Keep on turning: Grist mill more than just a decoration for Elliotts

by Renee Hunter
Mike Kemp photos

When is a watermill more than just a watermill? When it is a symbol of a determination to persevere against all odds.

The Vickie and Bo Elliott home sits directly on top of the spring for which Springhill in Faulkner County is named. The head of the spring is about 100 yards south of the Elliott property, and a small town — school, general store, blacksmith shop and grist mill — once was located there.

“It’s actually running underneath our feet right now,” said Bo from his seat at the dining room table. “It’s an artesian spring; it’s continually running — it never stops.”

The land was so mushy from water seeping to the top of the ground that 65 yards of concrete were used in the foundation of the house they built 12 years ago on part of the farm once owned by Vickie’s grandparents. “When we built the house, this was a swamp, and the bubbles were coming up from the ground,” Bo said. “And every year the ground would sink a little more.”

To solve the problem, Bo built a French drain with a hole lined with cross-ties at the lower end of the back yard to give the water somewhere to percolate and relieve the pressure. Framing the hole with cross-ties made mowing easier. “I spent a lot of time out there in boots and waders,” Bo said of the project.

When he retired from his construction career in 2012, Bo designed and built smokers, which sold well and gained him enough of a reputation that a wealthy Razorback fan asked him to convert an antique fire engine into a tailgating center complete with a smoker, a kitchen with a sink and granite counter tops and a dining area. That two-year project behind him, he and Vickie again looked at the hole.

“You know what, it’d be really nice if you built me a miniature gristmill,” she said.

Thus the idea was born that eventually would lead to the watermill.

At about the same time, Bo was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but he wouldn’t let go of the watermill. He started the project in August.

“I’ve never been one of those persons to let anything beat me,” he said. He was aware that if he didn’t use his muscles, he would never regain their use, and Parkinson’s would win. But because of the disease, the work was exhausting. “To me, it seems like it has taken forever,” he said, but he kept at it. “I drew a plan [for the wheel] on the shop floor and laid the boards down.”

“He’s very determined when he’s got a project to finish,” said Vickie.

The wood used for the shiplap lining the hole is cedar. The wood used to construct the 8-foot diameter, 600-plus pound water wheel is cypress reclaimed from old barns. The edging for the top of the hole is made of huge flat rocks toted from Mountain View, and the covering for the axle assembly is also stone.

“As big as that wheel is, it’s never going to turn,” a friend told him. But the wheel not only turns, but also there is a sprocket wheel inside the shed to which a grist mill can be attached if the Elliotts ever decide to grow their own grain.

The only problem Bo really had with the whole project was the dam — it leaked. He remedied that. Then he added two fire pots by welding piping inside two huge pots that he attached to a propane tank inside the shed, and then filled in around the piping with lava rocks. When the propane in the piping is ignited, it warms the area. Plans are to build a patio around the watermill and spring so that he, Vickie and friends can enjoy an outdoor living area, no matter the weather.

“I love the sound of water,” Bo said.