Known to Columbians as a park, Rock Bridge was once a thriving town.
Now, historians are providing a closer look at the early industrial village.
Black smoke pours from a gristmill, grinding corn, wheat and rye that will be fed into a nearby whiskey distillery. In the distance men cut down trees that will burn and create enough steam power to run the mill. A blacksmith pounds metal into horseshoes. Hogs squeal from their pens, crying for a morning meal of leftover grain.
This scene from 1850 characterized mid-Missouri’s first industrial center that once stood on the same land as Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.
“It wasn’t as pretty then as it is today,” said Boone County Historical Society President David Sapp, who has spent the past four years researching the Rock Bridge community. “I haven’t seen anything even approaching a decent history of Rock Bridge.”
Sapp’s work culminated in a self-published book that will be available Sunday when the Historical Society dedicates the former Rock Bridge community as a county historic site.
The town, sometimes referred to as Rock Bridge Mills, died out in the early 1900s due in part to the 1866 death of prominent businessman James McConathy. Lack of an adequate transportation system to move whiskey for sale outside the community also contributed to the decline. Local laws prohibiting the sale of liquor eventually closed the distillery, which was the community’s major source of business.
Had the town remained, Sapp said, it may have rivaled Columbia and led to more industry in the county than there is today.
Jack Heibel, 74, of Columbia is planning to attend the ceremony along with other relatives. Heibel is one of the several descendants of John Adam Heibel, who owned the Heibel distillery along with his brother, ‘Dandy.’ The distillery operated from the 1890s until 1908, when local laws shut it down.
“My dad said that when they had the distillery going, farmers from as far away as Wooldridge (in Cooper County) would bring in loads of corn on a horse-drawn wagon,” Heibel said.
After trading their corn for whiskey, they drank their fill on the way back, leaving jugs strewn along the way.
During this past June, MU adjunct research associate Earl Lubensky led a four-day test excavation on a small piece of land in the state park thought to be the site of a general store that doubled as a post office.
Lubensky, the only surviving charter member of the Missouri Archeological Society, said that when the structure was abandoned it was probably cannibalized, which is why few artifacts remain.
Lubensky’s preliminary report described the structure as being 50-by-21½ feet with limestone walls. The excavation group also uncovered a large amount of sheet metal, most likely from the roof. Although there were a few artifacts such as spoons, glass containers, porcelain and barrel hoops, there were not enough clues to indicate how the structure was used.
Originally Sapp and Lubensky thought the site may have been the original location of the blacksmith shop before it moved near the location of the present-day Pierpont store.
Nancy Davis’ grandfather, James Kennedy, owned the blacksmith shop when it was located at Pierpont.
“I remember my mother telling me that the anvil would ring when he hit it with a hammer,” Davis, 65, said. “He had a rhythm which would accompany his singing.”
Although the excavation did not reveal the blacksmith shop’s original location, the dig still proved educational.
“I didn’t even realize that there had been a community there. There’s no way you would know by looking,” said volunteer Candi Conover, who dug up tin sheets, a pig tooth and other artifacts with her 12-year-old daughter.
The excavation raised further questions in Sapp’s mind that led to 250 hours of additional research.
“I became more excited and found out there is more to be learned,” he said.
Although many longtime Columbia residents are familiar with the history of the park, Sapp discovered new information that had eluded local history buffs.
“I found amazing detail about the tanning operations where they tanned leather,” Sapp said. “There were tannery operations in the valley near the Devil’s Icebox for over 40 years, from the mid-1820s until the 1860s.”
Sapp learned that community members would strip the bark off oak trees, pulverize it and then bleach it with hot water to make tannic acid used to color and tan animal skins.
Sapp said the tanneries as well as the distillery were “huge polluters.”
The hogs created another type of pollution, which traveled downstream.
“James McConathy, who owned the hog operation, got sued by his neighbors and the case went to the Supreme Court of Missouri,” Sapp said.
By examining industrial records, Sapp learned that McConathy owned the second-largest distillery in Missouri, making 5,000 barrels of whiskey in a single year. McConathy was the first mill owner in Rock Bridge to power his adjoining mill with a steam engine.
Heating the water for steam required firewood — Sapp found that 500 cords were burned from mid-1849 until mid-1850 — and by the end of the 19th century, the resulting deforestation in Rock Bridge was extensive.
Further information about the community will become available when all the artifacts are cleaned and analyzed.
“What went on at Rock Bridge from the 1820s to the 1920s has largely been lost to our community memory,” Sapp said. “We enjoy the trails, but it makes the park much more interesting to know the history.”