A Recently Written (2015) Tunnel Mill History

Information from the Spring Valley Minnesota History Center

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Research and article by Mary Jo Dathe-0ss:

For many years John and Carol Adams of Rochester, Minnesota would drive by Tunnel Mill, enchanted by its beautiful setting. Finally, in 1982, they negotiated with owner, Larry Maus, to purchase the mill about five miles north of Spring Valley on Hwy. #1. Badly deteriorated, the mill has seen unbelievable rehabilitation. Maus had bought it from Stafford Hansen in 1972 with the intention of restoring it to its former glory: tuck-pointing the foundation, insulating the structure, and doing upgrades throughout. Maus sought to have it designated to the National Register of Historic Places (and it is indeed) as it was "one of a kind" and Maus loved its history. He hoped to make it livable, the biggest obstacle being able to finance the project, and he cautioned he might not be able to bear the cost.

What records we do have tell the story and these come from the local historical society, the Tribune, Rochester Post Bulletin and Fillmore County Journal. A millwright (builder of mills) named J.A. Stout chose a site in Section 34, Sumner Twp. north of the settlement of Spring Valley. Stout was only 24 years old when he came to Fillmore County from Michigan in 1854, looking for places to build sawmills and grist mills. He did build a sawmill on Bear Creek in 1856; then a stone grist mill in 1866. However, his most noted structure, Tunnel Mill, was begun in 1869. According to Harold Severson, Post Bulletin writer, "Grist or flour mills required falling water. Dams were built on creeks to provide sufficient water power to run big wheels that turned stones that ground corn, wheat and buckwheat into flour or grist. Water was led to the mill wheel through an inclined pipe or channel called a sluice." Stout had an idea, and Tunnel Mill was first called "Stout's Folly." Why? Bear Creek flowed in a leisurely manner in a horseshoe shape around a high cliff, one side being a steep cliff, the other a slope. He decided to dam up the creek on one side, blast a hole through the cliff, and the tunnel would provide a drop that would turn a water wheel. He proposed that two crews working from opposite sides could blast, dig and shovel through the cliff, meeting at the center. Using only compass, carpenter level and a string for alignment, they also used up to three tons of black powder!

John Halbkat, one of Spring Valley's early historians, related that his father was one of four men hired by Stout. He got up at 4:00 AM, hitched up his team of oxen, and drove to the mill site. He then worked until dark, drove back home, etc. - all for the princely sum of forty-five cents a day. Another laborer, G.W. Perry, a stone mason and cooper (barrel maker), also helped dig the tunnel, approximately seven feet square. They tunneled 640' and met within a few inches of being 'just right', providing a 25' fall of water for more than enough power. We learned it took two years to compete the project. According to the records, it was possible to grind one sackful of grain each minute. Stout also began refining sorghum molasses in 1882, producing 2,000 gallons, a very desirable sweetening commodity for housewives.

Owners have been Stout, F.A. Leonard in 1892., Frank Boland in 1913 when the mill served as a community center where farmers could gather for a chat while they and their teams waited their turn at the mill. Boland's son, Donald, owned it; then Stafford Hansen, Larry Maus and now the Adamses. John Adams has had a major project on his hands: The roof had collapsed and was replaced, new flooring was installed on both the main and upper levels, and dozens of other refurbishings.

Tunnel Mill was recently on the Spring Valley Historical Society's Fall House Tours. What a remarkable job of restoration has been done over the years. The Boland home which appears in some pictures to the north of the mill is long gone. Adams has worked during the summer months on a continuing process to provide an outstanding setting for umpteen activities He and Carol host workshops for black smithing, metalurgy, quilting, etc. throughout the summer. One sees a wonderfully restored mill with space for eight sleepers upstairs, more overnighters in two handsome gypsy wagons on the grounds. The mill's main floor boasts a pot-bellied stove, ample wood box, a lovely old cook stove, an eight-foot sturdy table and benches for dining as well as quilt and craft projects, hand-made cupboards to house dishes and appliances, and the big glass-topped counter under which one can see below the original flume.

Outside is a buried but visible grindstone, a shelter for several forges for blacksmithing, a new barn for special events, a smelter, and incredibly intricate metal gates. House tour guests were intrigued by the various opportunities for crafts, and recently there were countless folks "doing their thing" - quilting, reducing iron ore from York Twp. by smelting in a home-made clay furnace, breaking coal into small chunks for the smelter, working on a new gypsy wagon, displaying quilts, and much more. Tunnel Mill is a fun place with all kinds of activities and friendly folks.

Check them out on www.tunnelmillcrafts.com.