The restoration resulting in the current structure was the inspiration of Bill Cameron, an Irish immigrant with an especially colorful and varied history. As a youngster he ran away from Ireland to Scotland, where he was regarded as “dirty Irish”. He ended up serving in WW I in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, wounded three times in France. In 1923, at age 25, Bill arrived in the US and began a sales career in St. Louis. Most of his efforts were in the milling trade; belts, machinery, and supplies. After WWII, Bill married and started his own feed mill in Exeter, MO.
His bride, Letha, was his connection to Britain Mill. She spent a few months at the mill with Alva Britain and his wife after her mother died when she was four years old. Bill later wrote that her memory of that time was one of the fondest of her life. Cameron convinced Wash Britain to lease him a portion of the land in order to construct the restored building as a memorial to Letha.
A sketch of Cameron’s original concept shows a more complicated structure that which finally evolved.
Without much money with which to work, he used his wit and salesmanship to enlist volunteers and contributions of materials to his enterprise. Personal accounts from his helpers confirm that Bill put in many, many hours himself in every phase of the construction, even at his advanced age. He was 80 years old before the construction was completed.
The sketch above depicts the mill site today. In this view it is apparent that the original mill was not located where the existing structure stands.
The “original wheel well” is framed by stonewalls which probably formed part of the old mill’s foundation. The wall terminates at the concrete turbine pit, which was built later. Indeed the old wall is very nearly in line with the front foundation of the existing structure. One could be the continuation of the other, having been extended when the Likins family expanded the mill in 1892.
Bill Cameron had a vision of operating the mill for profit eventually. His intent was to sell “naturally grown meal”. He apparently was able to drive a horizontal mill and a side grinder using electric motors, but the waterpower was never restored.
A nephew of the Britains was permitted to attempt to restore the broken dam. By contemporary accounts the nephew was less than qualified and a lot of wet concrete washed down Turnback Creek. Whether for lack of waterpower, other conflicts with Wash Britain, or the lack of a niche market, Cameron abandoned the commercial effort shortly after completing the restoration.
After the restoration project, the property passed to heirs of Wesley Britain and eventually to Marvin and Bonnie Boyd, in 1981. Marvin was a cabinetmaker and used the old house as his shop. There is some evidence that he may have used the mill office also. Other than possibly installing a plywood ceiling and insulation and security screens on the windows in the mill office, the Boyds apparently did not make any repairs or modifications to the mill.
In 1988, the property sold to Vivian Boswell, an artist specializing in botanical painting. Besides a significant renovation of the living quarters across the road from the mill, she restored the dam. In early 1993, the water began flowing over the new spillway. Four months later a five-hundred-year flood washed away all of her efforts, making the dam useless again.
This flood reportedly reached nearly to the eaves of the current mill structure and may have briefly risen above the SR 96 bridge just downstream. The flood silt was largely removed from the mill eventually and a new roof over the lean-to office was added. The roof was installed above the original roof, so that both are still in place today.
In 2002 the property transferred to the current owners, Clyde & Janet Beal. In early 2004 a project was initiated to renovate the mill and equipment to an operable state.
A project manager was engaged to provide technical consultation and construction skills for the rehabilitation. Harold Sullins, of Lickin, MO, agreed to help, using his knowledge of mill operation and maintenance acquired as an employee at the Montauk State Park, Salem, MO.
The project goal was to restore the operations sufficiently to demonstrate to selected visitors how a custom mill might operate in the mid-19th century in the Ozarks. Initially, the existing equipment was cleaned and restored. The bran duster was fitted with screens for corn meal and grits to serve as a sifter. The restoration of waterpower was deferred for a later time, so plans for electrically powered equipment were made.
A new beam at the rear of the mill was installed on which a line shaft was mounted. A motor in the overhead now powers the shaft. The new line shaft drives flat-belt pulleys for an elevator and sifter. Two elevators from a large feed mill were donated from which came the single unit that serves the Meadow Mills grinder and the modified B&L sifter with a newly constructed chute.
The structure has been repaired with new shingles, office flooring, and windows. Additional lighting was installed in the main structure. Artifacts have been labeled and mounted inside the mill and a modest picture collection of the mill’s history displayed.
Outside, the sluice was dredged of accumulated silt, fences mended, and trees pruned. The site of the original water wheel has been excavated.
The restored mill is once again ready for inspection for those interested in early Ozark settlements. It provides a hint of some of our history long past.
Its conditions are certainly not as it would have been in the mid-19th Century. With eighteen-wheelers thundering on nearby SR 96, electric lights and motors, and the absence of the rumble of large grinding stones, it can scarcely be a true representation.
However, with a little imagination one can get the sense of some of the challenges of early mills and the ingenuity employed by their operators to overcome them. Sometimes, if you listen carefully, you can imagine hearing the spinning of yarns on the old loading dock, as the millrace gurgles nearby.