What do you get when you combine an old water mill, shut-ins (the rocks, not the people) and a tragedy? You get the historical and unique Klepzig Mill, located in Shannon County, Mo, on Rocky Creek.
In the book, “Historic Ozarks Mills,” by Mike McCarthy, he noted, “Klepzig Mill in Missouri’s Shannon County is one of the most remote old mills in the nation, tucked away in a ‘shut-ins.’”
In 1912, Walter Klepzig bought the farm site that included a log cabin and flood remains of a mill. He began improvements on the site, and according to the web resource Clio, “Klepzig built barbed and woven wire fences, purchased refined breeds of milk cows, and took advantage of outside marketing opportunities such as shipping cream to Beatrice, Nebraska, for processing.” In 1928, he built the mill.
He ground corn and sawed logs at this site. Like other millers, Kelpzig exercised his muscles and his mind to bring in more work and to serve his community. The logs he sawed went for his and his neighbor’s sawmill houses. According to the National Park Service website that features the Klepzig story, a sawmill house is described as “a building type that tended to replace log construction after the arrival of sawmills in a locale. A sawmill house could be erected quickly and by only one or two people. Instead of stud-wall framing, vertical planks were nailed to a hand-hewn sill at the bottom and a sawn two-by-four plate at the top. The resulting wall panels, fabricated flat on the ground, were then raised into place. Battens might then be added to cover the seams. Foundations were often piers of uncut and unmortared native stone.” Klepzig didn’t stop at supplying wood for homes, he also “routinely saved ‘good boards’” for coffins.
People came from a 10-mile radius to grind their corn at this mill. History also reports that Klepzig showed compassion to those who could not afford to pay for their corn to be ground, and gave them free service. He also figured out how to harness the energy from the mill to run electricity to his farmstead.
According to Clio, the Klepzig Mill existed from about 1912 to 1934, during the “second of three instrumental periods of growth for the Southeast Missouri Ozarks referred to as the ‘New South Ozarks.’” In fact, Clio supports my theory that Klepzig practiced advanced business practices as a forward-thinker regarding technology and meeting the needs of the community. The record shows that Klepzig owned the mill for 20 years, and throughout that time, he continued to improve its function – by upgrading the mill stones and adding a modern turbine to replace the mill’s water wheel. Because of the prosperity of the mill, the Klepzig family purportedly owned the first radio in this area.
Klepzig sold the mill in 1931 to A.C. Brandt, an electrical equipment supplier from St. Louis. Brandt also made improvements to the mill site, but his ownership was during the period that saw a decline in the popularity of mills such as these small ones. Brandt did what many other mill owners turned to during this period – making the site attractive to anglers, hunters and recreationalists.
The mill is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Many Missourians are familiar with shut-ins, namely Johnson’s Shut-Ins and Rocky Falls Shut-Ins. According to Thomas R. Beveridge, in his book titled “Geologic Wonders and Curiosities of Missouri,” the term “shut-in” came from Appalachia and means gorge. When settlers from Appalachia came to the Ozarks, they applied this word combination to describe a stream that cuts through and between igneous rocks. Usually, valleys located above and below a set of shut-ins are wider than the shut-in. For some reason, a stream in a shut-in takes the more difficult route over the rocks, rather than the easier method of cutting itself a channel around the rocks.
The mill sits alongside Rocky Creek at Mill Mountain Shut-ins, which are part of the National Scenic Riverways, east of Eminence, Missouri. When you visit this site, you can see the power of water. It’s easy to imagine an entrepreneur, such as Klepzig, looking at the shut-ins and thinking, “I could use that water power.” The creek gets narrower here, as shut-ins do, making the creek easier for Klepzig to harness, and the force from the drop in elevation of the water through the shut-ins naturally supplied power to turn water wheels and later, turbines. Concrete pieces of the raceway still stand, along with some of the original weir.
Even if people don’t know about these shut-ins, if they hike along the Klepzig Mill Trail, part of The Ozark Trail (more than 390 miles), they will wander by this historic building. We saw a few hikers on the winter day that we visited the site.
According to McCarthy, during the operational years of the mill a child slipped and fell down the turbine shaft and died. McCarthy wrote, “I was told by one of the Klepzig descendants that it [the mill] really never recovered after the accident.”
Getting to Klepzig Mill
Driving: To get there, From Winona, Mo, go 10 miles northeast on Highway H, then turn right on Highway NN. Go 5 miles to the pavement end (which is past the right turn for Rocky Falls Shut-ins), then turn left on County Road NN522, a gravel road. Go 1.1 miles to the mill, which will be on the right, and is partly obscured by trees. The road is dirt and not well maintained, and may be difficult for low-clearance vehicles.
Hiking: The Klepzig Mill Trail is a 6-mile out-and-back hike that starts at Rocky Falls and traverses to the north on the aforementioned Ozark Trail. It passes through Buzzard Mountain and ends at Klepzig Mill and Rocky Creek.
Visit the Klepzig Mill on the National Park Service website.