KEARNEY, Neb. — One of Nebraska’s newest historical markers takes its readers back 135 years to a time when mills grinding locally grown wheat into flour were common along rivers that could provide free energy to turn water wheels.
The story of Blue Mills is featured on the sign located on the east side of Highway 10 just north of Glenwood Corner.
It’s a tale that starts when miller Sylvester Bearss came from Canada to settle on a farm north of Kearney. He built a mill on the south side of the Wood River about a quarter mile to the east of the Nebraska State Historical Society marker.
Blue Mills’ history includes two fires — one accidental, one arson — and an exploding dam.
It’s the story of a two-generation family business later operated by Bearss’ son, Guy, until dust-related health issues required him to sell Blue Mills to local farmer Warren Ewell in 1920.
It also is the story of two generations of the Richter family who have preserved the history of the mill and surrounding area.
In 1944 Lawrence and Violet Richter purchased 160 acres of land from Guy Bearss. Since then, family members have excavated items from the mill site, researched and recorded its history, and continue to tell stories about Blue Mills, the Glenwood Park Resort that developed around the widened river above the mill and a commercial ice house between the two.
“It’s part of our family history,” Jim Richter said about why his family paid most of the $5,100 cost of the sign installed last summer. Other area residents joined together as the Blue Mills Association to provide $1,000.
“It’s a legacy to dad and mom,” said Jim Richter’s sister Karen Clark of Kearney.
The Richter family still owns a part of the property, although Lawrence sold some housing lots in the 1970s and Gary Meyers now owns the mill site.
The six Richter siblings grew up with the mill’s remains in their backyard. “There was nothing, just a concrete foundation,” Jim said.
Another sibling, Patricia Richter Reinhardt of Centennial, Colorado, wrote a Blue Mills history story that was published Nov. 10, 1970, in the Kearney Hub. It says the mill’s name came from a blue clay outcropping Sylvester Bearss found in the riverbed.
“There is blue clay there and the Indians used to make their pottery out of it,” Jim Richter said.
The original mill constructed in 1881 was a small frame building. The first dams were made of sod and bush, which frequently washed away, and the two millstones, each about 2½ feet in diameter, sat in a steel frame.
According to Reinhardt’s story, which included an interview with Guy Bearss’ son, Chelcy, the original mill burned down on a Sunday morning in 1892 while the family was in church.
It was rebuilt as a three-story frame building, as seen in Blue Mills photographs. It had modern milling equipment, a coal-powered steam engine to assist with the water power and a concrete dam.
When that dam was destroyed sometime between 1912 and 1914 in what Chelcy Bearss described to Reinhardt as a loud explosion for which the cause never was determined, a second concrete dam was built on top of the first one.
Guy Bearss ran the business from 1898 to 1920, initially with his brother Ernest and then on his own with his wife, Cordelia, starting in 1908.
In an interview for Reinhardt’s 1970 story, Kearney-area resident Mable Deets recalled that Cordelia would bake a batch of bread from each milling to test the quality of the flour.
Shortly after Guy Bearss sold the mill to Ewell in 1920, the retail price of flour dropped 50 percent. Eight months later, on Halloween night, Blue Mills burned to the ground.
The Kearney Daily Hub reported on Nov. 9, 1920, that Ewell was arrested for arson; he later was tried and found guilty.
An important piece of Blue Mills history was dug up, literally, in the mid-1980s by Lawrence Richter and John Lacey, a heavy equipment operator from Shelton. They brought the Blue Mills water wheel to the surface.
The water wheel was recovered from the bottom of a concrete shaft in the old, dry river channel. “They knew something was down there, because the shaft was sticking out,” Jim Richter said.
After recovering the water wheel, Lawrence Richter described it as priceless. “There might not be another one in the country,” he said in the Hub story. “Oh, there might be some, but nobody knows where they are buried.”
The water wheel, which Lawrence believed was made in a foundry back East, sat for many years on his front lawn along the Wood River. He died in May 2010.
Now, his priceless artifact is displayed next to the new Blue Mills historical marker.