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Wildcat Den State Park, Muscatine County, Iowa


In 1848, Muscatine County's first European-American permanent settler, Benjamin Nye, built this structure -- the Pine Creek Grist Mill.  It stands today as one of the most pristine examples of 19th century mills in the entire country.

Well, that's what makes this mill unique is of those 500 grist mills that existed in the 1870s, this is one of the lone survivors.  There's only like ten or fifteen mill buildings still standing in Iowa.  This is the only one that has all of its machinery in tact and actually functions.

Unfortunately, Benjamin Nye didn't enjoy his success for very long.  He was killed in a confrontation with his son-in-law who years earlier had eloped with his fifteen year old daughter.  After Nye's death, the mill passed through many hands and challenges.  

It remains the centerpiece of Wildcat Den State Park nestled along the Mississippi River north of Muscatine.  Park relic, part museum, the grist mill is a living, breathing, chugging trip back in time.  

When Benjamin Nye first built this mill 150 years ago, Iowa was a fledgling state. The structure has weathered historic flooding, the endless encroachment of a natural environment and the threat of fire, which has doomed thousands of similar structures over the past century.  In 1883, floodwaters nearly doomed the mill, blasting away a side wall and scattering bags of flour all the way to the Mississippi River.  110 years later, Iowa's historic floods of 1993 nearly toppled the grist mill again.  But it still stands.  How has this structure survived?  A little luck and tremendous effort from the volunteer army, the Friends of the Pine Creek Grist Mill.

Somewhat over 50,000 hours of volunteer help went into this project.  It could be people working in restoration.  It could be people like our treasurer, our secretary, interpretive people.

We had been told by the experts that the mill was beyond restoration, that it could not -- the machinery could not be made to run and it was impossible. And not being experts or knowing how to do this, we went ahead and did it anyway.

Preservation is one task.  Renovating an 150 year old mill into pristine working order is an entirely different task.  Volunteers have tediously repaired belts, shafts and anything else requiring a tune up after a century and a half of corn meal and elbow grease.  

That's the flour from the millstones.  It's not quite whole wheat, not quite pure white.

A lot of the technology has been lost so what we've had to do is recreate it.  One of our biggest issues is power transmission, you know, because this place is powered by flat belts and wooden pulleys and steel line shafts and that is a technology which disappeared over a century ago in America.  So you have to rediscover all the little subtle tricks that are involved in it and you have to rediscover how people adjusted these machines and how they spliced belts and you have to document it all so that once you gain that knowledge it's not lost.

This is the corn grinding part of the mill. The millers take the corn, throw it into a hole which sends the corn downstairs into the sheller. Once the corn is shelled, the kernels come here to the roller mill where it gets ground up and gets sent upstairs for the next part of the journey.

Upstairs the ground corn is run through a bolter which sifts it and then sends it back down here where it comes out as corn meal.  

You get together and you decide which is the best way.  You try it.  If it doesn't work you go to plan B and maybe plan C.  But we usually end up making them work.  And it's really kind of neat to see the end result when you can see something working that hasn't worked for many, many years.

In the late 1800s the Rod Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio was well known for a design known as the pin connected Pratt through truss.  And while that structure type was once common in Iowa, this Pine Mill Bridge is the only remaining site in our state where the relationship of original mill and bridge is preserved.

Wildcat Den State Park is a lot more than historic structures.  Trails encompass a wide swath of the park.

Hikers can experience spectacular views and a variety of terrains on trails such as Steamboat Rock and Fat Man’s Squeeze.

From a leisurely stroll through the valleys of Wildcat Den, to the hillsides above, this eastern Iowa gem may be off the beaten path but it's a journey worth taking on the trails or back in time.

Definitely we all feel pride in the fact that we have this thing back and working again.  I was just thinking of what my wife said one time for Heritage Day and all the windows and the doors were open and she looked up at that and said, the mill is smiling again.  So that's kind of neat.

Beside the mill at Wildcat Den State Park, you'll also find the Mill Pine Schoolhouse, built in 1877.  Education has always been important to Iowans.  And if you look on the back of an Iowa quarter, you'll find a one-room schoolhouse, much like this one.  On the quarter is the slogan, foundation in education.  If you look closer, you'll see the school teacher is planting a tree with her students, a nod to the need to educate young people on the importance of nurturing the state's natural resources.


Tags: flour mills grist mills Iowa mills rivers state parks tourism travel Wildcat Den State Park