By Joann M. Ringelstetter
On April 28, 1868, according to an entry in the journal of James O. Crosby, a cable car containing 3-5 tons of quarried limestone creaked and bounced along a set of wooden rails as it was lowered from the top of the bluff to the banks of the Turkey River. As it moved slowly down the side of the bluff, an empty cable car was pulled back up to the top.
Crosby was an attorney and surveyor who platted the once-thriving town of Motor in the northeast corner of Iowa, along with starting a school and attempting to establish a post office. He was also a quarter owner of a six-story limestone grist/flour mill, known as Motor Mill, and a construction engineer during the building of the mill.
The mill was built beside the Turkey River with the limestone that was quarried on top of the bluff. German stonemasons were hired from surrounding towns to dress the stones, cutting them into suitable sizes and surfaces. Then the stones were layered to create foundation walls that were five feet thick. Locally harvested oak trees were used to create enormous support beams. When the walls were complete, they towered 90 feet above the banks of the river.
Operations began at the mill in the fall of 1869. They ground barley, oats, and rye for livestock feed, corn for cornmeal, and wheat for flour. Motor Mill was soon very successful, so other buildings were built to support this thriving business. A limestone cooperage was built near the mill where wooden barrels were made to store and ship flour and corn meal.
A limestone inn was built, just down the road from the mill. It was used by travelers and workers. It also served farmers who came to have their grain ground at the mill.
Next to the inn, a stone livery stable was built to care for the horses of the people staying at the inn.
On the other side of the inn, a limestone ice house was built to store ice blocks that were harvested each winter from the Turkey River. The ice blocks were used in the warmer months to refrigerate food.
In 1899, a Pratt Through Truss steel bridge was built across the Turkey River between the mill and the cooperage. It replaced the original high-sided wooden bridge that was built in 1868.
Despite the booming start to this historic mill and the town of Motor, the mill closed after only 14 years of operation. The closure was caused by several catastrophic events. Cinch bugs and droughts destroyed local wheat crops. Farmers began switching from wheat to corn, cattle, and hogs. The construction of a narrow-gauge railroad, which would have eased the transportation of raw materials and products, was never completed due to flooding, which also damaged the dam. And, worst of all, there was friction and disagreement among the mill owners.
In 1903, the Motor Mill property and buildings were purchased by the Louis Klink family, who converted it to a farm. They removed the milling equipment and some of the flooring to make room for the storage of hay. The other buildings were also used to store hay and grain. And for a while, draft horses were stabled on the first floor of the mill.
Eventually, the livery stable was modified to serve as a dairy barn. For 80 years, the Klink family farmed the Motor Mill site. In 1977, recognizing the historical significance of the site, they nominated it for the National Register of Historic Places. In 1983, the Klink family sold the buildings and 100 acres to Clayton County. In 1992, the county acquired another 55 acres.
In 2004, the Motor Mill Foundation was created, with a mission “to protect and preserve the architectural integrity, history, natural beauty and serenity of the Motor Mill site and its surroundings.” Motor Mill Historic Site is open year-round. However, the buildings are open only for tours and special events.
In the fall of 2019, Motor Mill Historic Site celebrated its 150th anniversary. If you ever get the chance to visit, you won’t be disappointed!
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