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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Fitzhugh-Watts Mill Forges Pioneer Spirits For Over a Century

Earliest known photograph of Fitzhugh-Watts Mill from 1898

Tucked away on the banks of Indian Creek are the remnants of what once was a center of considerable activity. Pioneers from all over the southern Jackson Co. area would hitch up their wagons and take the journey to the mill at current-day 103rd and State Line to grind their flour and corn. Other pioneers on their journey out West got wind of the goings-on at Indian Creek and made a special stop there to round up supplies before embarking on their several months’ journey into the abyss of the American frontier.

A drawing by Vernon Hampton in the Kansas City Star
of Watts Mill published in 1939.
What we refer to today as Watts Mill, thanks in part to the shopping center named in its honor, was of major importance in the early history of the area. To have a mill on the edge of “modern” civilization was paramount. Today, the stone remains at the very location of the mill leaves us imagining the incredible stories and lives of the pioneers that once coveted this location.

Well before it was coined “Watts Mill,” it was referred to as “Fitzhugh’s Mill.” In 1832, John Fitzhugh (1792-1878) and his brother, George (1790-1863), patented 40 acres on Indian Creek. The rushing waters, limestone edges and waterfall proved to be a perfect location for a sawmill. They dammed up Indian Creek and took a gamble on the edge of civilization, using hand-hewn native oak and walnut to erect Fitzhugh’s Mill- one year before Westport was platted and 20 years before Kansas City was founded.

This mill was the place to be.

In a short amount of time, Fitzhugh’s Mill became a gathering place. Its success as a sawmill led way to replace it to a gristmill, so they imported millstones from France and changed their operation. This became a central location for the Native Americans and early settlers to trade furs, ground meal and flour, and “catch up” on the endeavors of newly-settled pioneers. Word of mouth was the foundations of this mill, and it wasn’t long before travelers on the Santa Fe Trail started to stop at Fitzhugh’s Mill before their long journey into the Wild West.

In May 1843, Fitzhugh’s Mill is mentioned by name in the diary of James Nesmith as he and 800 pioneers gathered at this very location en route to Oregon and California. This was one of the very first wagon trains documented, with approximately 125 wagons heading West. Travelers camped along the banks of Indian Creek, utilized the power of the mill to ground supplies, and took off into the frontier.

The Fitzhugh’s sold their interest in the mill to James Hunter and Duke Simpson of Westport in 1842. In 1845, the Fitzhugh’s opted to travel south to Texas for new land and opportunity. They continued their success of mill operation in Collin Co., Tex., where they opened a new sawmill that was said to have built all of the county.

A marker at the location of Lone Elm
Campground at Lone Elm Park,
Olathe, Ks. Photo courtesy of
William Fischer, Jr.
Hunter and Simpson sold their interest in the mill in 1846 to Albert Boone (famed as the first owner of what is now Kelly’s in Westport) and James Hamilton.

Another pioneer diary of the time that has survived mentions Fitzhugh’s Mill as well. Susan Magaffin, in 1846 or 1847, traveled the Santa Fe Trail bound for New Mexico. She wrote, “Preparing to camp at Lone Elm. This is the first camp from [Fitzhugh’s], which is on the border of Missouri and the place at which our wagons stayed the night before.” Lone Elm, where she was approaching while writing in her diary, was a location about four miles south of Olathe, Ks.

Most likely just looking for business opportunity, the owners, Simpson and Hunter, first leased and then sold the mill in 1850 to Anthony Benaugh Watts (b. 1788), a miller from St. Charles, Mo.

Anthony Watts knew there was new competition. Five miles away, Ezra Hickman had completed building a gristmill in what would become known as Hickman’s Mill. According to folklore, the town of Hickman’s Mill, which popped up as a result of the location of the mill, was filed as a town under the incorrect name of “Hickman Mills,” thus its name today.

Anthony Benaugh Watts's headstone
at Pleasant Valley Cemetery.
Courtesy of
In order to compete with Hickman’s new mill, Anthony expanded the mill so he could be involved in commercial milling. It was said that the mill was so large that it stood once as a landmark along the frontier.

Anthony’s fifth born child, Stubbins (b. 1838), when he was just old enough to drive a yoke and oxen- only 15 years old- was hired by Majors, Russell and Waddell. He made the trip many times to New Mexico on the Santa Fe Trail.

Stubbins would always return after his lengthy trips and work side-by-side with his father, learning from him how to take over the family business of milling. Anthony Watts died in 1861, and the Civil War called Stubbins into service. He joined the Confederate Army for four years.

After the end of the Civil War, Stubbins returned to Watts Mill, his father buried in the ground and a mill that needed to be used to grind yet again. He continued the operation of the mill well before the town of Dallas emerged along 103rd St.

On May 21, 1871 Stubbins got himself a wife. He was married to Nancy Catherine “Kate” Grimsley (1851-1926) in front of the mill by a traveling preacher. . . in their bare feet. They went on to have three children, Edgar, Richard and Lizzie.

Kate and Stubbins Watts outside their home just west of Watts Mill.
One of the stone fireplaces can be seen in the background.
The mill continued to be a gathering place amongst local pioneer families, and dances that would last all night were held on the banks of Indian Creek. These dances sound like they were quite the big deal back in the day and would often, when weather didn’t permit, occur inside the Watts’s home. The house, built by Stubbins’ father, was just west of the mill. Lumber to build the two-story house came from the trees on Indian Creek. Two fireplaces commissioned with grey stone were on the north and south side of the home. It had a large sitting room with a beamed ceiling, and in the upstairs was a big hall used for dances.

The "Fiddling Miller of Dallas,"
Stubbins Watts
While parents danced the night away, kids would be laid out across the floor in borrowed pallets or on beds they would bring with them on their wagons. Neighborhood dances at Watts Mill would occur for years- there were dances for Christmas that lasted all night and 4th of July dances that would last all day. Seven fiddlers, including Stubbins Watts, would take turns playing- and when they weren’t playing, they were dancing.

Stubbins was a large part of the draw to Watts Mill’s dances with his long, flowing white beard, dark eyes and ability to tell a really great story. A 1955 article published in the Kansas City Star wrote of Stubbins, “He was an entertaining, garrulous man, remembered particularly for his ‘anecdotage’ when he liked to relate tales of Civil War battles in which he fought for the ‘Rebs.’”

He was quite good at fiddling, thus he became known far and wide as “the fiddling miller of Dallas.” He claimed, “You can’t play the fiddle without you tap your foot.” He taught his sons, Dick and Edgar, to play the fiddle. One of their favorite tunes was a trio featuring all of them called “Leather Britches,” which includes the lyrics, “My wife kicked me out of bed because I had my britches on.”

That just makes you want to get up a dance, doesn’t it?!

1877 plat map showing the location of
Watts Mill and Bridger's nearby farm
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves as we imagine these epic parties. Stubbins and Kate Watts were violently opposed to liquor. According to Lola P. Garrison’s article published in Kansas City Genealogy Magazine in 1964, a lifelong resident said, “If Aunt Kate and Uncle Stubbins knew their pictures were hanging in the entrance to the Indian Creek Inn (a restaurant once located near the mill that served liquor), they would turn over in their graves.”

Mountain man Jim Bridger, who lived to the south of Watts Mill, was a frequent visitor of Stubbins. They were such good friends that Bridger asked to be buried at the Watts Burial Ground (now 101st and Jefferson). In 1881, Stubbins honored his old friend’s wish after Jim Bridger passed away inside the Watts’ home.

In 1904, Jim Bridger’s remains were reinterred at Mount Washington Cemetery. In a Kansas City Star article from 1912, Stubbins was asked why he allowed Bridger to be moved. He replied, “Well, it will only be a few years now till the city will build out over that old graveyard. . . And it won’t be much longer till the city will come on out and take this mill, too.”

Famous mountain man Jim Bridger
Unfortunately, he was correct. First, his family’s bodies at the Watts burial ground were removed to Stanley, Ks to Pleasant Valley Cemetery. Stubbins cremated his father and took an old buhrstone imported from France by the Fitzhugh’s and used it as a headstone for his father. Even in his 80s, Stubbins still was working the old mill, holding onto the old-fashioned customs that had been replaced by modern conveniences.

When Stubbins Watts’ son, Edgar visited the original site of Bridger’s grave after it was removed, he found Bridger’s jaw bone as he was filling the hole with dirt. Enamored with the find and unsure how to proceed, Edgar took the jaw bone home and mentioned nothing of it to his aging father.

For 62 years, Stubbins labored away on the banks of the Indian Creek until his death in 1922. Before his casket was closed and his remains were buried next to his family at Pleasant Valley Cemetery Stanley, Ks., Edgar took the jaw bone of Bridger’s and dropped it into his father’s casket.

Edgar was reported to have said, “Well, they laughed and talked together so it seemed the fittin’ thing to do.”
Inside the old Watts Mill, Stubbins Watts shows a visitor
 how to grind corn.


Fittingly, Stubbins Watts’ headstone also features one of the millstones.

Stubbins’ son, Edgar took over the operations of Watts Mill even after Walnut Grove Park opened next to it. People proved to love the location, oftentimes swimming near the waterfall as the old mill still could be heard grinding in the background. This spot was so popular as a swimming destination that people came from far and wide. On July 9, 1921, tragedy struck the location.

1932 article in the Kansas City Star
announces the centennial of Watts Mill 
19 year-old Ballauf Ramsey, a student at Rockhurst College, went with two friends to swim near Watts Mill. He took off his clothes in the pool of water just to the north of the crashing waters of the mill in an area about 60 feet wide and 12 feet deep. Quickly, he found himself caught in the waves and screamed for help… but it was too late.

About four hours later, his father and others recovered his body from the banks of Indian Creek.

This type of thing didn’t discourage people from relief from the heat; people continued to swim in Indian Creek for years.

In 1932, a centennial celebration of the old Fitzhugh-Watts Mill occurred. People were encouraged to bring picnics and celebrate at the site. Over 6,000 people showed up, many armed with personal stories of the old days of the mill. Jim Bridger’s daughter, Jennie Hahn, was in attendance.

A 1922 advertisement in the Kansas City
Star shows that Watts Mill flour was used
The last mill operators were R.W. Cummins and his wife, Lizzie Watts. Edgar remained close by, and he could sense that the need of an old mill was slowly coming to an end. He stated, “Our meal is the most wholesome in the country. We can skin em’ to death on quality, but we can’t compete in price.”

Just as it is today, quality costs money. And the consumer usually goes for the deal.

In 1942, Edgar answered the call of the war effort and donated nine tons of cast iron and steel from the wheel, an old boiler and some machinery from his family’s mill. One year later, the mill ceased operation and in 1949, Stubbins’ prediction came to be true. The mill was torn down.

In 1972, a marker was placed at the site of Watts Mill by the Native Sons and Daughters. On June 10, 1974, Watts Mill was dedicated as a historic site. The marker from the 70s has seen better days, as it, similarly to the old mill, has weathered away in the elements. A new marker is currently in the works and sponsored by Native Sons and Daughters.

Stubbins once said, “It’s pretty here; they say there’s no prettier bit of scenery in Missouri. I like to hang out the window here and watch the bubbles and the shadows, and listen to the water and the wheels. I just couldn’t live without them.” Even in his day, lazy fisherman would mosey around the banks of Indian Creek in the shadow of Watts Mill. Today, the same can be witnessed as you sit on a park bench and listen to the waterfall crash into the limestone rock and into the fragments of the old mill.

*Part of this story was originally published by the author in the July 11, 2017 issue of the Martin City Telegraph.
Stubbins Watts' grave at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Stanley, Ks. Courtesy of