The earliest grain mill in Jackson County was Blue Mills. Robert Aull, Samuel C. Owens, and Isaac Peace entered several hundred acres along the Little Blue River valley. Using primitive tools and slave labor, it took about three years to construct the four-story mill.
It was built out of black walnut trees cut from company property. The timber was sawed into beams and various dimensions of lumber with an up-and-down type whipsaw, meaning they dug a hole in the ground and one man jumped down in the hole as they pulled a walnut log over the opening. The man in the hole pulled one end of the saw while another man stood over the top pulling the other end.
When the mill was up and operating about 15 or 20 men worked there year round. Their pay was from 12 cents an hour for common labor to 30 cents for skilled labor. Isaac Peace, the manager, was the boss for 24 years. A local boarding house built upon the hill offered room and board to single men working at the mill for $1.25 a week. The little community that grew up around the mill was called Stringtown.
The mill ground wheat into flour, ground corn into meal and carded cotton. They made furniture such as walnut bedsteads, chairs, walnut secretaries, wooden tubs, wooden churns, ox yokes and canoes. They shipped the products by riverboat to places such as Fort Leavenworth, St. Louis and destinations back east, by way of the rivers.
Fort Leavenworth dates back to September 1827, long before Kansas statehood. Up until 1845, the history of the fort had no other special interest to the general public; it was simply about the same as any remote western military post. However, beginning with the war with Mexico, and the subsequent acquisition of Colorado, California and New Mexico, and the flood of immigration to the far western territories, Fort Leavenworth became a great source of supplies for the opening of the West.
The value of the almighty dollar and the cost of living have changed considerably since those days. For example, Captain Kingsbury, the commissioner at the fort, had to buy hundreds of barrels of flour every month, not only to feed the soldiers at Leavenworth but to ship west to other Army posts. The captain paid $7 for a wooden barrel of flour from the closest gristmill that was big enough to meet the supply demands, which just happened to be Blue Mills.
Blue Mills sold three grades of flour – unbolted, fine and extra fine. The extra fine sold for $7 to $8.75 a barrel. The mill sold flour to the Little Osage Indians, and Ke-che-bob, a Great Osage Indian, made regular trips for barrels, as did the Delaware Mission. Locally the flour was sold in four-pound bags and barrel lots.
The wooden barrels were made right at the mill for 50 cents each. Repair work on the returned barrels was 25 cents. The mill also sawed and sold lumber, mostly black walnut, oak and sugar maple. The neighbors could cut trees and deliver the logs to the mill for $2 each. A great deal of the lumber was sold locally and to places as far away as St. Louis.
During the Civil War, the mill was closed as the Battle of the Little Blue was fought nearby, and it remained closed for several years after the war. It was reopened in 1880 by some Danish gentlemen, but was not profitable. This time it was closed and left for the bats and hoot owls until finally torn down in 1923.
Reference: “Pioneers of Jackson County,” by Pearl Wilcox.
Reach Ted W. Stillwell at Ted@blueandgrey.com or 816-896-3592.