The dream began in 1867, when John Thompson, James Crosby, and Jon Dickinson formed a company to found a mill, town and other business ventures at Motor. Thompson & Co. spent $50,000 on the mill and another $40,000 on equipment and other structures. Stone was quarried close by, with some being lowered down the bluff in cable cars running on wooden rails. Skilled stonemasons were hired to build the 90 foot tall grist mill, which has a foundation five feet thick.
By the turn of the century, most of the milling equipment was sold or discarded and some of the mill’s timber framing was salvaged for the construction of other buildings. The main Motor buildings were used as part of a working farm from 1903 to 1983. The mill was used to store hay, grain and stable horses. The livery stable became a dairy barn and the roof was raised for more hay storage. Generations of families called the large stone house home.
Just a two-hour canoe trip from Elkader to Motor, the site has long been a popular fishing spot and canoeing access. In 1983, the Clayton County Conservation Board purchased Motor Mill with help from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. Currently, the 155-acre park has hiking trails on both the north and south side of the river and a primitive campground along with a canoe landing on the north side. The 48-acre Retz Memorial State Preserve, managed by the Clayton County Conservation Board, borders Motor Mill to the northeast.
Motor Mill never recouped its founders’ investment, but remains a striking monument to 19th century engineering skill, craftsmanship and vision.
The Motor Mill Foundation was formed in 2004 to assist the Clayton County Conservation Board in developing long-range goals and management of the site. A diverse group of volunteers work “To protect and preserve the architectural integrity, history, natural beauty and serenity of the Motor Mill site and to develop appropriate uses and interpretation as a regional treasure for future generations.” For more information on how you can get involved call 563-245-1516.
Official Great River Road Interpretive Center
The Great River Road National Scenic Byway follows the course of the Mississippi River for 3,000 miles from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The scenic route passes through 10 states and hundreds of river towns. Learn more >