Jolly Mill circa 2022. [Photo by Ross Brown]
A detail from J. H. Colton’s Map of the Southern States (1864) that shows Jollification’s location in southwest Missouri. [Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection, 4085.002]
Jolly Mill, circa 1936. [State Historical Society of Missouri, Lucile Morris Upton Papers, C3869]
A view of the mill in the 1950s. [State Historical Society of Missouri, Ralph W. Murphy Collection of Photographs, P0767-092]
An advertisement in the Neosho Times in 1870 for E. P. Linzee’s store at Jollification. [State Historical Society of Missouri Newspaper Collection]
A road sign for Jolly Mill. [Photo by Kimberly Harper]
W. F. Haskins, a member of the family that owned Jolly Mill for much of the twentieth century, circa 1936. [State Historical Society of Missouri, Lucile Morris Upton Papers, C3869]
Capps Creek at Jolly Mill. [Photo by Kimberly Harper]

Jolly Mill, a grist mill and whiskey distillery, was built in the late 1840s on Capps Creek in eastern Newton County, Missouri. The mill was known originally as Isbell’s Mill after its owner, John Isbell, but came to be called Jolly Mill after a village named Jollification formed around it. In later years, the village itself was sometimes referred to simply as Jolly. The village and mill derived their names indirectly from the mill’s liquor product. All or most of Jollification was burned during the Civil War, but the mill was spared. At least partly rebuilt after the war, the village faded away after it was bypassed by the railroad in 1870. The mill, however, continued to operate as a local grist mill until 1973. The structure still stands and is now recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the 1850 US Census for Newton County, thirty-one-year-old John Isbell listed his occupation as “distiller of spirits” and valued his real estate at $5,000. He and his father, Thomas, had bought the future site of the distillery in September 1848 for $300. His near neighbors in 1850 included no obvious townsmen, but the census listed two carpenters and a stonemason, suggesting ongoing construction. Reflecting the growth of the town, the original mason and carpenters had moved on by 1860, while Isbell’s neighbors now included two grocers, two millers, two painters, two physicians, a merchant, a store clerk, a blacksmith, a teacher, and a different stonemason. Although John Isbell himself was not listed as a slaveholder in the 1850 census, local lore reports that enslaved men from neighboring farms helped build the mill.

Published references to “Jollification” as a place name appear as early as 1855. An 1870 newspaper article credited the naming of the town to local politician Abel Landers, who would come to the distillery on Saturday to trade corn for whiskey and invite the local men to hold a “jollification” by drinking and fighting. An 1853 title deed refers to plans to build a drinking establishment called a “grocery” in the village, and the county court issued a dram shop license in 1856. By some accounts, for many years after the mill ceased to function as a distillery in the 1870s, a half barrel of whiskey with a dipper was freely available to customers.

In November 1855, a regiment of US Cavalry commanded by future Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston stopped overnight in the village on its way to Texas. In a diary entry dated November 21, his wife, Eliza, described the area’s inhabitants as “a very mean, close set of people” and said that one man refused to sell her fresh milk for a sick child. She then wrote that they “came across a village called Jollification, with one good brick court house and brick store quite a large distillery & a manufactory of woolens & perhaps 12 frame & log houses.” Although she mistook some other building for a courthouse, Eliza’s note describes a fairly substantial village and suggests its importance as a stop on the road from Springfield to Neosho and points west.

During the Civil War, Jollification was mentioned in official dispatches six times from May 1862 to August 1863. Its main significance was its location on what one report called “the Jollification road,” the principal road through the region used by both Union and Confederate forces. It was the site of at least three minor skirmishes and was briefly visited by forces from both sides during the First Battle of Newtonia in September 1862.

In about September 1863, all or most of the town except the mill was burned. Local tradition has long attributed the burning to anonymous “bushwhackers” and suggested that they spared the mill out of their fondness for whiskey. In fact, postwar court records suggest that the town was burned by local people caught up in wartime passions, who most likely spared the mill because they recognized its importance to the local community or perhaps because they had personal ties to the Isbell family. In 1867, John P. Osborn, an antebellum store owner in Jollification, sued local residents John Henry and Henry Grindstaff in Newton County circuit court for burning his property there in September 1863. The exact enmities at work are probably unknowable, but the fire reflects the vicious neighbor-against-neighbor quality of the war.

After the war, Jollification was at least partially rebuilt. In January 1870, the Neosho Times said it had two dry goods stores, a hotel run by John Osborn and a doctor, plus the mill. Within a few weeks after this article, the town of Peirce City (later Pierce City) was founded a few miles north of Jollification on the line of the coming South Pacific Railroad. The birth of Peirce City with its railroad connection was the beginning of the end of Jollification as a small commercial center. One of the town’s dry goods merchants, Erskine P. Linzee, ran his last ad for Jollification in the Neosho Times on April 7, 1870. A week later the paper announced that he was selling out and opening a new store in Pierce City. In time, only the mill was left.

In 1866, ownership of Jolly Mill passed from John Isbell to his cousin George Isbell, who foreclosed a mortgage granted by John shortly before the war. George remained owner of the mill until 1894, but leased it to others for several years, then apparently brought John back as manager. In the US censuses for 1870 and 1880, John was still living at Jollification. In 1870 he described himself as a “retired manufacturer,” but in 1880 as “miller.” John then moved to California in about May 1881, and he died in 1883. 

Jolly Mill ceased to be a distillery sometime in the 1870s, perhaps to avoid federal taxation of liquor manufacturers, but continued to function as a grist mill. In the years after it was sold by the Isbell family in the mid-1890s, it underwent several changes in ownership and several modifications, including enlargement of the mill pond and the addition of rollers for flour manufacture. In 1912 it was purchased by the Haskins family, who provided three generations of millers and operated the mill until it closed in 1973. 

In 1983 the mill was purchased by the Jolly Mill Park Foundation, which has restored it and made it the center of a small private historical park open to the public. The mill itself has been restored to operating condition and gives periodic grinding exhibitions. Several period buildings including an old schoolhouse have been added to the grounds. The foundation sponsors an annual history day and other public events and makes the park available for private events such as weddings. The adjoining Capps Creek is operated as a trout fishery by the Missouri Department of Conservation. The mill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 13, 1983.

Further Reading

Banks, Robert O., Jr. “Jollification, Newton County, Missouri.” Historical Items from Southwest Missouri.

Hays, Otis, Jr., and Juanita Chapman Hays. A History of Jolly Mill: Pioneer Enterprise and Historic Treasure. Pierce City, MO: Jolly Mill Park Foundation, 1995.

Hays, Juanita C., and Otis E. Hays Jr. “Jolly Mill. National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form. National Archives and Records Administration, RG 79: Records of the National Park Service.

Jolly Mill Park Foundation.

Published March 27, 2024; Last updated May 1, 2024

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