The Past Lives Again at Historic Bowens Mills


Sketches by Neal H. Cook

Researched & Written by Neal & Marion Cook

Re-edited in 1999 by Carleen Sabin

In 1836 Montermer B. Martin, a land speculator, came to Barry County and Purchased land from the government, President Martin Van Buren signing the contracts. This land was located in the north west part of Yankee Springs Township, parts of Sec. 8 and 17. The lake which is now known as Payne Lake was included in this tract.

Of course, one of the first things needed in those early days of Barry County was a sawmill. Soon a Mr. Payne and his son-in-law built a dam and a sawmill where two creeks joined just north of the lake. It was powered by a water wheel with a 4 foot fall and they were soon sawing 1,000 foot of lumber a day. The creeks became known as Payne and Hoag Creaks (Hoag Creek’s Name has since been changed to Cobb Creek.)

About 1838, Nathan Barlow, a lawyer, purchased some land which included the sawmill. Seeing the added potential of more water power a quarter or a mile or so up the creek, Mr. Barlow relocated the mill to its present location. History tells us he used many of the original timbers. Ox teams were used to transport them. Upon building the wooden dam across the creek, the water was backed up 14-feet, making the Mill Pond and in turn flooded the two ponds upstream, making the lake which was named Barlow Lake.

The Barlows also built the house on the east side of the old Mill Pond. It was there in that house that court was held and legal matters taken care of. The house is now owned and is being restored by the O’Dells.

Around 1854 the sawmill changed hands again, when Timothy and Franklin Miles bought it. More and more People were coming to the area and lumber was in great demand for their homes. Miles wanted to increase his production so he ordered some new equipment from New York State. His new "Muley Saw Mill" was delivered by ox team. He could now saw 7,000 feet of lumber a day. O. C. Bates owned the saw mill for about 1 1/2 years before selling to the Bowens. History dose not reveal any details of his ownership.

The Edwin H. Bowen’s moved to Yankee Springs from Ohio in 1864 and acquired the sawmill. Bowen and his son William soon added a grist mill with three levels to the operation. The mill was 24’ X 48’ and housed 2 sets of French Burr Stones. The Mill and surrounding area soon became known as "Bowens Mills". Before it was always known as Gun Lake, Michigan. E H. Bowen was made Postmaster and the mail was kept in a large basket in the family home, where the farmers from the surrounding country would call as often as twice a week for their letters. The mail was carried by stagecoach from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids, someone meeting the coach at Wayland to carry the mail to Gun Lake. Later a wooden letter holder was made and put in the Mill’s Office. It is still there.

In the early 1870’s, rumors were flying around about the railroad coming through Bowens Mills, going from grand Rapids to Battle Creek. When it did, it would mean all the more people would be settling along its path. In that case, the Mill wouldn’t be large enough to handle all the needs. Mr. Bowen wanted to be ready for it, so the roof of the mill was taken off and a fourth level was added. When the railway did come, it followed the Thornapple River and never did come to Bowens Mills.

About this same time William Bowen was courting Adeline Richards. They were married on December 31, 1874, and built the house across the road from his parents (the old Saw Millers house). This house has been owned by various people over the years, but was obtained in 1984 by Neal and Marion Cook, and then purchased and restored by their daughter and son-in-law, Owen and Carleen Sabin that now own and run the Mill and property.

In 1902 Mr. Bowen purchased a huge ‘Albright’ Cider press from Burdette Briggs. A room 18 X 24 was added on the side of the mill to house it.

Bowens Mills had become famous for it buckwheat flour and old-timers tell of how in the fall, the horses and wagons were backed all through town with their loads of apples - waiting their turn at the cider press.

About the turn of the century disaster struck the mill several times. The sawmill had previously been converted from water power to the newest source of power of the time "steam". Two of the mill workers had fired up the old stationary engine and were waiting to get full head of steam. The safety valve stuck. Soon there was a big explosion and they both were killed. Not long after that the old wood dam went out, taking with it the penstock and causing massive destruction. The sawmill was washed away along with a portion of the wall of the lower level of the grist mill. It is hard to imagine the extent of the damage, even as one views the old photos taken shortly after it happened.

The Bowens sold out to a Mr. Lanson Kieney in 1912 and Mark and Mary Richie bought the property about a year later, owning it until 1922 when Elam and Minnie (Norris) Springer purchased it.

During most of the 37 years that the Springers owned the mill it was a hub of activity. Grinding flour and grist, making cider and vinegar and also being used as a pickle weigh station. The Springers even had a little store and gas pump.

In the winter of 1943 disaster struck again. Muskrats had been digging around the dam which weakened the wall and suddenly, one cold winter night, it gave way. The penstock was destroyed and almost all of the stone wall of the lower level was washed downstream. The mill was left teetering on the two short foundation walls which were still intact. Most of the contents of the basement were never found. What a heartache this must have been for Mr. Springer, who was 71 years of age at the time. Once again, old photos reveal what an awesome job the repairs would entail. However, Mr. Springer went right to work on it, and by fall had the old mill all patched up again.

Business was slow, all the surrounding communities had built up mills and kept them updated with the latest and fastest equipment. With the modern means of transportation, many farmers preferred to go where they could to their milling and their shopping as well in one trip. In 1953 the mill ceased to operate as a business after approximately 113 years of continual service to the people of Barry County.

Around 1955 the mill was sold to Neal and Helen Engle. Their primary use of it was to use its property to raise pickles on its acreage, doing so for about four seasons. When it became harvest time, the Engles hired migrant workers to help and the old mill became home to as many as 30 Mexicans for several weeks each year. They brought their own cots, stove, tables and chairs and used the pond for bathing. They loved the old mill and were happy there. The sound of their guitars and singing could be heard far into the night.

The Engles also made cider a couple of times soon after they bought the Mill. They belted up the old press to a tractor. Over the years the power source had been converted from water, to steam, to an old ‘one -lunger’ gasoline engine.

Four families bought the mill from the Engles in 1971. They were Gorden & Willow Fuhr, Dick & Martha Shaw, Bill & Beverly Slade and David & Carolin Dimmers. They replaced the windows and doors vandals had destroyed and did a basic clean up job.

In 1972 the state erected a marker renaming Bowens Mills a "Michigan Historical Site". It was opened for tours several times over the 7 years of their ownership.

In the fall of 1978 Neal and Marion Cook bought the mill and began the restoration project. As the saying goes, "the worse use is no use". The mill had set more or less idle for over 30 years, the water power and grindstones had not been used for nearly 40 years, some of the foundations were crumbling, various timbers were decaying and time had taken its toll. Today thanks Marion and Neal Cook with the help of family and friends and many years of work, all four levels of the mill have been restored. The old mill is now a living museum dedicated to the early pioneers of Barry County and their ingenuity. The main floor is open to the public by appointment May through August. "It’s Cider Time Festivals" begin the second weekend in September and run through the end of October. At this time the mill and its grounds come alive as the past lives again. Old time demonstrations, Civil War camps, live old time music, costumed craftsmen, and blacksmiths are just a sampling of the exciting things that are happening through the fall fund raising season.

In the lower level there is the power section along with a blacksmith shop and water powered machine shop. This area is open on festival days. The main floor is open to the public and is a museum with artifacts from the 1800’s and houses the grist and cider mills. Folks are amazed to see the water rush through the massive turbine as the grindstones slowly turn, and golden kernels of corn are transformed into fresh cornmeal, which is still for sale. Every weekend in the fall the huge old cider press is put into action and bushels and bushels of apples become gallons and gallons of cider in just moments.

The former grain storage and workshop on the third level have been transformed from a rustic sprawling area, to a cozy home by Neal and Marion Cook in 1978, where now the second generation millers Owen Sabin and Carleen Sabin live. Many of the old beams have been left exposed, which adds a handsome richness throughout the living quarters. Marion hand stenciled the walls, a wood stove and the grain elevator shafts add to the quaintness.

The Fourth level is a recreation of the old workshop along with a cobblers shop. Many of the huge gears and much of the ancient machinery still remain intact and can be seen when this floor is open for tours.

In the old days, a trip to the mill was a big event. It gave the folks a chance to meet friends they hadn’t seen for a long time and to catch up on all the latest news, as they waited for their turn to come up. People now come from miles around, to see and feel the way things were done by their ancestors in the days gone by. 

Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.  Proverbs 22:28


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