When Waltus Watkins, a successful farmer and entrepreneur, decided to open a woolen mill on his rural western Missouri property in the late 1850s, he was not just undertaking another commercial venture. By locating the factory on his farm rather than in one of the thriving nearby towns, Watkins was making a conscious decision to blend agriculture and industry. In so doing, he addressed a philosophical question that had been raised a generation before by Thomas Jefferson and others: the role of technology in a largely agrarian society. As the United States entered the Industrial Revolution and then the Civil War, the folkways and nature of work changed drastically. Watkins Mill reflects that transition, as Watkins embraced new technologies yet clung to a more traditional and paternalistic management style. In seeking to shape the values and habits of his employee-neighbors through local institutions such as the school and church, he left his mark on an entire community.
Sixteen pages of full-color photos of the mill buildings, machines, documents, and textiles still remaining at the Watkins Mill State Historic Site help tell the story of a distinct midwestern stage of nineteenth-century industrialism, as played out in western Missouri by one enterprising individual.