Motor Mill Historic Site

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.

For more information, visit Clayton County Conservation and the Motor Mill Website.


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Latitude: 42.807308 Longitude: -91.35142 Elevation: 761 ft
the best travel advice comes from the people who live here
Clayton County Conservation


Number of Persons Property Will Accommodate

The park can accommodate any number of large and small groups. There are six primitive campsites available to host overnight guests.

Property Access

We now have two ways to visit the mill! Take C1X (Grape Road) east from Hwy 13 at Elkader; follow Grape Road four miles, then turn south on Galaxy Road and go another three miles to Motor. Or take X3C, Grandview Road, east from Hwy. 13 (south of Elkader) about 3.5 miles; turn left on Hazel Road and immediately take a hard left on to Galaxy Road about 1.5 miles to Motor Mill.

A popular canoe ramp is located at Motor Mill near the campground. The Turkey River offers a great canoeing experience and Motor Mill is located about a 2 ½ hour float from Elkader. From Motor Mill one can float to Garber which is another 5 hours. You will have a great opportunity to view wildlife and some good fishing.

Warming Source


Kitchen Supplies Available (if any)

Bring your own supplies as the site is predominately a historic destination that also offers basic and beautiful camping opportunities.

What to Bring

Please bring all of your camping or site-seeing gear as very little is offered on site in terms of accommodations. But the scenery and access is stunning.

Nightly Rate or Fee (if any)

Camping is $10/night. Free will donations accepted for Mill Tours.

Direct Link to Reservation Site

Eco-Friendly Notes

The Motor Mill Historic Site is located within the Turkey River Recreational Corridor and provides access to the Turkey River Water Trail. 

The Robert Grau Memorial Savanna is located on the ridge north of the cooperage at Motor Mill.  Robert Grau was a charter member of the Clayton County Conservation Board and enjoyed spending time outdoors in both woodlands and prairies.

The Grau family approached the Conservation Board about a memorial project, the Conservation Board wanted to recreate the mid-1800’s historic oak savanna landscape at Motor Mill.  Thus a strong working partnership began.

In early 2005, the project began by removing the smaller trees from the ridge top and leaving only the dominant bur, white and red oak and walnut trees.  The open canopy has now allowed more sunlight to reach the forest floor and has promoted the resurgence of native prairie plant species.

An oak savanna is made up of scattered oak trees above a layer of prairie grasses and forbs.  The trees’ spacing allows sunlight to reach the prairie plants below.  These rare plant communities once covered 10% of Iowa’s landscape.  Fire frequently swept through these areas and was critical in maintaining this ecosystem.

The Conservation Board staff began using fire as part of their management practices.  The burns occur in the spring after the snow has melted and before the forest floor has greened up with new spring growth.  The timing is important as the fire serves several purposes.  One is to keep the forest floor open, two is to promote native plant growth and three is to help control weedy vegetation on the site. 

One of the main “weeds” being controlled is a very aggressive non-native invasive plant  called garlic mustard.  Several methods of control are being used including fire, chemical and hand pulling.

Currently a trail system takes visitors up to the top of the savanna and by the rock quarry used in the construction of the limestone buildings.  The trail system expands toward the north end of the park.

Come out to Motor Mill and walk the trail.  Make sure you have good walking shoes as the trail to the top is rather steep.  Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Robert Grau Memorial Savanna.

Locally or Family-Owned Business Notes

In 1983 the Clayton County Conservation Board (CCCB), with help from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, purchased the Motor Mill Historic Site along with 100 acres of land.  The purchase included 40 acres associated with the Motor Mill buildings on the north side of the Turkey River and 60 acres on the south side of the Turkey River.  The buildings consist of five native limestone buildings including a Stable, Inn, Smokehouse, Cooperage and the 90-foot grist Mill.

The purchase was made for the purpose of preserving and restoring the buildings, along with interpreting the history of the site.  Starting in 1985, the CCCB sponsored Open Houses at the Motor Mill Site.  This gave county residents and visitors a chance to see inside the buildings and learn more about the history of the site.

The Motor Mill Site was expanded in 1992.  Again, with assistance from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, the CCCB was able to purchase an additional 55 acres adjoining the original 40 acres on the north side of the river.  The most significant part of the purchase included the original town site of Motor platted in 1875.

Today, the Motor Mill Historic Site totals 155 acres; 95 on the north side of the Turkey River and 60 acres on the south side.  The CCCB maintains a hiking trail on each side of the river and a canoe ramp, campground, and picnic area on the north side.


Accessibility Notes

The Motor Mill Historic Site is on an unpaved hillside and is an old building. The landscape will present struggles for those needing special assistance, but the site can also be viewed and appreciated from the car or the waterside.

Pet Friendly Notes

All pets must be kept on a leash not exceed six-feet.

Seasons Open

Open for weekend tours during the summer months as posted.

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Contact Information

Clayton County Conservation - Osborne Conservation Center
563.245.2222 (Fax)
29862 Osborne Rd
Elkader, IA 52043 US
Motor Mill Foundation of Clayton County
29862 Osborne Rd.
Elkader, , IA 52043 US


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