An Ozark journey The search for Davis Mill: Dusting Off the ‘Footsteps of Time’
Editor’s note: The four-part story of Old Salt Road that concluded in the Aug. 7 edition of the Times mentioned an 1865 communication between Capt. William J. Piland, commander of Company I of the 46th Missouri Volunteer Infantry, and his superior, Brig. Gen. J. B. Sanborn. Piland’s unit was stationed at Davis Mill in Ozark County as a defense against marauders and irregular Confederate troops that had been pillaging the county for several years. He was commissioned by the Union Army to restore order to the county, which had suffered greatly during the Civil War. While searching for the mysterious Davis Mill that Piland operated from, writer Wayne Sayles found a fascinating scenario of family ties – and also a better understanding of the social issues that had driven some pioneers west to the Ozarks.
A letter Capt. William J. Piland sent to Gen. J. B. Sanborn from “Davis’ Mill” in February 1865 is not, in itself, of any major significance, but the fact that nobody today seems to know what or where Davis Mill was presents another mystery from the past.
Was it one of the many Ozark County grist mills that have quietly vanished over time? Perhaps a sawmill? My first impulse was to run a series of queries on Google. That didn’t take long and turned up nothing.
Knowing that Piland was from the Thornfield area, it seemed natural to start looking for property that had been owned by a Davis somewhere near there. There were some, but most were near Noble. The first connection I found was a marriage record for Mary Jane Piland and William Davis. A quick check of Piland genealogy showed that Mary Jane was the sister of our Capt. William Piland.
In checking the Noble area for cemeteries, it didn’t take long to find Davis Cemetery and an enlightening article by Genelle Feemster Stevens published in A Survey of Ozark County Cemeteries. There was no mention of Davis Mill, but there was a mention of Zenas E. Feemster and a book he wrote in 1865. It just happens that the book is available for free download online, so I added yet another historical reference to my countless digital files.
In his book, Feemster says he wrote what he did because there will be a day “when the footsteps of time in its long march shall have so erased from earth the visible signs of its present inhabitants that the resting places of most of their mortal remains will be unknown to the living.”
Who was this Feemster, I wondered? One thing led to another. Here’s what bubbled out of history’s cauldron.
The Rev. William Cummins Davis was a popular and influential minister of the Presbyterian faith in the Carolinas during the early 1800s. His abolitionist preaching and Gospel interpretation were very controversial for the time and place, and in 1808 the Presbytery found him guilty of doctrines “contrary to the standards of the Presbyterian Church.” As a result, Davis withdrew from the church, and several Presbyterian congregations withdrew along with him, forming the Independent Presbyterian Church.
Davis died in 1831, but his following persisted for many years thereafter. His son, Robert W. Davis, born in 1799, married Sarah Mary Cummins. They moved to Tennessee, where their son William was born in 1826. The family moved from Tennessee to Ozark County sometime prior to 1851 and purchased several tracts of land in what later would become Noble. It was in that year that William Davis and Mary Jane Piland were married.
William Davis served under Captain Piland, his brother-in-law, during the Civil War. It seems plausible that the “Davis’ Mill - Ozark County” that heads Piland’s message to General Sanborn was somehow related to the property of his Davis inlaws.
In the years following the Civil War, the Piland, Davis and Feemster families became significant landowners in both Thornfield and Noble. The Feemsters were connected to the Davis family even before the American Revolution. William Davis Feemster, named after the maverick preacher William Davis, was born in South Carolina in 1773. His sons, Zenas and Silas, were both ministers living in Mississippi when the Civil War started. Zenas left Mississippi in 1862 and lived in Illinois until the end of the war. While there, he wrote The Traveling Refugee about the cause of the Rebellion – and its cure. He then moved to Ozark County and organized a Congregational Church in Noble about 1870. Zenas Feemster is buried at the Franklin Grove Cemetery east of Noble.
Zenas’ brother, the Rev. Silas Feemster, married William Cummins Davis’ daughter Abigail. He considered himself the only heir to the Congregationalist and anti-slavery views of his father-in-law. When Silas moved to Mississippi in 1836, he became pastor of the Salem Independent Presbyterian Church. In 1863, the independents of a half century earlier reunited with the Presbyterian Church.
Several generations of the Feemster and Davis families were founders, pastors or leaders of congregations in the movement west. The Pilands intermarried with the Norris family and founded the Mount Lebanon Baptist Church at Piland Store in 1847. It was the first General Baptist Church west of the Mississippi and is still active today, though it has moved to a new location near Foil. The Piland name and association are still evident in the popular Piland Youth Camp sponsored each summer since 1958 by the Mount Lebanon church at a site north of Thornfield.
The search for Davis Mill has dusted off some of those “footsteps of time” that Zenas Feemster wrote about, but we still do not know the story of this “mill” and its purpose. If anyone reading this has the answer, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can share it and dust off another one of those footsteps on an Ozark Journey.
Contact Wayne Sayles at email@example.com