Bedrock of Pioneer Endurance- The Old Fitzhugh-Watts Mill
By Diane Euston
Tucked away on the banks of Indian Creek are the remnants of what once was a center of considerable activity. Pioneers from all over the southern Jackson County area would hitch up their wagons and take the journey to the mill at current-day 103rd and State Line Rd. to grind their flour and corn.
What we refer to today as Watts Mill, thanks in part to the shopping center named in its honor, was of major importance in the early history of the area. Today, the stone remains at the very location of the mill leaves us imagining the incredible stories and lives of the pioneers that once coveted this location.
Well before it was coined “Watts Mill,” it was referred to as “Fitzhugh’s Mill.” In 1832-33, John Fitzhugh (1792-1878) and his brother, George (1790-1863), patented 40 acres on Indian Creek. The rushing waters, limestone edges and waterfall proved to be a perfect location for a sawmill. They dammed up Indian Creek and took a gamble on the edge of civilization, using hand-hewn native oak and walnut to erect Fitzhugh’s Mill — one year before Westport was platted and 20 years before Kansas City was founded.
In a short amount of time, Fitzhugh’s Mill became a gathering place. Its success as a sawmill led way to replace it to a gristmill, so they imported millstones from France and changed their operation. This became a central location for the Native Americans and early settlers to trade furs, ground meal and flour, and “catch up” on the endeavors of newly settled pioneers. Word of mouth was the foundation of this mill and it wasn’t long before travelers on the Santa Fe Trail started to stop at Fitzhugh’s Mill before their long journey into the Wild West.
In May 1843, Fitzhugh’s Mill is mentioned by name in the diary of James Nesmith as he and 800 pioneers gathered at this very location en route to Oregon and California. This was one of the very first wagon trains documented, with approximately 125 wagons, to head west. Travelers camped along the banks of Indian Creek, utilized the power of the mill to ground supplies, and took off into the frontier.
The Fitzhughs sold their interest in the mill to James Hunter and Duke Simpson of Westport in 1842. In 1845, the Fitzhughs opted to travel south to Texas for new land and opportunity. They continued their success of mill operation in Collin County, Tex., where they opened a new sawmill that was said to have built all of the county.
Hunter and Simpson sold their interest in the mill in 1846 to Albert Boone (famed as the first owner of what is now Kelly’s in Westport) and James Hamilton. Most likely just looking for business opportunity, the men first leased and then sold the mill in 1850 to Anthony Benaugh Watts (b. 1788), a miller from St. Charles, Mo.
Anthony Watts knew there was new competition. Five miles away, Ezra Hickman had completed building a gristmill in what would become known as Hickman’s Mill. In order to compete, Watts expanded the mill so he could be involved in commercial milling. It was said that the mill was so large that it stood once as a landmark along the frontier.
Watt’s fifth born child, Stubbins (b. 1838), when he was just old enough to drive a yoke and oxen, was hired by Majors, Russell and Waddell. He made the trip many times to New Mexico on the Santa Fe Trail.
Stubbins, always ambitious, returned and worked side-by-side with his father, learning
from him how to take over the family business of milling. Anthony Watts died in 1861, and the Civil War called Stubbins into service. He joined the Confederate Army for four years.
After the end of the Civil War, Stubbins returned to Watts Mill. He continued the operation of the mill well before the town of Dallas emerged along 103rd St. The mill continued to be a gathering place amongst local pioneer families, and dances that would last all night were held on the banks of Indian Creek. Stubbins was a large part of the draw to Watts Mill’s dances with his long, flowing white beard, dark eyes and ability to tell a really great story. He was quite good at fiddling, thus he became known far and wide as “the fiddling miller.”
Mountain man Jim Bridger, who lived to the south of Watts Mill, was a frequent visitor of Stubbins. They were such good friends that Bridger asked to be buried at the Watts Burial Ground (now 101st and Jefferson). In 1881, Stubbins honored his old friend’s wish.
In 1904, Bridger’s remains were reinterred at Mount Washington Cemetery. In a Kansas City Star article from 1912, Stubbins was asked why he allowed Bridger to be moved. He replied, “Well, it will only be a few years now till the city will build out over that old graveyard. . . And it won’t be much longer till the city will come on out and take this mill, too.”
Unfortunately, he was correct. First, his family’s bodies at the Watts burial ground were removed to Stanley, Ks. Even in his 80s, Stubbins still was working the old mill, holding onto the old-fashioned customs that had been replaced by modern conveniences. For 62 years, he harbored away on the banks of the Indian Creek until his death in 1922.
Stubbins’ son, Edgar took over the operations of Watts Mill even after Walnut Grove Park opened next to it. People proved to love the location, oftentimes swimming near the waterfall as the old mill still could be heard grinding in the background.
In 1942, Edgar answered the call of the war effort and donated nine tons of cast iron and steel from the wheel, an old boiler and some machinery from his family’s mill. One year later, the mill ceased operation and in 1949, Stubbins’ prediction came to be true. The mill was torn down.
In 1972, a marker was placed at the site of Watts Mill by the Native Sons and Daughters. On June 10, 1974, Watts Mill was dedicated as a historic site.
Stubbins once said, “It’s pretty here; they say there’s no prettier bit of scenery in Missouri. I like to hang out the window here and watch the bubbles and the shadows, and listen to the water and the wheels. I just couldn’t live without them.” Even in his day, lazy fisherman would mosey around the banks of Indian Creek in the shadow of Watts Mill. Today, the same can be witnessed as you sit on a park bench and listen to the waterfall crash into the limestone rock and into the fragments of the old mill.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.