Show You Care: Volunteers keep wheels turning at 170 year old mill

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MUSCATINE, COUNTY, Iowa (KCRG TV9)- In pioneer days, Iowa had as many as 500 grist mills grinding wheat and corn into flour and meal mainly using water power.

A picture of Pine Creek Grist Mill in Muscatine County taken on Friday, September 1st, 2017. (Dave Franzman, KCRG-TV9)

Now there are hardly any.

But you can find one in eastern Iowa and thanks to a group of dedicated volunteers it still works almost exactly the way it near when first built in 1848. And it's the oldest mill, still working, between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.

It's the Pine Creek Grist Mill located at Wildcat Den State Park along Highway 22 about halfway between Muscatine and Davenport.

The mill is certainly picturesque and it's one of Muscatine County's top tourist attractions. But 20 years ago it wasn't much to look at and nothing inside the mill worked at all.

But now when a member of the Friends of the Pine Creek Grist Mill throws a switch water surges into turbines, the giant wheels turn, the belts tug and all the original milling equipment springs to life.

Tom Hanifan, the friends group president, says consultants originally told park leaders it would be impossibly expensive to restore all the equipment and get it working again.

"There are companies around the country that will come in and restore your mill. But it's extremely expensive so we're just doing it by ourselves," he said.

Hanifan said when the friends group formed in the late 1990s, when Iowa lawmakers first allowed such groups connected with parks, the mill was open no more than three weekends a year and not many people bothered to stop by.

But the volunteer group members, who all like to tinker, studied all the machinery and gradually learned how it all worked. They discovered milling machinery that dated to the originally opening in the 1850s, as well as updated equipment from the 1870s and 1890s. It's actually three mills in one building.

Another friends group member, David Metz, said it wasn't easy at first to figure out how everything was put together.

"There's no instruction manual but mechanical principles are the same for machinery today it's just the material science that's different...and we started with the restoration and got the stones turning. Then we built the electric system so we could power the mill anytime we wanted to," Metz said.

These days, members keep everything in repair and in the summer tourist season give demonstrations and show visitors how pioneers processed grain either for food or feed for livestock.

Last Thursday, all members of the Friends of the Pine Creek Grist Mill were recognized in Cedar Rapids during the Governor's Volunteer Awards Program.

Gwen Prentice, ranger at Wildcat Den State Park, put the group in volunteers in for recognition. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) calculates that combined, volunteers have put in 60,000 hours of volunteer work at the mill over 20 years of existence.

"I think it's probably more than that. I think years have gone by and it wasn't even tallied. It's a huge benefit for the state park to have these guys," Prentice said.

And even with everything up and running smoothly now, the friends group that oversees the historic mill isn't resting.

They host a workday once a week and are even adding unexpected improvements like high efficiency LED lighting to save the park money on operating costs.

And it's all a Show You Care effort to help visitors see an important Iowa industry of the 19th Century up and running the way it was intended.