By Max Goodwin
For decades, moving from state to state–Nebraska, California, Kansas, and Nebraska again–Joyce and Chuck Olsen positioned a certain table as the centerpiece of their living room. It’s no ordinary table, but rather a true relic of their family history from a time that can only be remembered by the stories passed down from previous generations.
The top of the table is a thick piece of glass laid over what was once an important part of a historic mill that was operated by Joyce’s ancestors on the bank of Indian Creek for a century. It’s made from a wooden cogwheel, also known as a sprocket, crafted by Anthony Watts in the 1850s. In a past life, the cogwheel worked as a gear transitioning power into the old mill from water flowing through the waterwheel to grind crops into meal and flour. But for over half a century now it’s been part of a furniture piece in the Olsen’s home.
“It’s quite a piece,” Joyce said. “A masterpiece that my grandfather said few mechanics could make today.”
Watts Mill stood where 103rd Street crosses over Indian Creek. One of the first industrial buildings operating in Jackson County, it was built by John and George Fitzhugh in 1832, one year before Westport was founded and 20 years before Kansas City was founded.
For more than a century, history evolved around the old mill. In 1843, one of the first documented wagon trains to set off on the Oregon Trail stopped there to purchase flour and meal. And in 1849, travelers drawn by the gold rush in California also stopped there.
In 1850, Anthony Watts bought the mill and it became known as Watts Mill. When he died during the Civil War, the property passed to his son, Stubbins Watts. Joyce Skeen Olsen is the third great-granddaughter of Stubbins and Eliza Watts.
Sitting near State Line Road, the mill saw the tumultuous years of the Border War and fed both Union and Confederate armies at the Battle of Westport. Jesse James is known to have hidden from the law at the Watts home. The legendary frontiersman Jim Bridger, who discovered the Great Salt Lake and countless other places in the western United States, settled on a farm next to the Watts land and died in the Watts home.
Over time a small town known as Dallas grew around the mill as it powered through the years.
Stubbin Watts played the fiddle and hosted parties that families would attend from miles around. Known as the Fiddlin Miller of Dallas, he was often photographed in his later years holding his fiddle. He was proud that his mill had no modern machinery, with pegs in the flooring, wooden hinges on the doors, and wooden cogs in the wheel.
The mill closed in 1940, but it served a noble purpose up to its final days in 1942 when Joyce Olsen’s grandfather Charles Skeen and her father Ralph Skeen, both carpenters, helped dismantle it so the iron parts could be donated for World War II supplies.
That’s when Ralph Skeen would have picked up the cogwheel and brought it home. Years passed and Chuck came into the story when he and Joyce met in college.
“Her dad was a carpenter and he would take me out to the shop and show me these things and tell me something of the story of how this came to be,” Chuck said. “And so, both of us showed interest in it and he surprised us by building a table for it.” The table was given as a Christmas gift, and the cogwheel has remained in pristine condition, with the exception of the teeth, which are a bit worn from its days in use at the mill.
Chuck and Joyce decided they wanted to bring the cogwheel back to its original home (at least for a photo opportunity) for a Trailside Center history display. In anticipation of the upcoming trip, they looked through family documents in an aunt’s library and came across a speech given by Opal Watts to the Westport Historical Society in 1968. It seems their efforts to continue to tell the stories of Watts Mill would have been greatly appreciated by the speechwriter.
“It is sad to stop and think how in this fast, on-rushing world we live in today” our historical background is soon forgotten, Watts wrote. “There aren’t too many people, locally , who remember the mill or its surrounding area.”
She continued her speech, painting a picture for her audience. “Today as you might stand on the bridge over Indian Creek at 103rd Street, you will see the water pouring down over the falls near where the old Watts Mill once did its work.”
See the mill in action in your own imagination on Sunday, July 10, when the cogwheel and other relics will be on display from 10 am to 5 pm under a tent at the old mill site. Historian Diane Euston will make an appearance from 3-4 pm.