An Ozark Journey, Davis’ Mill: A footstep found

This Google Earth satellite photo shows the Noble “square” where Davis’ Mill once stood. Civil War correspondence from Capt. William Piland in 1865 carried the heading “Davis’ Mill – Ozark County,” indicating that the infantry company he commanded was headquartered here at the time.

This marker honoring U.S. Gen. J. B. Sanborn stands in the Vicksburg, Mississippi, National Military Park. When Capt. William Piland, commander of a Civil War infantry company based in Ozark County, asked Sanborn what he should do about “lawless men” causing trouble in the area, Sanborn directed him to “dispose of all robbers in the most summary manner.”


Doris Sayles examines the headstone of Capt. William Piland in Piland Cemetery; he died in 1883, and his wife, Mary, was buried next to him when she died in 1901. The cemetery is on land the Pilands owned near the Little North Fork of the White River between Thornfield and Hammond.

Following the outbreak of the Civil War, the Ozark County Home Guard was organized in June 1861 by order of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon. It was tasked with scouting operations along the Old Salt Road, then called the “State Road,” which ran from Springfield to Jacksonport, Arkansas. Actually, the Home Guard was being formed by Union sympathizers in Ozark County even before the official order was issued. More than 200 volunteers were divided between Capt. William Martindale’s company and Capt. Thomas Stone’s cavalry. Those units were technically disbanded in October of that same year as the Union forces retreated from southwest Missouri. 

Excursions of Confederate forces and guerrilla raids into the county continued. Consequently, the southern portions of Ozark County were nearly evacuated as most Unionists fled north to safer ground. Many of those who stayed behind continued to oppose the Confederate occupation with an informal Home Guard, which, at that point, was the only protection left against the raiders.

As state and federal forces gradually returned to the region later in the war, those who had served in the Home Guard often enlisted in regular military units stationed nearby. William James Piland had served as a corporal in the Home Guard under Capt. Thomas Stone, and later in the war he was promoted to captain, commanding Company I of the 46th Missouri Volunteer Infantry under Gen. John B. Sanborn.

The record of the 46th is scant, and of Company I it’s even more so. We do know from official records of the Civil War that Piland’s company was stationed in Ozark County from Sept. 7, 1864, to Feb. 28, 1865. During this period the company was headquartered at “Davis’ Mill - Ozark County,” as indicated on Piland’s stationery letterhead.

The biggest threat in the county at that time was from bushwhackers and small groups of Rebel sympathizers. On Feb. 17, 1865, Capt. Piland and Capt. James H. Sallee from Company B of the 16th Missouri Cavalry Volunteers conducted a joint scouting expedition to the White River. Sallee was a Methodist preacher who lived on the Little North Fork south of what became Piland’s Store and later Thornfield. Acting on the report of some Douglas County residents, they each took a detachment of cavalry in search of Rebels camped near the mouth of the Little North Fork. 

The Douglas County men, four brothers, acted as their guides until they reached the area – and then they disappeared. There, the men under Piland and Sallee found and killed four Rebels who had been holed up in a cave. 

As Capt. Piland left to return to Davis’ Mill, he spotted the four Douglas County men driving an apparently stolen herd of cattle north. On that same day, he wrote the “Davis’ Mill” letter to his superior, Gen. J. B. Sanborn, regarding “lawless men” creating problems for the locals. The general was a seasoned veteran who had fought in many difficult campaigns and had seen the worst of a bloody war. In this late stage, he was commanding the entire Southwest Missouri District. His reply came almost immediately, telling Piland it was his job to “dispose of all robbers in the most summary manner.” (Piland’s correspondence with Sanborn is mentioned in Aug. 7, 14 and 21 Ozark Journey columns in the Times.)

The exact location of Davis’ Mill, where Piland wrote the letter to Sanborn, was, until this past week, a mystery. All indicators pointed to the area near Noble, but there wasn’t any actual confirmation. Capt. Piland’s sister Mary was married to William Davis, and Piland’s wife’s family, the Herndons, owned land adjacent to Davis near Noble. As if that weren’t enough of a connection, William Davis served in Capt. Piland’s unit. Piland owned property in the same township and range as the Davis family—close to the place where Piland Store was established in 1867. So it’s no surprise that Piland would select a familiar and safe location for his headquarters. 

Then, last week, we received an email from a reader of the Ozark Journey column confirming our suspicions. 

Katherine Frazier of Tuscumbia, Missouri, wrote:

“I wanted to let you know of a conversation I had with my dad this past week about your search for Davis’ Mill (per the Ozark County Times). Daddy grew up at Noble and still lives there; he is 87, and his name is Hardy Jefferson Frazier. ... His parents were married by Samuel Feemster (son of Zenas Feemster) about 1905, and two of Samuel Feemster’s children, Elam and Laura, lived near Daddy’s farm for many years. [For more about the Feemsters, see the Aug. 14 and 21 Ozark Journey columns in the Times.] 

“Daddy said that when he was a small boy, there was a Davis Mill on the square at Noble. The ‘square’ was not exactly the same shape it is now, but if you drew a straight line out the front door of the old post office, and another straight line out the front door of the mobile home on the corner ..., the intersection of those two lines would be the approximate location of the mill. 

“Davis Mill was already defunct by the time Daddy has any recollection of it, and at some unknown time it had been converted to a blacksmith shop and residence; there is nothing left there now. Daddy is not sure what the power source for the mill was, as it is rather toward the top of a hill. Henry Davis was the owner of the mill in ... Daddy’s childhood; Henry was married to Daddy’s Aunt Ninny (Frazier) Davis.” 

We have learned that in the 19th century the Davis family owned saw mills in both Douglas and Ozark counties, so the Davis’ Mill where Piland headquartered was almost certainly a saw mill. Henry Davis, mentioned by Kathy Frazier, was William Davis’ grandson, so the saw mill must have been fairly successful. 

Capt. Piland had married Mary Ann Herndon in Ozark County about 1851 when they were both 19. He died in 1883, and Mary Ann died in 1901. Both are buried in a cemetery between Thornfield and Hammond on land they owned near the Little North Fork. It is still called the Piland Cemetery. 

The spot on the southeast corner of the Noble square where Davis’ Mill stood during the Civil War was later the site of a blacksmith shop and then a school. Today the buildings are gone, but thanks to Google Earth we can still see, in the satellite photo shared here, the spot where earlier foundations existed. It’s even possible to see a circular imprint, probably soil compacted by horses or mules walking round and round, providing power.

Thank you to Kathy for answering our appeal for information and helping to find this footstep in time where history was made.


Ozark County Times

504 Third Steet
PO Box 188
Gainesville, MO 65655

Phone: (417) 679-4641
Fax: (417) 679-3423