Editor's Note: This article is part of a monthly series on the history of Webster City, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser
Nothing remains but a few large boulders on the bank of the Boone River. There is an occasional hint, when the river runs low, of what might be the remnants of a dam structure. Only a single, reddish-brown sign on the Boone River Recreational Trail at the Ohio Street trailhead marks the site of a longtime city landmark the Chase Mill.
Walter C. and Sumler Willson, early settlers of Webster City, chose the area in 1855, to build the city's first sawmill. The water-powered saws provided rough cut boards to build the early houses. The basement housed a gristmill for grinding corn to provide hominy to enhance pioneer diets.
A line drawing of the mill was done by Nancy DeCoursey Pringle in the mid 1970s. The Chase Mill was located on the banks of the Boone River. All that remains today are some large boulders on the river’s edge and a sign at the Boone River Recreational trailhead near Ohio Street.
It wasn't long before other business interests took up the Willson Brothers' time and they sold the Webster City Water Mill to Charles Stoddard and W. B. Pray. This duo added more saws to produce fine cut lumber and to manufacture cottonwood shingles. The two men also established a furniture factory beside the mill to provide cabinets, chairs and even coffins to the growing number of town residents.
In the winter of 1870, H. C. Hillock and F. R. Mason began sawing native oak timbers to rebuild the mill, which was then owned by John Hill and his brother-in-law Preston Kimball. Hill modernized the facility to produce excellent quality flour, according to local news reports.
Historical accounts disagree on the exact date, but sometime between 1873 and 1881, Judge Daniel D. Chase purchased the mill business. Throughout his ownership, Chase employed or leased the mill to several men including the LaBarr Brothers, Charles Closz and P. G. Stearns. The last operator was said to be Clark Olmstead.
The site became forever marked as the Chase Mill on the Boone River.
A water mill is dependent on waterpower supplied by the river. Through the years, the business could go long periods with no river power, which affected the profitability of the venture. When water levels where high, the local newspapers would report the millers were "working day and night to fill orders".
Having a mill in town attracted new settlers and relieved them of long ox and wagon trips to mills in distant settlements. Having a mill also brought trade to the area from outlying districts. A mill meant a bustling business community environment.
The Chase mill dam backed up the Boone River from the mill site to just north of the Second Street bridge, making the river wider and several feet higher. The wide expanse of water, along with free-flowing wells near river's edge, provided the impetus for S. B. Rosencrans to build his health resort park in the mid-1880's. The park was located on the east side of the Boone just south of Dubuque street. There was even enough water for Captain Ed Mabbott's steamboat, the "Daniel Boone," to offer scenic rides to park visitors.
Webster City's first settler, Wilson Brewer, had a fish trap close by the mill site and drew water from a flowing well nearby. The allure of the river and easy accessibility to the spot drew residents to the area for recreation such as picnics and swimming. News reports from the early 1900's even pointed out the spot to be a favorite party site for young city residents. The reports generally contained the quantity of "refreshments" seized and dumped by the local constables.
The dam at the Chase Mill intrigued local residents. Reporting on when and how the ice went out of the area was newsworthy, as was the quality and quantity of ice harvested by local firms each winter.
But it was the "Iron Horse" which began the demise of the Chase Mill. In 1881, the Northwestern Railroad built its lines close by. The tracks and train traffic adversely affected the mill business as customers found it difficult and dangerous to haul their grains over the tracks to the mill. Judge Chase claimed a "hindrance of business" against the Railroad and collected $1500 in damages.
Additional technical advances made the water mill obsolete as more steam powered mills emerged. And even those mills fell to the wayside as manufacturing firms produced flours and feedstuffs in large, more economical quantities for shipment to small towns by rail traffic.
Chase Mill ceased to function as a business in the mid-1890's. In 1906, John Wesloh bought the building for $100 to salvage the lumber. The April 13, 1906 edition of the Webster City Tribune reported the sale and salvage, "It was largely owing to the uncertainty as to river conditions that the mill was finally abandoned. The demolishing of the building removes a landmark which many people will miss and records the onward step of progress which means the utilization of everything even to landmarks in which there is any value".
Beginning in 1906 and up to the early 1940's, citizens created plans to replace the dam at the old mill site. In the early years, the notion to move the city's power plant to the area to use waterpower instead of coal became popular and then was wisely abandoned. The idea of a wider, deeper Boone River in the name of conservation, better fishing and recreation as the next community goal would emerge periodically.
A different use
In 1923, the mill site dam concept was again under consideration. The Freeman-Journal in a Nov. 6, 1923 news report stated that C. H. Currie, city sanitary engineer, told the local Rotary Club that "a dam would merely create a huge filthy septic tank". Currie continued, "the present manner of dumping the sewers into it (Boone River) makes it the merest folly to advocate a dam until some other method is found of disposing of sewage."
Not much remains of the old Chase Mill landmark, except a few boulders on the bank and a small log section from the dam salvaged by Frank Hubbard in 1976. Hubbard presented the log, which has an intact spike, to the Wilson Brewer Park Museum where it is on display.
The written history of Webster City often contains the statement "near the old Chase Mill site" to remind readers of geographic location. The landmark designation continues today, more than 150 years after the business was established, as a trail marker on Webster City's Boone River Trail.