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April 12, 2016

The Mills at Clare

Conner mill 001The Mills at Clare

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

With Earth Day coming up, I thought I might look at some alternative power efforts here in Hamilton County.  The White River at Clare has been used as water power for industry since the first settlement of the county.  Although the construction and ownership of the first mills in the area is unclear, they were always known as the “Conner Mills”.  The first mill may have been constructed by William Foster around 1820.  It was a grist mill with a dam made from brush wood.  The mill was eventually owned by William Conner.  The land surrounding the mill was not purchased from the government until 1832, when it was bought by Elijah Redmon and Bicknell Cole.

William Conner’s son, W. W. Conner, built a woolen mill in this area in 1845.  It was damaged a few years later during one of the great floods.  Smaller floods and freshets were constantly damaging the mill dam.  The mill had been rebuilt into large five-story building by 1866.  By 1874, an entire milling complex had grown up with a grist mill for both wheat and corn, a woolen mill, and a saw mill.  The millrace for these buildings had been cut into the solid limestone bedrock.  A solid wooden dam was probably in use by this time.  The village that had grown up around the milling complex established a post office in 1878 and named itself Clare.

1866 millsHowever, by this time, steam power was allowing mills to be built closer to towns and railroads.  In Noblesville in the 1890s, the giant Model Milling Company complex was built by the Marmon family.  Clare was no longer a convenient place to bring crops.  The mills at Clare were abandoned and neglected.  The Clare post office closed in 1902.  In 1908, the remaining buildings of the old mill complex were torn down and the wood reused for a hydroelectric dam project near Noblesville – which eventually failed.

In 1922, Alex Holiday surveyed the site of the old mill complex and decided it would be a good spot for another try at a hydroelectric dam.  This one was successful, which led to the construction of the community at Riverwood.   The hydroelectric power was considered inadequate by 1950, so a new coal-fired steam powered plant was built on a nearby hill.  It used the water impounded by the dam for making steam.  Eventually the hydroelectric plant was shut down.  A local group was organized in 2001 to restore it as a historical site.  The steam plant was expanded in 2002 to make more electricity using natural gas.  It continues to use the water impounded by the dam and so continues the tradition of industry at this site on the White River.