HISTORY OF WATKINS MILL STATE PARK
Abridged from the book
"From Entry Fee to 'Fifty-Three"
by Ruth Bogart Roney
The Watkins Mill is a half mile northwest of the main stem of William's Creek, and only a short distance frm the old stage line that once ran between Richmond and Plattsburg. The beginning of the Watkins holdings, however, pre-date the opening of the stage line by some years.
Waltus L. Watkins was a Kentuckian. He came to Clay county in the late 20's or early 30's and stopped for a time in Liberty. Settling later in the deep woods of northeast Washington township -- or what later became that -- he built a log cabin for his family, much like those of his neighbors. Through the late 30's and into the 40's and 50's, he operated a saw mill and grist mill on his first acreage, and during this time entered more land. At one time his holdings included all the area between his home site and considerably beyond the land now occupied by Lawson.
In 1845, Watkins started building his permanent homestead, facing it east, on a slight rise. He built it of brick that he burned along with his mortar, right on the land. All the timbers, including the walnut trim throughout the interior, were also sawed and planed at his mill. Only the bubbly old glass in the many paned windows, and the hardware on the doors were alien to the soil the house stands on. Two Ohio journeymen carpenters who built it made a trip back to their home for more training before starting the construction of the center, winding staircase. The house was finished in every detail by 1851.
Having material left over, Watkins built an octagonal shaped, two room brick school house on a higher rise a half mile south of his new house, in 1852. It was used by the whole community for many years, and then enjoyed a period of further usefulness as a private dwelling. Still standing, the school house has been renovated and can be visited by the public.
In 1859, Watkins began the construction of a three-story brick woolen mill. The first of its kind west of the Mississippi, it faced west, a short distance northeast of the house. This building, like the previous ones, was put up with slave labor. But the first mill hands were brought in from the east. Experienced workers who had learned their trade in the woolen mills of Philadelphia, they may even have come up the river in the very boat that brought the spinning and weaving equipment they were to operate. It, too, came from Philadelphia, and was brought overland to the mill with ox power. So was the mill's great boiler, once it was salvaged from the river bed below today's Missouri City; part of a steamboat that had come to grief in the great river's treacherous channel. Water for the steam power came from an 80-foot well at a back corner of the mill, and from three ponds that were built across a draw that runs between the mill and that one time stage line. Beyond that draw, too, were the workers' cabins.
The Watkins mill is said to have opened for business on the day Fort Sumter was fired on. It was raided a few times during the following years but managed to keep going throughout, though in reduced fashion. Local trade at the mill ran to a $100 a day in a peak season, and into the thousands, further afield. Carding was brought from as far as Tennessee, and finished goods were sent by ox cart as far west as Denver.
Three Watkins sons were associated with the mill, continuing the operation after their father's death, in 1884. They closed in down in the middle '90s when such enterprises began to lose ground throughout the country. The mill remained locked for some time, however, tours were conducted through it during festivities on the place, and for a short time it was open to the public at a nominal sum. The latter practice almost ceased after Miss Carrie, the eldest of the Watkins children, went west to live near a niece. Many of the Watkins family are buried in the family plot, a short distance south of the house.
Mt. Vernon church stands on Watkins land, too, a little northeast of the old octagonal school house. It was organized in 1854, with Watkins as a charter member. He furnished two thirds of the cost of the present brick building, erected in 1871. It is still one of the most beautiful examples of such masonry to be found in the Lawson community.