Topaz: A spring-fed time capsule

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The remnants of Topaz, a defunct village in Douglas County, offer a look at the past.


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Topaz in 1967. (Courtesy of the Ozarks Mountaineer)

TOPAZ – These days, the tiny town of Topaz really isn’t even a memory.

During its heyday, the Douglas County community was a hub for local life, offering services from a blacksmith, barber, grist mill and general store. But that era is long gone — along with most people who recalled it firsthand.

Ghosts, however, still call it home. Along the banks of a 10-million-gallon-a-day spring are remains of cherry-red grist mill, and old-fashioned general store. They’re sites that offer a unique look at an Ozarks past, and thankfully, ones that their current owners gladly share with the world.

Starting the settlement

Little is known about Topaz’s early years. It’s believed that Henry Schoolcraft initially discovered the settlement’s spring in the early 1800s, which he dubbed Elkhorn Spring. Unfortunately, many other details around Topaz’s existence are piecemeal.

“1840 or 1850 is when (the original mill) was supposedly built,” says Joe Bob O’Neal, whose family owns the property today. “One piece of paper we’ve got says the original mill was adjacent to the spring. Now what that means, I’m not really sure.”

As far as goods go, a 1967 article in the Ozarks Mountaineer says that John Talley was the first person to set up a store at Topaz. “His store was in a log cabin and older people remember that he and his family always ate their bread ‘without any rizin’ in it,'” recorded the magazine.

But another driving force was Robartus Hutcheson. A “come-here” from the St. Louis area, Hutcheson relocated on the recommendation of his brother, Richard Hutcheson, in the late 1800s.

Once again, details are hazy: But it seems that Richard Hutcheson bought the store from Talley, probably around 1890. Three years later (or so), the second Hutcheson came to the area with his family.

According to “Douglas County, Missouri: History and Families,” Richard Hutcheson eventually became discouraged, sold out to his brother, and returned to where he came. Hutcheson in turn decided to improve the Topaz area:

Robartus was a shrewd business man. Although his brother had a grist-mill and a small store, Robartus saw need of a bigger and better store and post office. His wife was the postmistress at Topaz all the years they lived there.

The greatest of all his needs was a flour mill to take care of all wheat and corn the farmers brought in on horses and in wagons to have the wheat and corn ground.”

Although the dates and details are hazy, a new mill came on the scene around the turn of the 20th century. In 1903 — perhaps after it was finished — a three-page receipt lists mill equipment delivered to Topaz from Great Western Manufacturing Company. And at some point, a better way was found to harness power than with a waterwheel.

“They figured out if they raised the level of that spring 12 feet, ran that water down a raceway, and dumped it down a boiler flue on to a turbine, you’d get a whole lot more power than you do with a waterwheel,” says O’Neal. “It’s just amazing that they could do that.”

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An undated view of Topaz Mill. (Courtesy of “Douglas County, Missouri: History and Families”)


As time progressed, Topaz grew. And, as was common throughout the Ozarks, the town became the heartbeat of local life.

“Since each gristmill attracted regular customers from its area, a blacksmith, a coppersmith and others soon sprang up forming a settlement around the mill,” wrote the Joplin Globe in an article on grist mills from January 1978. “In later years, other businesses in a gristmill settlement were likely to include a general store, post office, bank and church.”

Topaz had many of these things, and eventually consisted of a post office, a blacksmith shop, a tomato canning factory, a garage, the general store and the mill, which also housed a barbershop.

But by the 1940s, the town was nearly gone: Progress eliminated the need for its existence. According to a Mountaineer article from 1974, flour was made at the mill until the early 1920s, and corn meal through the late ’30s. O’Neal says the post office closed in 1943. One record says the store survived until 1945.

A new chapter

O’Neal didn’t learn of the Topaz community until 1957, when his grandparents and aunt and uncle purchased the property. The drought of the ’50s had made life difficult for the farming family, and the chance to move from Republic to an ample water source was too tempting to pass up.

“I’ve still got the newspaper ad, the real estate ad, for this place out of the Springfield newspaper in 1956,” says O’Neal, recalling the two or three sentences of text that referenced the “old mill stream.”

At the time, however, things weren’t looking good for the mill. “It is leaning and fast falling into decay, and can be reached only by a rough and hazardous road,” recorded the Ozarks Mountaineer in July 1958. “The old mill race has rotted and long ago was claimed by the deep gorge that races madly on behind the mill.”

But the right people had purchased the property. It likely gave special delight for O’Neal’s grandfather, Clarence O’Neal, who spent his years in the 1920s and ’30s working in mills in Republic and Springfield. “…He would’ve known everything about that mill in there, ’cause it would’ve been the same stuff,” says O’Neal. “Same equipment. He would’ve known exactly how it all worked.”

Unfortunately, the elder O’Neal didn’t get much time to rehab Topaz Mill: He passed away just three years after moving to Douglas County. But his son, Joe O’Neal, spent years preserving the old store and mill — and was showing off the site to visitors even back in the 1970s.

Those years, however, haven’t given Topaz a great deal of notoriety — except with locals. For two decades, it attracted hordes of visitors each October when the O’Neals held an annual fundraiser for the Eastern Douglas County Fire Department. “(There were) hundreds of people,” says O’Neal. “It was like a reunion for people who were from down here.”

Those picnics ceased in 2005, and O’Neal’s uncle passed away a few years later. But the family connection remains constant: Billie O’Neal, his widow, still owns the farm, and the younger O’Neal and his wife, Betsy, moved to the property in 2012.

Seeing the store and mill

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The mill’s machinery remains.


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Vintage machinery dates to 1903.

In a sense, it seems like the town just locked the door and left.

A creaky swing of the mill’s door reveals a vision of another time; of a life that no longer exists. Sunlight, streaming through glass-plane windows, bathes metal wheels in seemingly every size. They lie in wait, paused by time and necessity.

“The original machinery remains in the mill, along with the belts and attached cups to carry grain, flour, meal, bran, etc., from one bin to another,” recorded the Mountaineer in 1974. “High patent flour much like the flours of today, only free of chemical fertilizers or preservatives and bleaches, was processed through three rolls.”

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Where corn is ground into meal.


Block letters, with ever-so-meticulously angled corners, spell “wheat,” “flour” and the like on bins. A dusting of flour powders the walls. And worn, but perhaps not worn out, belts hold still where they were last asked to move.

And once in a while, part of the machinery does operate: O’Neal grinds corn when the fancy strikes, the 600-pound stone still serving as it did years ago.

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Reminders of Topaz Mill’s glory days remain.


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The barber shop

Through a doorway, the barber chair sits in slow decay. Worn with time and use, its black covering mostly endures — as do long-ago prices, advertising haircuts and tonics, painted on the wall.

The first floor is for corn; the second for flour. Stairs, made for walking but not necessarily for safety, take the curious steeply up for a peek at the building’s second and third stories.

Outside, a stone race — replacing a former wooden one — waits dryly until power is needed. The gushing spring still sends water alongside the mill, sunlight dancing as the flow travels on. The name Topaz actually didn’t come from the spring; it was simply selected from a list of options, says O’Neal. But that doesn’t diminish the its beauty.

“The water that fed the mill so long ago is still beautiful,” recorded the Mountaineer in 1958. “Deep, deep pools are fed by springs and at the overflow. Mad-dashing and roaring water tumbles over huge rocks, down into the gorge below. The scene is enchanting and stout motorists will be repaid for their journey.”

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The spring pumps out 10 million gallons a day.


On the other side of the mill sits the store.

A piano, last tuned in the late 1920s, takes center stage when one walks in the door. Scales and soda bottles and old vintage signs decorate the space, alongside once necessary, but no longer needed, machines — like one especially designed to sharpen lawn-mower blades. And then there’s the wall of axe handles, hewn by O’Neal’s uncle years ago, that line a back wall.

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Entering the store.


Its well-worn wooden floor doesn’t see the foot traffic it did in the past, but the walls don’t know that. Inside, scales and counters and even a roll of paper remind of former sales — and perhaps purchases. After all, “the store bought chickens, eggs, cream, furs, dressed rabbits, honey and sold almost all the needs of the farmers,” recorded the Mountaineer in 1967.

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Where packages were wrapped and accounts likely settled.


In addition to keeping farmers stocked with supplies, the store also helped connect them to the outside world through Topaz’s post office. For a period, it was housed in the store; perhaps it was at that point, as the Mountaineer recounts, when mail was overseen by a Mr. Lawson:

“When there was any amount of mail to carry, he went with his team but when there was only a small bundle of letters he sent one of his boys on a bicycle. The 18 miles to Topaz is a succession of hills. They body had to push the bicycle up the hills, but they could coast down and they made very good time. They started out early in the morning, were at Topaz by noon. They waited around the mill until the mail was made up, strapped the bundle of letters on and were in Cabool that evening.”

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One of the collections that fill the store.


The O’Neals know that the remnants of their village are special. Recently, they established a non-profit organization — Friends of Topaz Mill, Inc. — to have a way to accept donations for the buildings’ maintenance and preservation. As of right now, the bulk of the work is done from their own funds, as well as any grants and donations they receive.

But even though it’s their family’s property, they’re happy to show visitors around the instant step back in time — one that, despite its age, still seems like a best-kept secret.

“We’re still surprised about how many people show up and go, ‘I’ve lived down here all my life and didn’t know this was here,'” says Betsy O’Neal.

Want to visit?

Visiting Topaz Mill (Route 63 Box 728, Cabool; 417-948-0154) is free and open to the public, although it’s best to call or message ahead to make sure the O’Neals will be at home and available.

When headed there, don’t reply on Google Maps. (It will get you there, but there’s a chance that it will take you down a leaf-covered trail that has huge rocks sticking out of the ground.)

Instead, go from Cabool: Drive south from Cabool on Hwy 181 to Hwy 76. Turn right, go about half a mile, and turn left on State Route “E”. Go about four miles; the pavement ends just past Mt. Ararat Church. Continue on the dirt road about 1.5 miles and you will come to Topaz.

For more information about the mill, connect with the O’Neals on Facebook.

Resources

  • A trip to Topaz Mill, Ozarks Mountaineer, Olva R. Griffin, December 1974
  • Douglas County, Missouri: History and Families, 1996
  • Minding Yesterday’s Mill, Springfield News-Leader, Steve Koehler, Oct. 21, 1997
  • Past era relived in gristmills tour, Joplin Globe, Betty Patrick, Jan. 22, 1978
  • Topaz Mill, Old Mill News, Theresa A. Bade, Fall 1989
  • Topaz Mill of yesteryear, Ozarks Mountaineer, July 1958
  • Unusual names in the Ozarks: Topaz, Ozarks Mountaineer, Ruth Bowler, October 1967