Step back in time at historic Lidtke Mill
By Janet Kubat Willette
Date Modified: 06/25/2012 2:02 PM
LIME SPRINGS, Iowa – Jerry White's enthusiasm for his hometown is palatable.
White, a Lime Springs promoter, has for the last 26 years poured his energy into the Lidtke Mill National Historic Site Board. The 13-member board oversees Lidtke Mill and surrounding property.
"My dad used to do a lot of stuff here," White said.
Lidtke Mill was built on the banks of the Upper Iowa River in Lime Springs in 1857. A majority of the mill was destroyed by fire in 1894. It was rebuilt with community support because of the economic activity it generated, White said.
At one time 13 mills operated along the Upper Iowa. The one in Lime Springs is the last one standing.
The community of Lime Springs started along the river in the 1850s and grew to a bustling place of 400 residents. The stage stopped and there was a post office, general store and school. When the railroad came through to the south of the river around 1860, the town's residents picked up and moved to be closer to this new mode of transportation. The Milwaukee Road left in 1980. Today, people are slowly migrating back toward the river, White said.
The mill was started by a Melvin Marsh, who sawed timber using power from a water wheel. He built a limestone house west of the mill that is still lived in today. An ice house was located north of the home where ice from the river was stored, packed in sawdust and sold to customers throughout the year.
The Drake Brothers were the next mill operators. They ground buckwheat into flour, working day and night to keep up with demand from the East Coast and European markets in the 1870s. Lime Springs was famous for its buckwheat, which grew well in the wet, marshy fields around Lime Springs, White said.
A pest known as the chinch bug destroyed the buckwheat crop in 1878, leading to a succession of mill owners. The mill was again humming along in the 1890s when a fire destroyed much of the building.
After the technology changed so that flour was ground in other mills, the mill in Lime Springs specialized in grinding corn, oats and barley into livestock feed and generating electricity.
Turbines were installed at the mill in the 1910s to generate electricity for Lime Springs and Chester. The power was on from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week, White said. The wiring in the mill dates to this decade.
One of the stops on the mill tour is a spot where John Peterson was electrocuted. The story goes that he went out to get a drink from a nearby spring and came back in with wet hands and shoes to shut off the power for the night. His footprints are etched into the concrete in front of the control panel. Peterson was crippled from the accident, but lived to be nearly a 100 years old.
In 1960, the last owner of the mill, Herman Lidtke, turned the key in the lock and walked away, leaving things just as they were. The mill was no longer economically viable.
The mill sat unused and abandoned for 16 years before another town promoter, Anna May Davis, recognized that the site was a gem to be shared. Davis was the local historian and compiled a history book of the Lime Springs area.
The Lime Springs Jaycees got behind the effort to open the mill and provided much-needed elbow grease. In 1976, the mill was named to the National Register of Historic Places and opened to the public for tours. More than 1,300 people came through that first year, White said.
Today the mill and adjoining mill house are open for tours on weekends from Memorial Day through Labor Day and other times by appointment. Tours are given by volunteers.
Phyllis Stevenson of Lime Springs is one of the volunteer tour guides. The mill was dear to her husband, who used to bring commodities to be ground to the mill with his father. It was through him that she developed an attachment to the place.
Now, she guides visitors through the mill house with ease, pointing out distinctive features.
"I have never taken anybody through who isn't enthralled by the whole thing," she said.
The house is well over a 100 years old. The mill's last employee, Willard "Shorty" Lloyd, was its last occupant.
They've had visitors from as far away as China, Stevenson said.