The Mormon Trail
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A detailed history of the Mill is on display in the main room.
Copy of original deed on display at the the mill. This document is signed by Brigham Young.
A Settlement and its Mill
In the summer of 1846 a suffering and persecuted religious group paused here along the banks of the Missouri River. They established a temporary city on Omaha and Otoe/Missouria tribal lands. They named their city Winter Quarters. Their path became known as the Mormon Trail.
Their leader, Brigham Young, decided to build a mill in Winter Quarters. It was a significant undertaking. A mill could process grain locally so that men and wagons need not travel to Missouri for supplies. A mill would store seed for planting crops in lands further west. Construction of a mill would keep idle hands busy. Such a large community project would leave little time for mischief among the men and boys. Though Brigham Young was proud of their mill’s many contributions, it was intentionally temporary. The Winter Quarters gristmill was abandoned in 1848 as its stones and machinery were carted west to Salt Lake City. Winter Quarters became a ghost town, yet old timbers remained. Letters and diaries of later pioneering immigrants mentioned the ruins of “Old Mormon Town” as they passed.
Only two things remain today from Winter Quarters … the old pioneer cemetery and a few adz-hewn, randomly notched and pegged timbers within the Florence Mill. Something less tangible also remains from the memory of Winter Quarters … tragedy and hope. The story of Winter Quarters is often told as a tragedy. The Pioneer Cemetery stands as a tragic reminder that sickness or death touched most families. But the story is also one of hope and promise. The mill was a symbol of hope; a structural promise that they would endure, survive and thrive in the refuge of their wilderness city.
Six years later, in 1854, Congress created Nebraska Territory. The Winter Quarters townsite was reborn as Florence. Florence dreamed big dreams. It dreamed of a bridge across Missouri River. It dreamed of being headquarters for the Transcontinental Railroad. It dreamed of being the capital of Territorial Nebraska. It dreamed of land speculation and industry.
A Scotsman on his way to the gold fields, Alexander Hunter, answered an 1854 advertisement in the Council Bluffs newspaper, The Omaha Arrow. The ad proclaimed lots for sale in the new town of Florence. Hunter bought the old Mormon gristmill site and rebuilt his mill using the old hand-hewn and pegged timbers.
Florence’s ambitions faded with the untimely death of its founding father, James C. Mitchell. The bridge at Florence wasn’t built for a hundred years. The Union Pacific Railroad went to Omaha, as did the first Territorial Capital. Yet Florence’s first industry – the grain mill – lasted 150 years.
Alexander Hunter didn’t put down deep roots in Florence. He sold the mill and continued on his westward trek, though he never made it out of Nebraska. He became a shopkeeper and farmer in Superior, Nebraska. Hunter’s hired hand, Jacob Weber, took over the mill. Starting in 1860, three generations of the Weber family worked as millers of Florence through 104 years. The Weber Mill operated from the Civil War to the Cold War, and oversaw technological changes from water power to steam power and finally to electrical power. A grain elevator was added in 1915. The mill was moved 400 feet away from Mill Creek in 1939. Jacob’s grandson, Lyman Weber, eventually sold the mill due to health problems.
Ruthie and Ernie Harpster of Kenwood Feed Store become owners of the old agricultural building in 1964. They protected it from bulldozers during construction of the Interstate Highway. Commerce at the mill and grain elevator stopped around 1989. The old pink mill had outlived its usefulness.
The mill is now a restoration project under the direction of an artist, Linda Meigs. Her role in the history of this structure is to guide its career change from an obsolete and threatened mill/grain elevator into a cultural and historical site. She founded the Winter Quarters Mill Museum in December of 1998. The second floor which once stored sacks of grain is now an art gallery. A summer farmers market brings agriculture back.
The human stories lying behind the mill’s rugged timbers lift this building beyond the value of mere antiquated real estate. The Florence Mill’s story is part of the history of Winter Quarters and the Mormon Trail, the Gold Rush, Nebraska Territory, the establishment of Florence, and America’s agricultural heritage. Mills and country grain elevators were the first industries of the settlement era.
The Florence Mill is Nebraska’s oldest mill.
Its job in the Twenty-first Century is to tell its stories.
Winter Quarters and the Florence Mill
"Winter Quarters" by C.C.A. Christensen
Winter Quarters Mill Museum:
The museum tells a historical story in three chapters: the mill's birth and rebirth in the era of Pioneer Overland Trails, contributions to settlement in Nebraska Territory, and its agricultural role in the changing grain industry from the Civil War to the Cold War. The Florence Mill contains the only structural relics from Winter Quarters and the Mormon Trail, with hand-hewn beams and wooden pegs carved by pioneers for their 1846 gristmill. After the Mormons abandoned Winter Quarters, the mill was rebuilt by a Gold-Rusher who never made it out of Nebraska. The Florence Mill provided agricultural support for the town of Florence in Nebraska Territory. A grain elevator was added in 1915. The rope-driven man-lift and bucket elevator testify to its early industrial use.
Impact of the Gold Rush
Omaha World Herald - April 1999
Evolution of the Grain Industry
Nebraska Historical Marker