Peeking Into Lake City's Past

Old Oxenford Mill Operated on the Raccoon

For many centuries, poets and song writers have romanticized the old mill streams, the miller's daughters and other antics of mills and mill streams. Even the lyrics of an ancient folk song, entitled The Old Oaken Bucket, describes: "the wide spreading pond and the mill that stood by it, the ridge and the rock where the cataract fell."

Yes, many folks experience a sensation of hypnotic romance when thinking about an old mill by a beautiful stream with its huge water wheel rolling over and over as water channeled through the mill-race flows over the cups causing it to rotate. You have cause to marvel at the simplicity of using nature's solar power to rotate the giant wheel outside the mill to energize the huge grinder inside the mill-barn that changes wheat and corn into flour and meal. You have even greater respect for the solar-wheel knowing it also furnishes energy to power a line-shaft that operates high speed circular saws for the purpose of converting native timber into dimension lumber for the use and benefit of hard-working pioneers.

For the sake of nostalgic romanticism, let's take a walk along the banks of the beautiful Raccoon on a balmy spring day. As we drink in the natural beauty of the landscape, timbered with native oak, maple, walnut, elm and ash, we continue on to the site of the old Oxenford Mill. With your good imagination, you may turn back the calendar and mentally become an early Lake City settler. You have just arrived at the mill with 12 sacks of choice shelled corn for John and Bill Oxenford to grind into meal so your family may eat delicious corn bread, corn meal, cooled cereal and elegant corn pancakes to be eaten with maple syrup you have made from sap drawn from maple trees on your homestead. Such wholesome foods will certainly satisfy ravenous appetites after a hard day's work.

Because Bill and John Oxenford have the only grist mill for many miles around, several other pioneers have arrived before you so now one must wait his turn to buy a grist. However, all is not lost because, before you left home you were aware that you might be delayed during this busy season, so you came prepared with your fishing gear. It is a beautiful day and your favorite fishing hole is about a mile above the dam, where man-sized catfish lay waiting beneath the shade of a huge elm tree that hovers over the deep pool where the big ones hibernate. You love and appreciate the Raccoon River because it is a much needed source of recreation, furs and food for your family.

While you are fishing, your mind wanders back to the spring of 1855 when Henry W. Smith, a brother to Peter and Christian, built the first mill here on the Raccoon about four miles south-west of Lake City. Before Henry Smith came to Lake City, he had been engaged in the mercantile business at Cassopolis, Michigan. The frame timbers of the mill and materials for the water wheel were hewn from native timber. The heavy machinery was hauled to Calhoun County from Des Moines with ox teams. This was the first mill in the county and for a number of years it was the only milling facility for settlers over a very large territory. Later, a sawmill was added to the equipment and lumber for the first wood-frame home in Calhoun County was processed by the new mill.

When Henry Smith invested his capital in the new milling enterprise, like most entrepreneurs he entailed a risk of loosing his money. At first, things ran smoothly and Henry's economic world looked bright, but not for long. In the spring of 1856, disaster struck. When the extra heavy snow cover melted followed by heavy rains, this area experienced one of the most devastating floods on record. The high water and torrential river current swept the mill-barn along with about 1,000 bushels of wheat down the river to the Gulf of Mexico. Of course, Henry had no insurance in 1856.

However, Henry Smith, like his brothers, was considered to be financially well-to-do, by pioneer standards. He willingly sustained his loss and began immediate construction activity to re-build a mill much nicer than the one swept down the river. He purchased all new factory built machinery, which included a giant water wheel. While hauling the new machinery between Glidden and the installation site in the wet summer of 1856, the wagon bearing the mighty water wheel was swamped in a slough, being stuck there for 1 months until the ground dried enough to extricate the heavily loaded wagon from its mired predicament.

Two years later, in 1858, Henry Smith sold the mill to his brother Christian and a partner named Wm. (Bill) Oxenford. A short time thereafter, Smith decided to get out of the milling business and sold his interest to Mr. John Oxenford who became a full partner to his brother Bill Oxenford. Thereafter, the enterprise became known as Oxenford's Mill.

Historical records tell us that by the year 1875 Iowa had become the second highest wheat producing state in the Union, producing over 44 million bushels. When the first pioneer farmers came here in the early eighteen fifty's, their obvious first role was sustenance farming. But, even homemade bread requires grain to be ground. Luckily the early settlers brought coffee grinders that served the purpose until mills could be established.

In due time, mills were established on Iowa's rivers and streams, of which the Oxenford Mill, built in 1855, was one of the first constructed in the northwestern quarter of Iowa. Many stories were written telling about farmers' arduous trips with their grain filled wagons and carts to the closest mill by the river where grain could be ground into flour. Often upon arrival a farmer would find himself at the end of a long waiting line. In fact, millers often built a boarding house to accommodate waiting farmers. It has been said that the early farmers who were forced to wait at Oxenford's mill often stayed at one of the three stage coach hotels in this area until they could purchase a grist.

Like many other mills of that day, Oxenford's was at its height of operation during the decade of the 1880's. By 1890 the decline of most Iowa mills began. Some historians attribute the decline to fires, floods, rust, cinch bugs, grasshoppers and the statewide conversion to corn production. By the decade of the 1890's Iowa had become a land of corn, cattle and hogs.

Modern steam powered transportation brought commercially milled flour to local stores where farmers traded milk, butter and eggs for staple groceries he previously produced. Thus, the end of an era dependent on stagecoaches and water powered grist and saw mills. This was the time in history when the Industrial Revolution began, progressed beyond imagination of mankind and led the world into the electronic and space age.