An Ozark journey Buster Mill: ‘A famous old historic landmark’
When we think of “the mills of Ozark County” we generally envision a few water-powered mills on fairly large streams or constantly flowing springs. But what about those mills that have vanished over time? In a short article titled “Our Water Supply” published in the Sept. 24, 1909, edition of the Times, an unnamed author wrote, “Our county is traversed in all directions by a large number of spring fed streams…never failing and abundant…one of the assets of Ozark County that may always be depended upon.”
The writer went on to say that, “Along the larger streams may be found hundreds of mill sites and locations for wood-working plants that can use water for motive power.”
Today most Ozark Countians are familiar with the locations of the mills of Ozark County that still stand: Hodgson, Dawt, Rockbridge, Zanoni and Hammond. But what about those “hundreds of mill sites” mentioned as possibilities by the 1909 writer? How many other mills operated here?
In previous columns in this “Ozark journey” series, a mention of Davis Mill in the correspondence of a Civil War soldier (see the Aug. 21 and Sept. 18 editions of thr Times) prompted a search that seemed like looking for a needle in a haystack. But then, with some help from a Times reader, we were finally able to locate that “needle” and find the site of that former mill.
On the other hand, another long-gone mill, Buster Mill, is not one of those footsteps lost in time. The late Ruby Robins, former owner and publisher of the Times, wrote about Buster Mill in the March 1, 1962, edition of the Times and shared a similar account 32 years later in the Ozark County Historical and Genealogical Society’s Old Mill Run (October 1994). Historian Chyrl Ripple covered it from another perspective in the “Baxter County Beginnings” column of The Baxter Bulletin (Oct. 28, 2000). It has even been discussed on some genealogy websites.
Still, there is a sense of mystery about Buster Mill. Its published history has been pieced together mainly through bits of folklore and a few surviving public records.
Many residents of the county drive by its former site often, some every day, and are completely unaware. On the road to Mountain Home, Arkansas, known today as J Highway, one crosses Lick Creek on a narrow bridge near Howards Ridge. On the west side of the bridge (upstream) the creek is joined by Sweeten Branch. If one were to stand on that bridge and look downstream (to the east) there is still a ripple in the water about 25 yards below the bridge. That ripple is where the old Buster Mill dam, with an 8-foot head of water, once stood.
The 10’x14’ log-sided mill attached to the dam was built into the side of the steep hill on the south bank. It was a comparatively small mill, first built in the early 1890s by the brothers Dick and John Cope. Ownership changed hands frequently during the first two decade of its existence, but Marion Kirkland and Swanee Baxter were the principal owners and developers—sometimes as partners. Both the Kirklands and the Baxters were familiar names in the early days of settlement in this area.
A flood sometime prior to 1900 washed parts of the mill downstream. In 1901, Baxter rebuilt it and added a cotton gin nearby. In 1903 he added a saw mill.
The mill was mentioned briefly in a local news item (Times, July 6, 1923) and apparently was abandoned shortly after that. Buster Mill and its dam have since been erased from the scene by countless floods, though it has not disappeared completely from public memory.
Starting about 1912, West Plains grocers Reed and Harlin sold some “house brand” products to the general public and to other local merchants for resale. These included satin-finish writing tablets and hole-punched looseleaf “filler paper” with a “Buster” label. A few senior citizens of Ozark County probably still have one of these rare treasures tucked away in a cabinet of pleasant memories. One can only imagine the number of love letters the pages from Buster tablets made possible or the scrapbooks created on Buster filler paper.
These products were successfully marketed for more that 50 years. The packaging of both the tablets and the looseleaf filler paper bore an image of Buster Mill with a rustic sign in front of it saying “A Famous Old Historic Landmark.”
One can only wonder why Buster Mill, in Ozark County, was chosen by a Howell County firm for this marketing image. What made it any more historic or famous than the other contemporary mills?
One of the local retailers that carried these products was the Guy Johnson Store in Pontiac. When that store closed in the 1960s, local native Marvin Looney happened to see a stack of the filler paper sitting on the counter and bought all of the packages for 5 cents each. Over the years, they all disappeared as gifts. The sole remaining packet of filler paper went to Ozark County native Carla Robinson Lane, now living in Kansas City.She kindly sent it back to Marvin just so we could see it in person and get a photo.
One can’t help but wonder how Buster Mill got its name. According to The Baxter Bulletin article mentioned above, the spot where the old road crossed Lick Creek was called “Buster Crossing.” It’s thought the name recognized the vicious nature of the creek at that point during rainy seasons. There is, however, another possibility for the name’s origin. At the Missouri Home Town Locator website (missouri.hometownlocator.com), this crossing is recorded as an historical site with the name “Billy Buster Ford.” We also find that name on a 1934 topographical map (above).
Like many other place names on topo maps, the name appears to have been inspired by some person of historical significance locally. Both of these names for the “crossing,” or “ford,” would seem to predate the existence of any bridge over the creek and probably the building of the mill itself. The mill’s name seems likely to have been prompted by its location next to that ford.
Although William Buster turns out to be a fairly common name, we have yet to confirm a William or “Billy” Buster in Ozark County history. However, we have found records of early Missouri settlers with the family name Buster. We will add that name to our “mystery list” and keep searching for clues as we proceed on our Ozark Journey.