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Mill Creek, MO—Fishing for Clues and Reeling in the Years
(By Mark Dean on Jan. 30, 2013)
Mill Creek in Phelps County, south-central Missouri, has a murky, long history for such a clear, short stream. Every feature and creature in the valley has its own history, but we should make handy a brief overview of the MC area and, as information flows in, it can be added like the many branching tributaries that feed the creek. As with most histories, hard facts are here combined with soft interpretations, all dependent on perspectives in the collecting, telling, and receiving.Running Northerly for approximately 8 miles, Mill Creek carries water to the Little Piney River from a watershed ringed roughly by Mo State Highways P, T, and M and is supplemented year-round by large springs (including Elm, Hudgens, DeWitt, and Yelton Springs), which drain aquifers for miles outside this border. It’s one of five “Mill Creeks” in Missouri, but one of only nine streams in the state with a naturally reproducing trout population.Mill Creek is relatively old, running through the northern-most part of the karst Ozarks region-- some of the oldest mountains and foothills in the world -- having largely dodged the advance and retreat of thick glaciers that flattened the rest of the Midwest during the Ice Age.Pre- history is written in the geologic record of the exposed sedimentary rock layers, some of which are rippled sandstone that shows remnants of an inland sea exposed on the ridges 150 feet above the current valley floor. Groundwater, working over millennia, created the springs and caves in the area which serve as reservoirs for fresh water and, more recently, as shelters for animals and native peoples. Archaic arrowheads and other stone tools have been left by early inhabitants as far back as 10,000 BP (before present), and more modern Woodland points left by the by the Osage people into 1700s. The Natural Bridge cave was likely the best accommodation in the area for several thousand years. Eastern trappers (including the Daniel Boone family) and prospectors entered the area in the late 1700s. This was Indian Territory when Lewis and Clark passed nearby on the “Big Muddy” in 1805, until Missouri became a state in 1821. The Northern Trail of Tears passed by the confluence of Mill Creek and the Little Piney as the native Americans were resettled westward in the 1830s.The first white settlers were building log cabins in the 1820s near what is now Newburg and the Grotto. Kaintuck valley (half of Mill Creek watershed) was apparently named by these settlers from the Appalachian area.By the mid-late 1800s, there was a bustling community around Mill Creek, with dozens of farms, 3 one-room schools (Knotwell, Yelton, and Upper MC), two churches (Kentuck and the Methodist-Episcopel “ME” church,) and several cemeteries. Some of these early family names -- including Yelton and Hudgens-- still exist in the area, and several of their buildings still stand. The economy consisted of subsistence farming of the “hardscrabble” hills and rich valleys, timbering, fur trapping, and contributing to the growth of the new American ideal of rugged independence.The Federal Land Grant Act of 1850 conveyed much of the property around Mill Creek to the railroad companies as incentive for developing the proposed cross-country railway. The forests were clear-cut to provide timber for the railroad ties and fuel for steam engines and furnaces. A photo of the hillsides above the Stonewall Yelton home c1910 shows bushes and pasture where there are now mature, 100-year-old oak trees. The railroad later sold land up to their narrow right-of-way and is still listed on the title abstracts of properties miles from the tracks. The railroad played a big part in helping the US Fish commission with their fish stocking across the state. The United States Fish Commission had a railroad car for keeping fish and trout fingerlings that were stocked in streams that paralleled the rail tracks. The trout fingerlings that were stocked in Mill Creek, in the 1880s, were McCloud River Redbands from the McCloud river in California.In the 1880s, two stone blast furnaces (similar to those at Maramec Spring) were built on the Little Piney near the mouth of Mill Creek by a Mr. Knotwell to provide iron for the railroad and industry. A large hotel and thousands of people populated this Grotto area until 1883, when a financial panic closed the iron venture. There are several pit iron mines and at least one tunnel mine dotting the ridges in the Mill Creek watershed. Knotwell School still stands, but the USFS’ Knotwell lookout tower on Hwy P was removed in the 1970s.As the railroad sold off property up to their 100-foot right-of-way, more families were able to claim their stakes in the Ozarks for 50 cents an acre. The wild natural resources attracted hunters and fishing parties, some of whom desired to buy property and take up residence. A notable one was a highway contractor from St. Louis named DeWitt, who purchased a section on upper MC. Mr. Dewitt had worked to build the nearby U.S. Route 66 before he established a sprawling ranch and built a large log home over a lake he’d made by digging out a spring and swamp. The silo he built still stands with the label “DeWitt’s Folly” facing the valley. It was a gorgeous farm by all accounts, but it suffered the same fate as most of the homesteads in the valley when, after DeWitt’s passing, it was sold (against his wishes) to the U.S. Forest Service in the 1960s. The house and outbuildings declined and were auctioned off by the early 1970s. The lake and spring impoundment, though neglected, remain and continue to be a favorite recreational area for camping, hunting, and picnics. Recent USFS managers have planned to remove the lake, silo and close off vehicle access to the area, but hundreds of local citizens have protested this plan. By the1930s the timber was gone, along with most of the animals; and the government stepped in to manage land that was basically “played out” and eroding into the creek. The good news for the residents was the introduction of electric lines in the early 1940s. Each decade since has seen state and/or federal governments buy up more of the property on Mill Creek watershed for Clark National Forest. The USFS succeeded --with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps and private landowners-- in replanting the woodlands. The new MDC (established in 1936) restored the wildlife— especially the deer and turkey, which had been nearly wiped out and set up programs to protect the soil.As the population dwindled, so did the need for the closest post office and store at Vessie, MO which was at the South end of Kaintuck road on Hwy T from 1909 to 1945.The government has little competition when it comes to land acquisition, endless institutional patience, and a big appetite. Today the Mark Twain NF covers nearly 1.5 million acres. In addition, the MDC properties combine to make the government the largest land owner in Phelps County and the state. New acquisitions look bleak as the tidy homes become razed and former family farms grow up in brush. But the public can have more access, and it gets wilder and woollier for the animals.In 1976 Clark NF was absorbed into Mark Twain NF and headquartered in Rolla, and later Houston. MDC continues to reintroduce native species such as otters, while they promote eradication of invasive species like zebra mussels, kudzu and feral hogs. Some returning wildlife such as rattlesnakes, bear and cougars are less welcome in the neighborhood but rarely seen.Mill Creek Park was established and grew to a thriving camping and picnic area known for its clean stream, cave trails, and a fresh artesian well. Recent budget cuts and shifting priorities in USFS have discontinued the maintenance of Mill Creek Park and the DeWitt area, but that may change.In 2012 several groups interested in the MC watershed area decided to work together for their common interests. Comprised of property owners (including private, MDC and USFS), visitors, stream teams, fishermen, and others, the MC Watershed Coalition was established to combine efforts to restore some of the recreational areas, maintain access; and improve the water quality, wildlife, and natural resources. The future is bright for this old stream.Lilly Hudgens was born on the creek in 1907, lived here all her life, and watched the changes in the valley. She told me repeatedly before her death at age 90 that her family was adamant that their century farm not be sold to the government (it was flipped to the MDC by the first buyer within a few years). She never knew of a “mill” on the creek and had no idea why it was so-named. Other long-time residents confirm no recollection of a mill. Perhaps the name was wishful thinking or an early marketing ploy, like naming a town Success or Pleasant Hope (both in MO).Today, after 30 years of asking, I stumbled upon an old print article which mentions a “Flint Mill” on our Mill Creek, with no other information on the whereabouts. Now we have more to search for in the history of Mill Creek, as we also search for the best ways to balance the usage/access and the natural habitats in the area. About the AuthorMark has visited MC since 1969, lived in the various parts of the MC valley since 1982 and seen a lot of change. Most change here is slow compared to urban sprawl, and some change is for the better. When asked for a “history of Mill Creek” and finding none, he set about to assemble a collection of recollections based on interviews with the long-time residents. This story will be growing, illustrated, and edited as time permits. C 2013, reprint by permission only. Please e-mail comments, stories and photos to Mark by clicking here or visit the Friends of Mill Creek Facebook Page by clicking here.