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Motor Mill in Motion  Part 2     By: Jean Marie Hall 

This is the 2nd  installment of a series of reports first published in the Clayton County Register. 


Northeast Iowa in the 1840’s was a land of pure streams and rivers, abundant birds and wildlife and rich virgin soil. Hardy pioneers left crowded cities, burdensome taxation, famines, wars and persecution to find a better life. Was Clayton County, Iowa, the land they had dreamed of?

They built their farms and towns and planted crops in that fertile soil but sometimes the grain that was grown was never ground into flour. There were few grain mills and those that had been built may be many miles from the farms.

The answer lay with three men with a vision: John Thompson, one of the founders of Elkader, James Crosby, a prominent Garnavillo resident, and J. P. Dickinson.

Together, in 1867, these men formed a partnership to build a mill in a town known up to then as Hasting’s Bottom. The men changed the name to Motor.

The partners spent $50,000 on the mill and another $40,000 on equipment and other structures.   Stone was quarried close by, with some being lowered down the bluff in cable cars running on wooden rails.  The construction of the cable lines was, in itself, a major project.

Skilled stonemasons were hired to build the six story building. The first or basement level has walls five feet thick. The walls taper so that by the fourth floor, they are 2 feet thick and the top floor has walls two feet thick.

A dam was built on the Turkey River about 200 feet upstream of the mill. It was 190 feet long by 12 feet tall. It was built on the bottom and sides of solid rock The rushing water created 250 horsepower even during low water periods and powered the water wheels that turned the mill stones.

The mill was operational by November 1869, although the roof was not complete until December. Its measurements are 45’ x 60’ x 90’.

A popular but unconfirmed story abounds that claims that four different stone masons, each completing one wall, were competing with different styles of stone work. One wall is completely flat.

In 1869 prior to the completion of the mill, Crosby and Thompson decided there should be a woolen mill at the site as well. The woolen mill was to be built next to the gristmill, butting up against the flat wall. By doing this, the two mills would share the same raceway bringing water to drive the turbines. This is now believed to be the real reason for the flat wall. However, Crosby and Thompson were not able to secure an investor for the woolen mill and it was never built.

Other buildings in the new town of Motor were a cooperage where barrels for shipping corn meal and flour were made. Stone was laid for this building in 1869. There was an inn which featured ten rooms at which a farmer could stay overnight while awaiting his grain to be ground. It is believed to have been built in the early 1870’s.

There was also a barn and icehouse. A railroad was to have been built from Elkader to Motor and some references claim it came within 100 feet of the mill. The ties were laid but the line was not completed. In 1875, a flood damaged the project and it was abandoned.

In February, 1878, J. P. Dickinson left Motor, selling his share to Thompson. Crosby received notice of his departure by letter from H. Diers, who asked, “…whether I should close the mill or keep it open…”

Unforeseen problems arose with an invasion of cinch bugs in 1867, 1871 and 1887 that devastated the wheat crops. Farmers began to grow less wheat.From 1879 to l883, the mill was rented out to Gilbert Thompson and T. Ponsar. In August of 1883 it came to light that the Motor dam needed repairs, having large holes caused by flood water.By 1885, Thompson and Crosby were in disagreement with Thompson proposing to sell the mill and dissolve the partnership. By the 1890’s, most of the machinery and equipment had been removed.Motor saw a new and very different world after the 1903 sale of the buildings and land to the Klink family and it was a working farm until 1983.The cooperage was used for storing oats; the inn used as a farm house. The stable was converted to a dairy barn and the roof was raised to allow for hay storage. The icehouse was also used for grain storage. The mill itself had various uses, such as stabling horses on main floor, or grain storage. The 3rd, 4th and 6th floors were removed so that hay could be stored on the remaining floors.

In 1983, the Clayton County Conservation, with help from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, purchased the Motor Mill Historic Site including 100 acres of land. The purpose was to preserve and restore the buildings and to research the history of the site. In 1992, the Conservation Board was able to purchase an addition 55 acres of land adjoining the original 40 acres on the north side of the river. The original town site of Motor was included in this purchase.

 In the past, mills were not open to the public. Millers were protective of mill workings and techniques but since the Motor Mill Foundation of Clayton County was formed in 2004, the mill at Motor has been open on two weekends a month for tours during the summer months. The remaining dates for tours this season are August 18-19, September 1-3, 15-16, and 29-30. It is open from 9 – 5 on those Saturdays and 12-5 on Sundays with staff available for tours and to answer questions.The tour includes the mill, the related buildings and the town site. For more information call the Clayton County Conservation office at 563-245-1516.

You may get to Motor by turning from Iowa Highway 13 onto County Road C1X (Grape Road). Continue four miles until you have crossed three concrete bridges. At the top of a hill, take the first gravel road to the right (Galaxy). The Motor Mill Historic Site will be found three miles down Galaxy Road.    Read Part 3