Had the son of the owner of the water mill at Hurley Missouri been more careful with his brush fire I could have photographed an earlier and more conventionally nostalgic relic of technology. The rambling three-story, crudely built, added-on, and deteriorating structure built in 1892 burned to ashes on April 3, 2005. Don Christenson had purchased the property in 1997 and embarked on an ambitious restoration when it was ignited by his boy’s careless cleanup effort. A newspaper article at the time said the heartbroken son was going to earn money to rebuild it for his dad. Obviously that didn’t happen. The site today consists of a few fire-scorched and rusty pieces of machinery set among some foundation stones. Invasive weeds and sumac are already being replaced by trees. In another decade, finding any evidence there was ever a historic mill here will require archaeology.
In the lot next to the overgrown watermill ruins is a neat small stone filling station with an old green car in front and a faded orange visible gas pump. A rusted iron-wheeled saw completes the exhibit of dated objects but not so ancient as the medieval technology of watermills. Other obsolete machines and implements are scattered about the grounds. The walnut buying operation is closed, but has a sign that indicates when it will reopen. A machine that holds the nuts deposits the shells into an old two-ton baby blue Ford truck with a yellow hood and faded red bed. Gathering food from the woods is even more ancient than the utilization of waterpower to grind grain.
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Across the road is a café, and behind it the Spring Creek Farm and Home business, which is in the early stages of ruination. Its milling machinery did not grind wheat for baking bread. It processed trucked-in grain for cattle feed. After the Missouri-Pacific Railroad came through Hurley in 1905, bringing flour that was grown and milled in Kansas with more efficiency than the small Stone County farms and watermill. The old watermill began primarily producing animal food. What outside competition doomed the Spring Creek Farm and Home enterprise, we haven’t learned.
Even if this recently deceased business has plastic, concrete block, and tin building materials instead of the more venerable stone and wood of classic ruins, time is lashing the remains. The untreated wounds of neglect are evident. But there are enough scarred and weathered wood components to wish for an 8 x 10 view camera and slow film.
At the back of the defunct agricultural service a muddy road plunges into a young forest. On the hills are steps, foundations and collapsed frame houses. There was a time in the Twenties and Thirties when the railroad brought some opportunities for these frugal subsistence farmers. Hurley then had twice its current population of 170. A 1927 Stone County booklet pronounced with only a little puffery:
Hurley is said to be the most mutual, cooperative and moral town in Stone County. It is a small town on the Missouri Pacific Railroad, between Crane and Springfield and surrounded with very fertile productive land, and it claims, in proportion to size, the largest trade of any town in the county. A stream of clear spring water runs through the center of the town sufficient to grind out the best flour, meal and feed; and the pretty homes and streets are all clean and the inhabitants healthy. Of course such a town and community has a good school and religious services and the business firms listed below carry a complete stock of merchandise, machinery, lumber, feed, etc., to supply the surrounding country.
A recollection of Hurley 1920-1990 by Ray Gold on www.rootsweb.ancestry.com tells of this hardscrabble but not demoralizing Ozark existence:
No two people will remember the same things just alike, and there is good reasons for that. We were all real close to our families, because of poor roads, poor transportation, very few telephones, no electricity, no TV, no money, and many other reasons. We really didn’t miss any of this stuff, because we didn’t know anything about it. Everyone lived about the same way as their neighbor. We all had out houses and no running water in our homes. If we were lucky we had a cellar full of canned fruit and vegetables, an old cow for our milk, and a smoke-house full of hog meat and lard. That is a few of the reasons we never got very far from home. When we were real young, everything was strange to us if we were ten miles from home. So we just rememberd things that happened in our small world.
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There is a larger than average quantity of such recollections from this part of the Ozarks. Mary Scott Hair, aka “Samanthy,” wrote a paid column beginning in 1948 in the Crane Chronicle that recorded the life and times of Hurleyites. Her father had once owned the Spring Creek Mill, and she and her husband and daughter worked a small farm nearby. In a 1982 interview printed in Bittersweet she summed up her life:
I have lived in Hurley all my life and I probably won’t live anywhere else. I am rooted and grounded in Hurley. My younger days were Hurley’s best days. Sometime I wonder whether or not it was all make believe.
Such rural experiences related by Stone County old timers were not unique to the Ozarks. As Hurley was on the fringe of the Shepherd of the Hills country whose mythos idealized plain folk, these natives may have been incentivized and more confident writing down the minutia of their bucolic existence than small farmers in regions not celebrated in books and promoted by Arcadian tourism.