Two days ago, after I posted a list of famous Indiana grist mills, Hoosier history buff Phil Carrow kindly messaged me and suggested that the Metamora Grist Mill should have made the list. He was 100% correct.

Once I dived into the history of the mill, I decided it needed an article of its own. Few historic buildings in the Midwest have endured as dynamic a life as this simple southern Indiana grist mill, now part of Metamora’s Historic District. If state history were television, Metamora’s Grist Mill would be Days of Our Lives. On steroids.

Pen and ink drawing of old mill from Historic Metamora website…

In 1845, a fellow named Jonathan Banes built the Metamora Cotton Factory and equipped it with almost a thousand water-powered spindles. The nearby Duck Creek Aqueduct, which would be the only surviving covered aqueduct in the United States 150 years later, provided a steady water flow. This aqueduct was, in turn, fed by the Laurel feeder dam several miles away. It diverted part of the Whitewater River for the now-extinct canal boat system (learn about that in our past article “The Wabash & Erie Canal: Traveling Indiana at 5 MPH“).

The cotton factory idea didn’t fare well. Southern Indiana’s lack of cotton crops and the import of textiles didn’t help. Banes and a new partner converted the cotton factory into a flour mill in 1856, calling it Murray & Banes Flour Mill. This didn’t work out so well either.

Aerial photo of Duck Creek Aqueduct. Richard Donovan / Trish Kane Collection

In 1857 they sold the mill, and it became Curry & Sons Flour Mill. Curry sold it in 1863, when it became Hoosier Mills. 14 years later, another owner stepped it, renaming it Crescent Flouring Mills.

Then it burned down in 1899.

A bold man named Frank Wright stepped in and restored the remnants to its former three-story glory, upgrading the mill to a hydraulic breastshot water wheel, which produced about 30 horsepower and 50 barrels of flour every 24 hours. The mill became the showpiece of the Metamora Roller Mills company. For decades, this mighty mill ran day and night. It was a testament to the state’s pioneer spirit and free enterprise.

Until it burned down again in 1933.

Drawing from 1882. Notice the mill’s name.

According to the mill’s manager, dust fans fed a few sparks from a hot wheel bearing, which ignited piles of meal dust, which ignited five thousand bushels of dry grain. Very flammable grain. The fire grew hot enough to melt metal. To compile tragedy on tragedy, the mill had been insured for far less value than the $40,000 in fire damage.

A fellow named Ross Brumfiel stepped in and purchased the mill, this time keeping it to a modest two stories. He got the mill back on its canal-fed feet. By 1941, its turbines turned, the grist was ground, and Brumfiel did a healthy business in corn meal, supplementing it with coal and feed sales. Things were looking up for the Metamora Grist Mill.

The dam breaks. Brookville Democrat, 1942. I apologize for the image quality.

Until 1942, when a turbulent Whitewater River pounded a 15-foot hole in the feeder dam at Laurel. This dam diverted water into Whitewater Canal—and then Metamora—three miles away. Without that dam, the grist mill was no more than a historic paperweight. For the first time in over a century, the canal’s waters had gone still, leaving the Metamora Roller Mill in limbo. To quote Metamora citizens at the time, “&*%$!”

Four years later, the State of Indiana happened to have a little extra money (tax money, yes) earmarked for state parks. Recognizing the importance of preserving the town’s unique history, Indiana stepped in and purchased the chunk of the Whitewater Canal, including the mill and surrounding buildings. It became collectively known as the Whitewater Canal Indiana State Historic Site and this collective began the arduous process of restoring the entire town, a process which continues even today. Now it’s one of Indiana’s most beloved historic attractions.

Sketch from Indianapolis Star, 1946

Few people or places get third acts, but the mill, along with Metamora’s entire historic district, got theirs. It had certainly earned it. With the name swaps, renovations, repurposing, fire-gutting, and assorted drama the mill had endured since 1845, it’s only fitting that the Metamora Roller Mill would receive a happy ending.

Want to Know More?

First, go to Metamora.

Check out the listing record and collected photographs of the Metamora Historic District in the archives of the National Registry of Historic Places.

Learn all you ever wanted about these traditional water-powered processing sites in this guide from the Indiana Historical Bureau “19th Century Indiana Grist Mills.