Focusing on History in Clay County, Missouri
A past filled with innovation, perspiration and determination
By Dan Christopher
Scanning the slightly musty third-floor workshop, I sense a lingering energy from a business that had thrived in an earlier century. I imagine hushed conversation among diligent factory workers crouched over whirring machines.
Soft daylight streams through the aged windows at this once-bustling Watkins Woolen Mill, a pride of Clay County, Missouri.
Colorful wool yarns, wrapped around rows of spools called ply twisters, stand like sentries guarding a rugged wooden table. Cast-iron looms nearby are as ready for work today as they were in the 1800s. These original looms once crafted cozy blankets, shawls and textiles. They are housed in a sturdy three-story building that had been constructed painstakingly with handmade brick. My camera savors the antiquity.
Thrills from the past
This is my first leisurely change-of-pace venture into America's heartland as a professional photographer. I cruise along I-35, which connects Canada and Mexico, deciding to visit Clay to experience down-home stuff that thrills history buffs, with sites including Watkins Mill.
On a guided tour, I learn that Waltus Watkins, a farmer, entrepreneur, visionary and namesake of Watkins Woolen Mill, began his remarkable plantation in 1839 on a four-acre livestock farm.
Over the next 30 years, along with his wife, Mary Ann, and their 11 children, Watkins grew the spread to a sprawling 3,600-acre agricultural and industrial enterprise. Just northeast of Kearney, the development encompasses the stately mill, a stylish eight-bedroom brick home, three sawmills, a blacksmith shop, a dairy, barns, employee housing and much more.
With cameras in hand, visitors like me stroll the well-manicured historic site that honors both history and tradition from an era of innovation, perspiration and determination.
Relishing the extraordinary achievement, I depart, driving a half-mile to visit a preserved church and school - both of them also built by the ambitious Mr. Watkins.
Jesse James myths and memorabilia
Nearby, in Kearney, is a community renowned for memorabilia, myth and the mystique of notorious outlaw, bank robber and train robber Jesse James and his brother, Frank. The home where Jesse was born is here, now known as the Jesse James Birthplace, it tells the James family story through video, artifacts and a site tour.