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Motor Mill shares area's heritage

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 05/06/2013 11:22 AM

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ELKADER, Iowa —John Nikolai, president of the Motor Mill Foundation, hopes that the efforts of many volunteers will result in a functioning Motor Mill.

"You want to bring this to life for people so they understand about their heritage," Nikolai said. "This is the kind of thing that made settlement possible, entrepreneurial people who had vision and built something to utilize what was here, to have a land that would work and support people."

Nikolai shares what he and other volunteers have learned as he walks through the buildings.

Towering over the Turkey River, the majestic mill is six stories and nearly 90 feet tall. It's believed to be the tallest structure of its kind in the Midwest. It measures 60 feet by 45 feet.

Partners John Thompson, J.P. Dickinson and James Crosby spent $50,000 to build the Motor Mill and $40,000 on equipment and outbuildings 144 years ago. The mill and cooperage were completed in 1869, the other buildings in the early 1870s.

The mill was built of local limestone, oak and pine. Nikolai marvels at the craftsmanship. The stone was quarried on the bluff and lowered in cable cars on wood rails. Water for mill operations was provided by a dam upstream on the Turkey River, which was 200 feet long and 12-feet high. A flume directed water into the mill basement providing power for the turbines. White oak barrels made in the cooperage were used to ship corn meal and flour. It was said that Motor flour was the best for baking. It was sold nearby and also shipped to Dubuque. Barley, oats and rye were ground for livestock feed.

Plans for a railroad were dashed following flooding in 1875. Chinch bugs and other small insects devastated wheat, corn and other grains and grasses in 1867, 1871 and 1887.

Motor Mill ceased operations in the 1880s. Most of the milling equipment was sold or discarded and much of the mill's interior was gutted. The Klink family owned the Motor site from 1903 to 1983. The structures were converted to farm buildings. The mill was used for hay storage and housed horses. The ice house stored grain and may have been used for smoking meat. The inn was a farm home. Former residents told Nikolai that cold water running out of pipe in the limestone rock flowed through the kitchen to provide running water and also cooled milk cans. The livery stable became a dairy barn and the roof raised to make more room for hay storage.

The Motor Mill town site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. The Clayton County Conservation Board with assistance from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation bought the site in 1983. In 1992 an additional 55 acres was purchased from Mildred Beck Kennedy. In 2004 the Motor Mill Foundation of Clayton County was chartered. With a gift form the Robert Grau family, the Robert Grau Memorial Oak Savanna was started in 2005.

Nikolai's grandfather, Jacob, came from Germany as a youngster. He was apprenticed to a millwright and installed machinery in mills eventually settling in Madison, Minn. He invented one of the first open mouth bagging units, and he ran the Madison's Best Flour mill.

"That's why I'm involved here," Nikolai said. "It's my heritage."