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The Motor Mill


Sumner, United States

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Artist's Description

The Motor Mill is near Elkader, Iowa. USA

Since some of what has been written and told about Motor is lost, as well as some equipment and techniques, it is challenging to understand in the 21st century. We are also motivated to separate the facts from the myths.

Though entrepreneur John Thompson was the initial dreamer and ½ owner of Motor, the specifics of Motor’s construction and operational timeline came mainly from Crosby. James Crosby was a self-employed attorney, who surveyed for the mill building, dam, mill race, bridge, town site and railway. He also did engineering work for the mill, started a school, unsuccessfully applied for a post office and contributed financially as ¼ owner of the enterprise.

Stone for the construction was quarried from atop the bluff north of the mill. The stone was lowered down in a specially designed cable car system. Two cars ran on wooden rails, the full car carrying 3-5 ton of stone pulled the empty car up the hill. Crosby’s journal states the first load of rock was hauled down from the quarry on April 28, 1868.

Skilled German stonemasons from nearby communities were hired to build the mill. “Stone was dressed more carefully for it than had been other mills and laid with greater pains and precision.” Local Legend tells of 4 different lead masons, each responsible for one wall of the mill and each tried to outdo the others with his own style of stonework as an explanation why the stones on threes sides of the mill have rounded faces and the fourth side, square faces.

In the summer of 1869, before the flour mill was complete, Crosby and Thompson tried to promote a woolen mill at the Motor town site. Crosby traveled, promoting this venture. Written promotional items indicated that the woolen mill was to be built next to the gristmill. The flat wall of the gristmill would butt up against the wall of the planned woolen mill. In this way the two mills would share the same raceway and water to drive the water turbines for both mills.

However, Crosby and Thompson never found an investor and the woolen mill was never built. This probably is the real reason for the flat wall of the mill, especially since all designs we’ve understood at Motor had practical purpose behind them. Efficient function and planned uses ranked ahead of decoration and style, although beauty was incorporated into form with paint, carved wood and stone.

Motor Mill was operational by fall 1869 and had excellent flour but the business suffered as chinch bugs ate wheat crops and area mills competed for fewer raw materials. When high water prevented completion of a narrow-gauge railroad for easier transportation, the young, expensive mill strained, until (“some trouble occurred at the mill”) and ¼ partner J.P Dickinson, sold his interest to Thompson; Dickinson and his family left Motor on a February night in 1878. In 1879, the mill was rented out. The final blow occurred in 1883, when a flood made the dam unusable. The dam was not repaired and the mill closed after just 14 years of operation.

According to Crosby, farmers turned from wheat and “began raising corn, cattle and hogs instead, even creameries sprang up. Railroads were beginning to haul produce away from the near-at-home market.” The mill never recouped its founder’s investments but remains a striking monument to 19th century engineering skill, craftsmanship and vision.

The Motor mill property was purchased by the Klink family in 1903 and they used the structures as farm buildings for the next 80 years.

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Artwork Comments

  • Monnie Ryan
  • lorilee
  • Jack Ryan
  • lorilee
  • Kathilee
  • lorilee
  • Rick  Friedle
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