Local History’s credo that “history is more than just information. It’s a relationship, a family, a community.”
Watkins’s descendants lived at Bethany until 1945 when they sold the farm. Three friends formed the Watkins Mill Association the day after acquiring the mill’s machinery on kind of a whim at an auction in 1958. They faced the daunting task of removing the contents of the mill within thirty days because the land and the mill building had been sold separately to another buyer. However, when the winning bidder couldn’t complete the purchase, the second-place bidder, George Stilley, was accommodating and agreed to sell the mill and the home to the association. By this bit of serendipity, the old machines were saved intact in their historic location.
A 1963 county bond issue, supported enthusiastically by the association and hundreds of volunteers, allowed them to acquire parkland to protect the site, and the entire property became part of the state park system in 1964. The Watkins Mill Association now emphasizes physical improvements and encourages regional identity. The staff also reflects this sense of community. Site Interpreter Terri Gardner described her efforts to build esprit de corps among her employees and her own deep passion for stewardship, rooted in a rural childhood.
Mike acknowledged the challenge of relating “dusty old equipment” to our wired world, but the site has risen to the challenge. In 2000, Watkins Mill hosted a major Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, and Ang Lee filmed scenes of his 1999 Civil War movie Ride with the Devil at the site. Additionally, the site’s annual events bring in people from all over to engage with history. Terri describes many teachable moments at Bethany, and University of Missouri-Kansas City Professor Louis W. Potts taught one of his history courses here. Rather than the backwoods, Watkins Mill State Historic Site occupies the front lines of experiential education.
Here, the past isn’t just interesting; it isn’t even really past, as William Faulkner famously wrote. The historic site reveals hidden cultural threads. Mike and Terri both observed that campers and park visitors often feel anxious without their electronic devices.
The same technologies that help us flee still “bring the noisy world into the midst of our slumberous peace,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne once observed in 1844. That noise often alienates us from understanding our place in the natural world.
However, at this historic site near Lawson, the Missouri Master Gardeners help us understand the natural world better. They have recreated raised beds, vegetable plots, and herb borders that demonstrate the diversity of that self-sufficient time, compared to today’s typical commercial and specialized agriculture.
More importantly, they preserve and exchange heirloom seeds with other living history farms to help cultivate a varied genetic base.
Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site and Park, an heirloom in its own right, reveals key warp threads connecting the bits and pieces of Missouri and American life.