A Licking Good Time

Seeking the Mill, Texas County, Missouri

The day was grey and rainy, but still it was an enjoyable drive to my target town. Licking lies about thirty-eight miles south of Rolla on Highway 63, about 136 total miles from Valley Park, Missouri at Highway 141 and Interstate 44.

Black Angus cattle and some sheep joined yellow wildflowers – tall goldenrod, black-eyed Susans, delicate-petaled sheep sorrel – and cheerfully shone through the grey of the day on my journey. Nearby towns are Houston, Salem and Success, evoking in my mind by-gone days of wagon-wheeled conveyances and women wearing bonnets traveling rough, vegetated land and settling new towns, naming them from their reservoir of experience.

Licking is a typical little town that dots much of America with a few blocks of Main Street, railroad tracks and well-kept homes. It is also a vibrant, growing community. I saw three water towers (there could be more) – one was painted with stitches to resemble a baseball. I should mention Licking got its name from natural salt licks in the region.

Licking Welcome Tower


Easily I found my target, the Licking Milling Company, a beautifully restored building standing proud and larger than I expected. It was the second annual Licking Mill Festival, September 17, 2011. The town’s newspaper website refers to the mill and the celebration, but I was unable to find mention of the type of mill it is. My curiosity led me to drive this distance to find out. Sure, I could have found the answer through research, but I would have missed out on a great adventure. And, part of the allure was the surprise of discovery.



The Licking Milling Company

On the Mill grounds, two brave crafters had set up their fly tent booths and were huddling against the rain. Other than that, I saw little life and wondered if this day wasn’t going to be a disappointment. I need not have questioned for inside was a different story. The place was packed with people and music from a fiddle and a guitar and the scent of food filled the air. Tables of products were displayed. I introduced myself to a woman near the door and things evolved swiftly.

She quickly found the local mill expert, Harold Sullins, and my private tour ensued. Eagerly, I followed Harold to the dirt floor basement and my education began. It is a flour Mill once powered by steam from a huge boiler heated by a cord wood fire beneath. The steam traveled through the top stack to an Atlas Engine Works engine which drove a main line shaft that turned a myriad of pulleys beneath the four Buhr roller mills on the first floor. The engine also turned other pulleys and rollers of other machinery on the second and third floors of the Mill.

Harold inspecting the main shaft

I was impressed with the invention, the heavy iron equipment, the sturdy wood casings, and the amount of intricate technology employed. The genius of the machinery rivals any of today. And, in their day, this was a modern industry equipped with labor saving devices. That is not to say the men who manned the mills did not work. Their job duties were excruciating by today’s standards and there was little in the way of safety devices such as guards around moving parts, railings to prevent a misstep into a rapidly spinning pulley system, or air purifiers to sift the grain and flour dust from the air they breathed.

Many of the men developed a chronic condition called “white lung” – similar to “black lung” coal miners suffer. Years of accumulated flour dust in lung tissues blocks efficient gas exchange in the air sacs. Lungs become stiff and fibrous and coughing ensues. Life is shortened.

Harold, my congenial host, has a day job, owns “a few cows” and his hobby is milling. He spoke of SPOOM – Society for the Preservation of Old Mills – a group that supports the value of our mill heritage and sponsors conferences to promote their goals. If you want to learn more, Old Mill News is their quarterly journal.

The Licking Milling Company last processed corn in 1955 and wheat in the late 1940s. The building was last utilized as storage for a local feed store. It is a structure built from pine wood and is more solid than homes of today. There are four Buhr roller mills on the first floor, each weighs one and a half tons. They stand within a few inches of one another in a row in the center of the room and there is not one iota of floor sag or weakness.

Buhr Roller Mills

This was a production mill. That is, farmers brought their grain to the mill, it was processed and ninety percent was shipped out of town. Ten percent went back to the farmer in the form of flour. In the 1900s the area was dotted with production mills – about every forty-five miles – in Houston, Sherrill, Maple, Lennox, Montauk.

To describe the actual mechanical workings of the mill and the number of processes required to produce flour would take several pages. Concisely, the grain was cleaned, sized, ground, shaken, sifted, bleached, cleaned again and purified. All of these steps apparently did not kill the eggs of the weevils because the duster step came near to the last procedure. This contraption beat the grain against the sides of the container to break the shells of the bug eggs to prevent those critters from showing up alive in flour canisters at home. Finally, the product went on to the packer.

The Sifter

There are three floors to the mill, not including the basement. Lining the walls are narrow, vertical channels. Within these channels were canvas belts equipped every few inches with metal cups which transported the grain in its various processed stages to an upper floor or back down to deliver it to the multiple machines for further processing. The interconnection of all these mechanisms made the mill a true factory and a marvel of invention.

And guess the number of staff to keep all four floors of the mill in operation – meeting the farmers, weighing their product, assuring the product went through its stages, stoking the boiler fire every hour, maintaining the cast iron equipment, troubleshooting problems and resolving them, filling the finished product into barrels – – – – two. Yes, two men. And hey, they probably had to load the shipping wagons, too.

The next time you complain about your job or the conditions at work, be ashamed. You live in the best of times. And they didn’t have health benefits, paid vacations, or any other bonus.

Solid construction, but no insulation against Missouri winters

The rain that day would not relent so the children’s activities did not take place. The quilt contest was moved inside. The fiddler and his partner got cold and moved on. Sunnyside Up, a Bluegrass and Gospel band, took their place. Food was fantabulous and unique – in the coming days, check out Eat & Critique, an exceptional restaurant review blog, to catch my guest post (A Licking Meal) on this mouth-watering fare.

Licking Downtown, Incorporated is the organization founded by concerned residents to save their Mill from demolition. They raised the money to buy the Mill and replaced every window and had it painted. Susie Blackburn laughed when I asked her title. We decided she is the Events Coordinator. The people are not doing all this work for fame, fortune or titles. They do this work because they feel a deep need to preserve their history and to contribute to their community. All the money raised goes to Mill improvements.

These people are average Americans with family and career responsibilities and yet are caressed by winds of the past, awed by back-breaking efforts of their forefathers, and inspired by their ingenuity and resourcefulness. Licking Downtown members and donators are doing their ancestors proud.

Pre-1840 style clothing

Indian Plains Ribbon Dress Worn at Celebrations

In that one day in Licking, I not only learned about milling, but also about making spices and medicines from the roots of local plants. Locals still dig and sell these roots. Purple cornflower is known as “Kansas Snake Root”. Sassafras leaves are used for dry rub steak seasoning. Walnut leaves are good for the kidneys while blue skull cap (a weed) is used in beer and medicines. Dried May apple root is also used in medicine and ginseng root grows here, too.

A resident remembered his mom boiled pine needles to make cough syrup. This generated a conversation among a few older residents who said, “It tasted rough.” The other gentleman said it wasn’t so bad when mixed with his granddad’s Old Crow. “Yeah,” another man agreed, “ya didn’t know if ya had a cough or not and then didn’t care if ya did.”

So, take a short road trip to Licking sometime soon. You will be welcome. People are approachable and friendly and, I guarantee, you will have an interesting story to bring back home.


Notice:  The small town of Licking also has a museum which is sponsoring a Bluegrass Festival on October 1, 2011. Reference their website for upcoming activities and periodically check my Events page above for activities far and near. Sunnyside Up Bluegrass and Gospel band can be seen on Youtube.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ellen Reynolds
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 21:06:20

    You are indeed a good writer. You have described the mill and our townspeople beautifully. Thanks! Also thanks for mentioning the bluegrass concert. We appreciate all the advertising we can get. Glad to have met you. Ellen Reynolds, Texas County Museum of Art and History


  2. Margo Dill
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 20:39:09

    It sounds like you had a great day in Licking. Being from Missouri, I had actually heard of this town before. The photos you took really help explain what you saw. HATE It when weather won’t cooperate but it sounds like you didn’t let that ruin your time (or anyone else either). Another great posting on your blog!


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