IAGenWeb Project - Clayton co.
updated 03/12/2020

Clayton co. Landmark

Motor Mill on the Turkey River

Old Mill on the Turkey River

This photo of Motor Mill was on the front of an old notepad that my grandmother (who lived in Elkader), sent to my mother in the 1960's..... Paul Moritz (deceased)


Motor on the Turkey River - undated
Motor Mill
Photo by L.A. Zearley, Garber, Iowa - undated

~contributed by Michael F. O'Brien from his personal collection


Huge Limestone Mill, Built in 1869, Deserted

Fifty-nine years ago a man spent $90,000 to establish what he visioned as a thriving little city.

Today all that remains to tell the story of his expeditures is a seven story mill and a two story cooperage, both built of limestone and so perfectly constructed that they will stand as long as the adjacent cliffs from which the stone was quarried.

These buildings were built for Jack Thompson, pioneer of Elkader, and are located on the east bank of the Turkey river in the center of Clayton county. They are all that is left of Motor, as the town was named.

In early days, the settlement contained several stores and had the railroad been finished as planned, Motor probably would have been a real town and Elkader but a settlement.

Natures forces took a deciding hand in the destinies of this promising town and decreed it can't stand. Floods washed [illegible] on the narrow guage [illegible] had been built [illegible] The [illegible] miles of Motor. It invited extension of the tracks from McGregor to Elkader.

Chinch bugs came in hordes and made the growing of wheat an impossibility. When there was no wheat to grind in the vicinity, and no railroad to bring it in from other sections, the mill with its thousands of dollars worth of machinery was idle. In a little more than twenty years, the entire property was sold for $12,000 and the valuable machinery torn out and sold as junk.

The limestone for the buildings was quarried from the hills above the river. A double track was laid. A drum at the top of the hill over which a cable ran, operated two cars that carried the stone down to the masons. The weight of a full car going down drew the empty one up to the quarry.

A dam was built and a fifty foot flume carried the water down into the basement of the mill, where it turned the huge water wheel.

The lower halves of the four large limestone burrs are still in their original positions on the floor of the third story. Oats, rye and barley were ground for stock feed, corn was turned into meal, buckwheat ground for pancake flour, and wheat was milled into bread and pastry flour.

Perhaps the "jinx" that attends the proverbial black cat may have had something to do with the failure of the enterprise. A black cat on the window ledge in the top story. One day a small boy climbed the stairs to this window and pushed the cat off, down into the mill race. Like most "kids," he was sorry the next instand and started on the run down those six flights, hoping he could get the cat out of that swift running water. Half way down, he met a very damp cat coming up, on her way to her favorite place to dry her fur and cogitate on the ways of small boys.

An incident that came near being fatal, occurred during the building of this mill. There came a day when Thompson was unable to pay his laborers their weekly wages. They threatened to hang him if he didn't come across, and the scene was all set for the hanging. Thompson told them they would have to go ahead and string him up, for he could not produce the money.

The noose was slipped over his head and the end of the rope thrown over a tree limb when a man from a neighboring community drove rapidly up, grabbed Thompson by the collar and carried him away to safety.

Another incident happened in the early days of this mill that gave rise to a saying that is prevalent even today over all that section, including Garber, Elkader, Elkport, Communia and Littleport. Thompson owned many horses and colts that ran loose and watered at the river. Across the Turkey, which is about eighty feet wide at that point, a spring of cold water poured out from the hillside. One colt swam the river every day to drink this cold water. This occasioned the expression, "As foolish as Thompson's colt."

After the ties and rails for the railroad where all washed awy and all hope was abandoned that the road would ever be rebuilt, all the farmers around Motor used the road bed as a wagon and sled road, over which to haul their wood to the Elkader market. It was just wide enough for a team and sled, but not wide enough for two teams to pass. To avoid any such possible meeting, it was agreed that no one should leave Motor for Elkader after 12 o'clock and those in Elkader should not leave home before noon.

~Clayton County Register, Thursday, December 6, 1928 ~transcribed by S. Ferrall (March 2020)


Motor Mill - ca 1998
Motor Mill ca 1998
The bridge is now gone*, but the rock piers still exist.  The building is very stable.

~contributed by Alan F. E. Thiese from his personal collection

*update: the bridge was rebuilt in late 2012


Two other photos of Motor Mill are in the NE Iowa Hills Pictoral Directory on page 2 & page 4.


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