State’s historic grist mills take you back in time…
These were not your run-of-the-mill businesses. The grist mills that flourished along Wisconsin’s waterways from the mid 19th century through the early 20th century were the linchpin of farming communities. Using the power of flowing water to turn huge stones, grist mills turned farmers’ wheat into meal and flour. They were key to the state’s economy of the time.
In addition, grist mills often served a less tangible, but no less important, purpose. In a time when rural dwellers didn’t see much of each other, these mills were places where people regularly gathered. The local mill often became the social hub, where farm families came to get their grain ground, but also to catch up on the news of the day.
With the advent of steam power in the late 1800s and electricity a little later, grain production was no longer tied to a water source, and the old grist mills were slowly abandoned for more modern facilities concentrated closer to cities. Many of the old mills fell into disrepair and were dismantled.
Not all, however. Some of these historic grist mills have not only survived, but have been carefully preserved and still stand today. A small number of mills dot Wisconsin’s rural landscape, some of them within or nearby electric cooperative territories. At most of them, the water wheel—if it exists at all—now serves as decoration only. Some mills have been repurposed for new uses, others serve as museums and are open for tours, while still others stand simply as testament to a past time, luring photographers with their rustic architecture and bucolic settings.
If your next drive through rural Wisconsin puts you in the vicinity of one of the state’s old grist mills, we recommend you stop and mill around for a bit. Here are a few of our favorites:
Located along Coon Creek on Rock Energy Cooperative’s lines just outside of Beloit, Beckman Mill is one of the only working grist mills left in the state. Its original millstones and water-driven turbine can still produce fine cornmeal, and during non-pandemic times corn-grinding demonstrations are held here on the first Saturday of the month from May through October.
Built in 1868, the mill operated until 1954. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and sold a year later by the Beckman family to Rock County. The Beckmans’ 10-acre mill property was joined with adjacent parkland with the idea of preserving the mill facilities for their historic value. An 18-year restoration project followed, with volunteers from the Friends of Beckman Mill completing restoration of the mill in 1997. After that, focus turned to restoring the concrete dam.
Today, the mill is the showpiece of the 50-acre Beckman Mill County Park, which also includes an 1840s cooperage and a visitor center patterned after an historic creamery that was once on the site. The visitor center also houses a blacksmith display, a creamery display, and a gift shop. Other park features include a covered footbridge linking the two sides of Coon Creek; the mill pond, a popular place for fishing; a fish ladder that was built at the dam when it was restored; a spacious picnic area with a covered pavilion; and walking trails through woods, wetlands, and an oak savanna.
The park grounds are open to the public year-round. Typically, guided tours of the mill are available on Saturdays and Sundays from May through October, but tours are on hold due to COVID and will resume when it is deemed safe to do so. Special events—the annual Ice Cream Social and Artists in the Park, set for July 18, and Heritage Sunday, planned for September 12—are still scheduled to proceed; watch the website or call for updates.
Beckman Mill Park is located at 11600 So. County Road H, Beloit, WI 53511. For more information, visit beckmanmill.org or call 608-751-1551.
Just outside of Augusta, in the area served by Eau Claire Energy Cooperative, is Dells Mill, known to be one of the most photographed places in Wisconsin. The original portion of the mill is a five-level clapboard structure rising above Bridge Creek. It was built in 1864, with the mill in operation by the following year. The mill operated with a water-driven turbine; the water wheel was added much later for aesthetic purposes.
Through various additions, including a two-story wing added in 1902, and several adjustments as the mill diversified over the years to accommodate different kinds of grain, the mill operated continuously until 1968, when it was converted to a museum. Many of the mill’s original equipment is on display inside. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
An extensive restoration of the dam—an effort that drew community support—was completed in 2018. Restoration of the mill itself is ongoing, with an eye toward making the mill operational once again.
The mill is open for tours on Fridays and Saturdays from May through October. Inside, visitors will also find a collection of unique items for sale, including handcrafted furniture, home décor, and rugs; antiques; and homemade food items.
Even when it’s closed, however, Dells Mill is worth a stop for the view alone, and a chance to hear the water roar as it whooshes over the spillway from the millpond. Taking photos requires some caution as highway traffic runs close to the bridge that offers the best view. Those who do wish to stop and take photos are asked to contribute a couple of dollars in a courtesy drop box, which goes toward the historic structure’s upkeep.
Dells Mill is located at E18855 County Road V, Augusta. For more information visit augustawi.com or call 715-286-2714.
Just south of Waupaca, close to the area served by Central Wisconsin Electric Cooperative, is the Red Mill, an 1855 grist mill that operated as the Crystal River Mill for more than 100 years, closing in 1959.
The original 2.5-story mill still stands, and from the beautiful river view it retains much of its original look, although the water wheel has been removed for renovation.
However, that’s where the facility’s similarity to its original purpose ends.
The mill was given new life as the Red Mill, a charming mix of gift shop, old-fashioned ice cream parlor, and wedding venue. The building houses several rooms of eclectic gift items as well as an old-time candy store. At one end of the building is a coffee and ice cream shop, where the menu includes a selection of grilled sandwiches, soup, and specialty beverages.
Out back, the property has a park-like atmosphere, with gardens, walking paths, and a quaint red covered bridge crossing the Crystal River to the lovely little Chapel in the Woods, a popular site for intimate weddings. There are picnic tables and benches situated throughout—perfect places to sit and enjoy a sandwich or ice cream treat from the parlor/café inside.
As you sit alongside the river and enjoy a moment of quiet, you might see kayakers or canoeists pass through, having accessed the river at the adjacent half-acre Nelson Park. This little park also has plenty of picnic tables, grills, and a footbridge to a small island.
The Red Mill is located at N2190 County Road K, Waupaca, WI 54981. For more information, visit visitwaupacachainolakes.com or call 715-258-7385.
Near the Iowa County community of Ridgeway, not far from Scenic Rivers Energy Cooperative territory, is Hyde’s Mill, built alongside Mill Creek.
This mill was built in 1850 by William Hyde, who settled the unincorporated community of Hyde just north of Ridgeway.
The mill burned down in 1870 and was rebuilt by Ted Sawle at its original site next to an 1850s stone dam.
The property has since changed hands and is privately owned; the mill itself is fenced off from visitors and surrounded by No Trespassing signs. The protected setting is no doubt best for the fragile-looking structure, but fortunately for the many photographers who seek it out, the mill can be safely and respectfully enjoyed from behind the fence. There’s a small area to pull in and park, with ample room to take in the sights and sounds of the historic scene.
History buffs would also enjoy exploring a little farther into the Hyde community. A short drive down scenic Highway H from the mill will take you past a tavern that once served as the Hyde Valley General Store. Farther south is the historic Hyde Blacksmith Shop, painstakingly moved to this site from its original location down the road in 2000. Highway H also runs along an old stagecoach route.
Hyde’s Mill is located at 6875 Mill Road, Ridgeway, 53582.
Step back in time with a stop at one of these historic grist mills. We can assure you it won’t be a run-of-the-mill experience.—Mary Erickson