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Monday, September 17, 2012

Wildcat Den Heritage Day

Saturday morning we drove a few miles east of Muscatine along the river road to Wildcat Den State Park where the annual Heritage Day was underway, a celebration depicting 19th century life in this area. Hundreds of folk had turned out to see many others in period costume, and demonstrations of rope-making, basket weaving, looms, and other vital crafts from the bootstrapping years first following settlement by white pioneers in 1837.

Beneath a large shade tree were performances of old time music by an evolving all-comers band of guitar, fiddle, bass violin, autoharp, harmonica, and voices. Children nearby walked on stilts and played 19th century games with hoops and sticks. Troops of Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts wandered about. One of the local 4-H (head, heart, hands, health) chapters sold homemade ice cream and pies. It was a marvelously happy and wholesome occasion.

We enjoyed talking with this blacksmith and his daughter apprentice as they fashioned needful items from simple and elegant tools: converting coal to coke; making steel from iron; and the delicate control of heat at every step of the process.

Behind the smith is the Pine Creek grist mill, the first of many hundreds that were built in the Iowa Territory and the only one to survive the passage of time.

The mill was in commercial operation until the 1920s. The Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression began restoration work in the 1930s but it was not until the 1970s that the volunteer Friends of the Mill group got the structure and machinery back into operating condition. It's an extraordinary relic.

We entered the building and were flabbergasted by the complexity of the beams, shafts, wheels, belts, gears, bins, and elevators filling the entire volume of four levels. Unable to make sense of what all was going on, we asked at an information desk for a tour and were handed over to an excellent docent as our personal guide. This gentleman was the park ranger here and since retirement has been active in the Friends of the Mill.

Benjamin Nye first built a sawmill on Pine Creek about a mile upstream of the Mississippi River, furnishing lumber for the first homes and barns as the area was settled. As agriculture took hold, he then built the grist mill to process the first crops of corn, wheat, buckwheat, and rye. The millstones were imported from France in small pieces then cemented with plaster of Paris and bound with steel straps.

This sifting machine produces two grades of flour from a rotating, screened barrel into bins.

The first power source was an overshot waterwheel installed in a race between the mill building and the dam. It was eventually supplemented by construction of a penstock that dropped water into this 20-horsepower turbine.

During low water conditions, and of course during winter when the creek was frozen, the mill couldn't operate. So later yet, the owner bought a worn-out steam packet (a small craft used for trade goods, mail, and passenger transport on the Mississippi) and installed its steam engine so the mill could operate full time.

The restoration is a work-in-progress and these power sources aren't operational at present, but an electric motor drives all the machinery. When the shafts are turning and belts whirring and elevators rattling, it nearly overwhelms the senses.

It was a different breed of human that first displaced the Blackhawk nation, carved into the wilderness, designed and built and operated this machinery, and founded modern communities. It's nothing less than hubris to imagine that today we are smarter or more clever or resourceful.


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