Where was this old mill, and what happened there?

The Story of Impassable Riverdale


So, here’s my 1971 photo...

...and here’s the same place in 2015

All I knew at the time was that the area south of Springfield (and the campus of Southwest Missouri State college) was full of interesting subjects, and for a photography student looking to capture the texture and mystery of dilapidated remains, it was a field of treasure.  All across this often buggy and humid land there was not only an abundance of beautiful natural scenery, but quite a few remains of abandoned human activity - links to times prior to 1971 when families and settlements were remote and self-sufficient.

At the time, I did not have the time to consider the history and stories connected to these places.  The photography technology I was learning required mastering a tedious and time-gobbling process involving unnatural chemicals and stubborn equipment to produce a final print (digital back then meant fingers) and the class critiques for grade were coming up next week!  Besides, there was a kegger later, so who had time?  I shall return - someday, I thought.

Some photos have a haunting effect that seems to grow over time.  The old mill photos I took so many years ago, which often also show my old ’49 Ford and an old friend, keep reappearing both in my mind and in the surviving prints and negatives from those, my happy student days.  These photos have such a nice mix of nostalgia and vulgar decadence that escaped me back then. So recently I had the thought to try and find the actual location and history of this old mill, and what I have found so far is compiled and presented here on this page - enjoy.

A search eventually revealed the name and exact location of the old mill in my 1971 photos.  The location is Section 36, Township 27 N, Range 22 W (36*59’43.64”N 93*17’21.57W) in Christian County, Missouri, where there now is a small hydroelectric power plant located on the old mill site.  The old iron bridge is gone, but the dam and bluffs on the west side of the Finley river are still there.  Further research reveled that a 3-story flour mill was also once there, surrounded by a thriving community.  Also discovered was a video production on the history of Riverdale that includes an excellent  presentation by local historian and area native Wayne Glenn. 

On Sunday, October 17, 1982 the Riverdale Hydroelectric Plant was dedicated. Five-hundred friends, neighbors, engineers, executives and a United States congressman gather together to recognize and pay a tribute to the vision and drive of Dr. Turner.       [next 4 photo source: 2]

Many small communities, with rich historic pasts, are located throughout the Ozarks. From time to time, and for a variety of reasons, some of these communities disappear - still they continue to exist through their historical significance and often a nostalgic popularity with area residents. One of these is the former community of Riverdale in Christian County, Missouri.

Riverdale Mill operators before the bridge (1906)

  1. Benjamin Hooton - c1843-1857

  2. Alexander Clapp - 1857-1881

  3. Homer Gilmore  - 1881-1902

Mill operators after the bridge (1906)

  1. David Walker family - 1902

  2. Chapman Water Mill Co - 1906-1915

  3. John Gardner family - 1915-1943

The 3-story mill built around 1890.  The mill burned to the ground around 1926.  Soon after the fire, there was a devastating flood. (This photo between 1915 and 1925 based on truck).

Interior of the Riverdale Mill around 1902   [source: 3]

...and this is how it looked in 1971 through my camera.

Click here for Wayne Glenn’s audio transcript of the Riverdale history portion from OzarksWatch Video Magazine (aired 1/20/2010) with host Jim Baker.

Around 1880 Homer Gilmore bought the Riverdale property and built a grocery store and post office building.  Because the post office was established, by 1892 the official name of record for the community became ‘Riverdale’.

The photo to left shows concrete dam in front of the old wooden timber dam in the mill pond around 1906.

Grist Mill

Around 1930 and after the Riverdale flour mill burned, the Gardners built a much smaller grist mill to grind feed to sell to area farmers. Along with the mill he put in a dynamo to provide the luxury of electricity for the local Riverdalians.

This photo from the Dr. Glenn Turner family archives shows the dilapidated remains of the grist mill looking toward the east bank of the creek.  Within a few years of this photo, Dr. Turner began the extensive project to clean up and redevelop the site into a hydroelectric power plant, restoring and reinstalling the old turbine visible right of center.

The west-side approach to the old bridge around 2003 - just prior to removal.  You can see the old grocery/post office building just to the right of the bridge on the east side of the river.

My photo of the east-side approach to the old bridge in 1971

The grocery/post office building built by Homer Gilmore around 1880 still stands.

This is a recent shot from the new bridge approach on the east side...   (source 4)

The Gardner family also developed Riverdale into a resort area, known as Gardner’s Riverdale Camp. In the summertime there were carnivals and big picnics with fishing, swimming and camping activities. There were also several rental houses available for vacationers.

In 1943 the Riverdale property was bought by Floyd Jones, one of the founders of Ozark Airlines (1945).  When he passed away in 1969 the Riverdale properties were given to the Springfield Boy’s Club.  In 1977 the Riverdale Property was purchased by Ben Turner to preserve irrigation water for Riverdale farms. 

In 1981 Dr. Glenn Turner and the Turner family were deeply involved in bringing new life to Riverdale. In working on the old mill pond, they uncovered the ancient timbers of the early dam, underwater for 115 years but still worth salvaging.  Also underwater was the 75 year old turbine that had been installed around 1906.

The Turners had the idea to put the turbine to use once again to generate electricity, and decided to send the old machinery to the original manufacturer, the James Leffel Company of Springfield, Ohio, for rebuilding, because the manufacturer claimed the old equipment would be as fine a water-powered small turbine as any they could supply to replace it. The plan was not only to use the Finley’s water to generate electricity, but also to restore old buildings in and around Riverdale,  and also to possibly open a museum.

In 1982 the power plant project was completed, which involved rehabilitating and reinstalling the ancient old mill turbine, re-strengthening the dam, building a steel-reinforced concrete house for the generator and raising funds.

My photo of the old turbine in 1971

  1. By 2001 the Riverdale project that was the idea of heart specialist Dr. Glenn Turner had failed.  

  2. Dr. Turner had invested nearly all of his life savings in restoring Riverdale to its former form and in the construction of the hydroelectric power plant.  The residential development project mentioned in the OzarksWatch Video Magazine (aired 1/20/2010) apparently is abandoned as well.  Another sad thing; the classic old iron bridge was a casualty, and is now gone forever.

For speculation on what the future will be like for the area and the power plant, there can only be a few ‘what if?’ scenarios to ponder.  For instance:

What if our petroleum-based economy is to change to the point that internal combustion engines are no longer functional because there simply is no fuel anymore - at any cost?  An entire infrastructure of fuel stations would no longer provide an endless supply to an addicted-to-mobility population.  Of course this situation would probably take some time, perhaps very short time, to fully materialize, and of course there might be ingenious driven-by-necessity alternatives developed.  Oh-oh, out of gas!  Now what do we do?  Well there’s horses - been there and it’s too much work.  Or walking to places, unless it’s to the store - all those bags to carry! 

Let’s see...  no gas because we gobbled it all up because it was so easy to do.  But today there are electric cars, hybrid cars - those clunky dork-mobiles that grate against our car culture.   So after the riots from people panicking and freaking out, there may be the thought that, for the survivors, electric cars would work quite well after some battery technology improvement, and, and AND when there is a successful effort to establish an infrastructure of energy accessibility similar to the petroleum fuel infrastructure.  Oh no! More coal burned to generate that electricity - here we go again with that non-renewable problem.  What to do?  Could we actually return to a local-economy system?  Even kicking and screaming?

Flour mills existed in or close to many communities because, at the time, the food source was largely local.  The ability to make a grain-based food like bread from the grain you had grown or bought from you neighbor was possible only after the grain was ground up into a powder, but doing this by hand was no doubt very tedious.  There was as much desire to avoid grinding grain by hand as there was to avoid walking everywhere - we are, after all, an opportunistically lazy species.  So throughout our society, there was whole-hearted support for clever inventions like water-powered flour mills similar to the one at Riverdale, because they solve the problems of having to do boring jobs individually while enabling a greater return for effort.  This is certainly the same type of technology we seek today.

It’s understandable, the desire to restore vintage technology to produce a useful product - a way cool idea and congratulations to the Turners - we greatly respect those who pursue a dream to reality.  But in our gas-soaked world of today, the energy produced by this tiny power plant was apparently not appreciated.  By contrast, when the Riverdale mill started producing electricity back in the ‘30s it provided opportunity for huge work reduction and time saving benefits - the kind of things we have in reliable and affordable abundance today.  What if things were to drastically change and there was suddenly a desperate need for energy to do the things we used to do?

The Tesla Motor Company, realizing the necessity to establish a support infrastructure for its products, is taking action to build a network of charging stations accessible while traveling, as well as ‘supercharger’ stations that reduce the charge time.  They’re working to become as convenient as gas stations to feed your beast.  They need to do this so that they can sell cars, pure and simple.  But instead of the Tesla company creating a disruptive technology that brings about the death of current technology, it instead is offering an alternative to petro-cars, no doubt with an expectation of total conversion due to the depletion of oil supplies.  Kinda makes sense, unless and until something else comes along.

Great!  The use of electricity to get around works for me - especially when it comes down to riding verses walking.  I can give up a lot of car-culture if need be - and I think if it comes down to it, most people will be OK with it - eventually.  But if not, hey, a free F350 to those willing to take that one-way trip to Mars.  So the next step becomes getting away from burning dirty stinky old coal to produce all that clean electricity - so we can breath while driving.  Solar is one thing to consider, unless prolonged cloudiness cancels that trip to grandma’s. Does ‘clean‘ and ‘renewable’ and ‘convenient’ exist together?  Are we civilized enough to accept alternatives?

The Riverdale power plant, while contributing insignificantly to our current world, could be the model for an important infrastructure component that enables us to be lazy and mobile. Much like a series of flour mills in past times, the use of small hydroelectric power plants along waterways in numbers that minimize the need for long-distance transmission could provide a long-term solution, even for perpetuating our  energy gluttony.  For instance, a little super-efficient power plant on a little river using a renewable and abundant source of energy - moving water.  What made the ubiquitous flour mill so great back in 1906 - the very same device - has been given new life.  Distributed electrical generation on a large scale today lacks motivation for development - both financial and market-place.  But maybe we need to start thinking about, and supporting, methods to tap our energy sources in new old ways.  

Where is Nikola Tesla when we need him?


No oil, no power lines, no interruptions - just like 1905

[source: 1]

[source: 1]

...and from around 1980 before stabilization...                 [souce 2]

[source: 1]

[source: 5]

[source: 2]

[source: 2]

Native Americans camped and hunted along Ozark rivers perhaps as long as 12,000 to 14,000 years ago.  The ever increasing white population in conjunction with the various treaties that relocated the many tribes that were common to this area, made it rare to see a Native American in this locale after 1830.  Around 1843 the Riverdale area was signed over to Benjamin Hooton by President John Tyler. Hooton built a primitive wooden dam across the Finley River and one of the first mills in the area.   

Benjamin Hooton [source: 5]

Wayne Glenn photo, post February 19 2014  [source: 5]


I find the separation of human history from the history of technology impossible - to do so is to tell an incomplete story about our past.

“Technology is not things;  it is knowledge - knowledge that is stored in hundreds of millions of books, in hundreds of billions of human heads, and, to an important extent, in the artifacts themselves.  Technology is knowledge of how to do things, how to accomplish human goals.”  (jump to this)

Milling technology Milling Around the Ozarks   (Springfield-Greene County Library)

  “The many water mills which operated in the Ozarks from early settlement until about the 1930's were a perfect example of the link between power, utility, fellowship, and beauty. The numerous hill streams provided power to turn the great wheels and turbines which converted a raw agricultural product into a fine quality food. The businesses and mills became natural gathering places for the area people to fish, picnic, dance, visit, or throw horseshoes under the valley's shade trees in the summer. It was a place to swap tales or play checkers around the pot-bellied stove in the winter. Surrounding all this little community was the undisturbed beauty of nature only slightly or temporarily changed to accommodate better the business of running a mill.

  Mills became community centers where the Ozarkers could exchange new ideas, different methods and even the local gossip. People from as far as twenty miles away would come with their stories and news. If the community would have a square dance, you could bet it would be near the mill.”


Littleton, Colorado ‘Rough and Ready’ flour mill - my hometown history


“As of 1905, the post-office received mail from Ozark. A mill was operated during the time of the Civil War.  In 1870, Homer Gilmore and his family moved in from Maryville, Mo. In addition to operating the mill, he soon opened a store to handle other staples, and in time a post-office was placed in the store, a smithy opened a shop nearby, and a thriving settlement grew up at the cross roads and river crossing called Riverdale.”    [source 6]

Ashes to ashes - grist mill gone, water turbine and dam still there c1980

[source: 2]

Alexander Clapp  (portrait with wife Phoebe) purchased the Riverdale property around 1857 and made many improvements, including a dam constructed of hand-hewn hardwood logs, and a larger mill building.

Wayne Glenn post September 30 2014  [source: 5]

the Clapps    [source: 7]

Homer Gilmore  [source: 8]

[source: 9]

“In Christian County, Missouri, the flouring industry is a most important one and foremost among those engaging in it are Messrs. Gilmore & Wasson, proprietors and operators of Riverdale Roller Mills. This firm manufactures the “Gold Coin” and the “Sunrise” brands of flour. The mill has been remodeled recently with all the latest improvements in milling machinery and is now one of the best in the county, having three double sets of rollers of the Livingston manufacture and a wood and iron combination-wheel of the Hawkeye make. Its capacity is sixty barrels per day.”

Biography of Homer Gilmore [source 10]

[source: 3]

The building in my 1971 photo is also the abandoned grist mill on the east side in all its beautiful, decadent and vulgar mystery.

The Iron Bridge over the Finley River (1906-2003)

“…the sad fact is, every single person that ever lived at Riverdale, or tried to have a business at Riverdale, that tried to be a successful entrepreneur at Riverdale, ultimately more or less failed, because of - the flooding - no way to deal with it.  A bluff on the west side and a flood plane on the east side…”

Wayne Glenn [source: 1]