Can you imagine life in the early 1800s? With the need to furnish a vast array of your everyday goods, a homestead would need a sizeable footprint. When Waltus Watkins (say that three times fast) brought his bride to live in Liberty, Missouri, he set himself on a path that would change their lives. Watkins, who had trained as a weaver and machinist, was already a successful businessman in the area. His desire to be near the frontier had brought him to western Missouri where he had built a wool carding mill. With his family growing, it was time to think bigger.
Within a short period, Waltus and Mary Ann had welcomed three sons into the world. Watkins sold his mill and moved the family to an 80-acre farm located north of Liberty. He was so fond of the site that he named it Bethany Farm. Within their first year at the farm, the couple saw the passing of two of their sons. Over time, Mary Ann gave birth to eight more children. Over the next ten years, they increased their sizeable footprint to almost 1300 acres. Our Kearney, Missouri day trip excursion had landed us at the Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site for a tour of their exhibits and the farmstead.
Supplies for Everyday Life
By now, fortune was shining on the family and they found great success with their crops and livestock. While the Civil War would create struggles for many, the Watkins saw continued progress. By the end of the war, their holdings included a sawmill, gristmill, brick kiln, and a new woolen mill. People in the 1800s needed supplies just as we do today. While many items could be produced at home, others required a large-scale operation to create the finished products economically. A visit to the general store would have showcased many of the products being created at Bethany Farm.
Our visit to the visitors center helped us understand life on the Bethany Farm. With so many distinct activities, there was a need for a slew of workers. Not only would you need people to produce the products, but also some to maintain all of the equipment. This would apply not only to the woolen mill but the sawmill and gristmill, as well. Then you also had to have farmhands to plant, tend, and harvest the crops from the fields and orchards. While it would have been an expensive enterprise, it still managed to be profitable.
One of my favorite displays was the model of the woolen mill. With cutout walls, we were able to see how the various operations took place when the mill was active. It required about 40 people to run the mill, with the majority being adults. There was also a handful of children who had more menial tasks to complete as they worked on their apprenticeship. The Watkins family employed immigrants from the east coast and found many to be well-seasoned in the necessary skills. The wool supply came from a group of sheep ranchers who maintained homesteads nearby.
Processing the Wool
When a sheep is sheared, the wool needs to be processed. It needed to be sorted, washed, and cleaned of debris. Once these processes were complete, the raw wool was ready to be dyed and fed into a picker, which separated the clumps for carding. Carding is a mechanical process that untangles the strands so that they can be spun into yarn. The whole process is a little like teasing hair so that it can be combed out straight. To manage to have room for all of these processes, a woolen mill requires a sizeable footprint.
Making a Myriad of Products
The need for highly skilled employees required a higher pay scale. Add in the variety of raw materials needed to produce the finished goods and we were left wondering how they made money. In the late-1800s, it would have been extremely expensive to ship products around the continent. This meant that people looked to local producers for their wares. To supply the cloth needed for everyday life, there needed to be woolen mills all across the nation. It is estimated that there were nearly 900 mills in 1870.
A Sizeable Footprint
Now that our heads were filled with all of this historical data, it was time to go check out the farm. While the state park encompasses about 1500 acres, only a portion of the farmstead remains. Fortunately, many of the most important structures have survived the test of time. Stepping out the back door of the visitors center, we found a gravel path that led into the farm. A short walk away and we came to the three-story woolen mill. While the diorama had suggested a sizeable footprint, it took seeing it firsthand to really grasp the size of the operation. We were pleased to see that the huge brick structure has remained relatively intact over the 160 years it has been in existence.
The staff at the park offer tours, but we decided to do a self-guided version. While we couldn’t go inside without a ranger, we were able to peer into the windows. You can also check out the exterior spaces where the wool was washed and the process began. Seeing the store counter made us imagine what it would have been like to be a shopper in the late 1800s. The adults would have sorted through the available products to make sure they picked up everything they would need for their homes. After all, it was a long haul in a wagon to make a return trip for forgotten items.
The Family Home
The farmstead home still stands on a hillside overlooking the mill. Peering through the windows we saw the Victorian styling of the spiral staircase leading to the upstairs bedrooms. During the farm’s heyday, the family would have been busy tending the dairy, orchard, and chickens. We also spotted a row of beehives, which would have provided plenty of honey to sell at their store. A smokehouse would have cured the meat they got from raising hogs. Various out-buildings would have served to house the equipment used to work the fields. Directly behind the house is a summer kitchen which would have been used to keep the heat out of the main house during warmer months.
Visit Watkins Mill
A visit to Watkins Mill provides a family-friendly experience. The visitors center is free of charge and provides lots of background on the family and their enterprises. They offer a short video that provides additional details. The pandemic has curtailed their on-site activities, like tours, but the park remains open to the public during normal business hours. The state park features additional amenities, which we did not make use of during our visit. There is a 100-acre lake and some scenic picnic spots. Campers may want to check out the campground that is open year-round. We see a lot of reasons to make the short drive to check out Watkins Mill for yourself.
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