The Gaston Farm

Drone shot overlooking the northern half of our property

In September 2018, we purchased 160 acres of very rugged land in northern Marion County, after I had spent a few days exploring it back in the summer. If you know anything about the Ozarks, you know you can’t do much exploring in summer time because the brush is so thick you really can’t see anything. I had no idea until later that fall when everything started dying off, that our land had an amazing history that dated back over 100 years. I had seen some indications of mining along the creek, but had no idea the scale of the operations until the end of the year in 2018. There is verifiable information on the four zinc mines that were worked on our property, where they also pulled out smaller amounts of lead and boron. I’ve tried to compile as much of that information as possible to keep the memory of this place alive for future generations. There are only a few people alive who even remember the mines existence, nobody alive ever saw it operating though. It first opened in the late 1880s, and after a few ownership changes, closed around 1920 to 1925. That makes it one of the longest-operating mines in this region – it was actually mined longer than Rush was, although not nearly as successfully or with as many people.

Fall foliage here is amazing

First, I’ll start at the end. The very first indication I had of possible mining activity was driving down a 1/2 mile long road that was carved into the side of a mountain in some places. It was very obvious that someone put a ton of work into building this little road from the top of the hill down to the creek bottom. It would have cost millions to do it today, but you can tell how old it is because of how well it’s settled. In some spots they had to backfill 20 to 30 feet high just to make the road level with the high side against the mountain. There is one spot where you feel like you are looking straight down about 500 feet, but it’s really more like 100 to 150 feet. Still, it’s very intimidating and very humbling to think of how hard it was to build this road.

DJ and Jackson playing on some really big, flat rocks

About halfway down this road, I saw some exposed rock that had either been busted apart with a pick axe and sledgehammer, or had somehow gotten moisture in behind it and just cracked all to hell on it’s own. Below the rock wall, there is a pit that is filled with larger rocks, as if someone was filling a hole. I couldn’t tell if it was a cave, because water does kind of flow naturally off of the mountain and to that spot, or if someone had dug a tunnel. I later figured out that someone must have seen minerals in this rock outcropping and mined them. I imagine it was one of the first spots mined.

Further down the road, the land starts to level off and you can smell the creek ahead. My silver lab, Winchester, can hear it from this point. He always gets excited when we get here because he knows we’re about to go play in the water. The land flattens and immediately you see a large pit dug in the ground directly in front of you, with the excavated material piled up next to it. Get closer to the creek and you’ll see a few more pits. As you walk upstream, it becomes obvious that someone has done a hell of a lot of manual labor here. There are overgrown trails that look to be wide enough for a small vehicle, more excavated areas along the creek bank, and then suddenly you look up to your left and see a giant mountain of small boulders. Someone definitely worked this material, but how did it get up there?

Man-made rock wall section just above creek bed

Below the mountain of tailings, I noticed a small rock wall next to me. Someone had built it and put mortar between the rocks to form a formidable barrier to either hold rocks in or keep water out. Just 100 feet upstream, there is an island that has a huge rock on the other side of it, with what looks like a giant pool grotto. It goes back 15 to 20 feet and who knows how deep it is, it’s all filled in with gravel and sand now.

The grotto, it goes back a lot further than it looks. The water is deep here, about 5 feet normally. The rest of the creek in this section only gets about 2 to 3 feet deep at the most.

Walk another 100 feet upstream and you finally see it – the spot where most of the work was done. There is an even bigger pile of rocks, I would estimate 40 to 50 feet high above the ground it’s stacked on. There are pillars with bolts countersunk in them, some of the pillars are cement but some are just chiseled from very large rocks. Then I noticed the red bricks scattered around a raised part of the ground. It turns out there was a structure here, the foundation is still visible and there are a couple hundred bricks laying around it. There are more pits around this area, and a tunnel dug into the side of a mountain that goes back at least 10 feet, just big enough for one man to crawl into.

Imagine walking through the woods and seeing this appear between some trees
And then seeing this across the river – not knowing if a bear or mountain lion might be napping inside. I still get nervous when I’m by myself out here. Winchester went nuts one time when we walked near it, I just backed away and then we left.

The first time I saw all of this, I actually got nervous. It felt like I just discovered an ancient civilization, but I also wondered if there weren’t some mutant hillbillies in the surrounding area who were watching me, like maybe they have lived out here for generations without being in contact with the civilized world. When you’re at this spot on the property, you feel like the only person on Earth. It was one of the most exciting times I’ve had in recent history. I found something that nobody knew was there. The seller had no idea it existed, and they had owned the property for a decade. I specifically asked about old mines when I bought the place because I had a suspicion, but I never thought it would be anywhere this size of an operation with so much stuff remaining from 100 years ago!

Some of the pillars and foundations at the main mine site
After clearing a lot of brush, it’s much easier to see the layout

I did what anybody would do. I got my phone out and started taking pictures of everything I found – random bolts sunk into rocks or pillars, the pits that were dug everywhere, even an old stack of firewood that was piled up between two old trees. But with everything covered in dead leaves, it was hard to see what was really there. So I waited until early spring when things were a little drier, and burned off a couple acres of leaves. This really opened the old mine site up and allowed me to step back far enough to see it as one operation, not just a bunch of little things individually. I tried to imagine how it was laid out, how the material flowed from the creek or pit, to a mill, into carts, and hauled out probably behind a mule. There isn’t enough structure left to really determine exactly how it went, but I feel like there had to be a conveyor somewhere, either moving the mined material up to the rock pile, or moving it from the excavations to the mill.

Notice the large pile of rocks behind the pillars, that is the mountain of tailings.

I started doing a lot of research to see if I could find a picture of it somewhere, or at least of a similar operation. Below is a picture of a nearby mine called Bear Hill Mine, it’s one of the more well-documented mines in this area partly because it was easily accessible off of the old military road (now highway 202) and railroad access was nearby in Summit. The Beaty Mine was more difficult to get to since it was down in a creek bed. The terrain around the mine is extremely rugged, which is what sold me on the property originally. Flat pastures are boring. 🙂

Picture of nearby Bear Hill Mine, it was a larger operation and worked underground.

What I found was that the USGS, which used to be called the Bureau of Mines back then, had kept really good records. They had apparently sent a mine inspector around to all of the mines in the area and had them document the exact location (as best they could), what was being mined, how much material was there, and other relevant notes. I found out that the mine was first started before 1890, when the first land deed was sold. Prospectors must have been exploring the area around 1880, found all of the lead and zinc here, and started getting what they could. Prior to the land deed being issued, the US Government owned all of this land as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Even today, they still own the land, that’s why you get a deed instead of a title and why you pay taxes on something you “own.” Since the government ultimately owns the land, any other things you have or ways you make money are also taxable, because it exists on their property. Pretty slick, right?

Two mine locations listed, under different spellings. Also called Batie Mine

The first land deed was issued to a few people, because the land was deeded in 40 acre sections. The NE 40 was deeded to David H Dodd in 1890, the two southern 40 acre parcels were deeded to Francis M Wilkerson (who owned a ton of land here), and the NW 40 was not deeded until after 1900. The land that the mine was on was the NE 40, the mine was originally called the Beaty Mine (sometimes spelled Beatty or Batie). I’m not sure who it was named after but they ran the mine from 1889 or 1890 prior to the deed being issued. When the deed was issued, they were kicked off the land and Dodd took over the operation using the same name. The busiest years were after 1904 when the Philadelphia Mine Company bought the mine from David Dodd. At one point they had a steam powered rock crusher, two mills, and the USGS report said “many men” worked here. Over 80 tons of clear zinc was hauled out in 1891, so once the mine had a steam plant I’m sure the production went way up. There aren’t any numbers for the later years but I would guess possibly thousands of tons were removed. When that mine closed down, the steam plant went to the Markle Mine nearby.

Winchester as a puppy standing next to one pillar for a size reference.

Sometime around 1913, the mine reopened under the name Barnes Mine, still owned by the Philadelphia Mine Company as far as I can tell. The mine sold in December of 1917 to JH Griffith of Oklahoma City. Mr. Griffith sold it not long after that to Senator Elmer Owens and Jolly Melton in July 1918. They organized the Ruby Jack Mining Company with former owner JH Griffith of Oklahoma City as an investor. While the Beaty was mostly focused on the creek bed itself, the Barnes mine seemed to focus more on the hillsides and excavating those veins they would find. This didn’t last nearly as long, as they shut down completely by 1925. Zinc prices had gotten so cheap by that time that it wasn’t worth the labor to mine them, and most zinc production had moved to China after World World 1, so there were only a few smelters left in the United States anyway. It was so expensive to haul your ore to the train depot and have it hauled to a smelter that the only people making money were the guys running the trains and the smelters. This is ultimately what ended the zinc and lead mining boom in the Ozarks, although there are still some large underground mines operating a few hours north in Missouri.

The biggest mine shaft I have found so far, it’s about 15 feet across and at least 25 feet deep

From there, it changed hands a few times. Forrest Wood actually owned a portion of this land back in the 1980s, and interestingly Dr. Kelley owned a ton of land around here too. Modern record keeping that is accessible online only started in 1990, at which point the land was owned by the Moulton Family (northern half) and the Davenport family (southern half). Davenport sold their land to the Southern Land Company, who timbered that 80 acres. Southern Land Company sold to Ron Smith, and Smith was able to buy the northern half from the Moultons, and that is how the full 160 acres came to be one property. Mr. Smith sold to the Wade family, and they sold it to us. Hopefully we can hold onto it for a long time.

The creek is all spring-fed for the 1/2 mile of it that we have, I’ve found 2 springs so far

So that’s the history of our place, now for the present. It’s still a very wild, untamed piece of land and that’s what we love. But this type of land is not ideal for farming – there are probably only three places on the entire 160 acres that could have a 1-2 acre pasture, and two of them are on mountain tops where there is no topsoil at all. If you go down to the creek, however, the soil there is great. There just aren’t any flat spots big enough for farming or animals. So what are we farming then, you might ask? We don’t know yet. We’ve thought about just making some food plots and creating a very habitable place for the wildlife to stay. We have a lot of deer, a bunch of coyotes, at least one mountain lion, and a pretty good sized male black bear that are frequent visitors. Bringing in some quail might make it interesting. I’ve also considered setting up a bunch of beehives and letting them do their thing. Maybe we’ll do a little bit of all of them. But this is for sure – without clearing some trees and brush, there isn’t room to do anything but ride side by sides around and play in the creek.

Creek bank clearing in a Volvo mid size excavator

One of the best things I have done so far is renting a mid sized 6 ton excavator and using it to clear several areas of interest. The spot in the above picture was just a trail wide enough for a four wheeler, with brush and trees on both sides. The creek is to the right of the picture, most of the bear sightings were by the tree dead center in the photo. I cleared this entire area in a couple of hours, pushed a lot of dead trees away from the creek, and opened the whole thing up so it can now fit several vehicles easily. We like this spot because it’s almost in the center of the property, the creek is really calm here and not too deep, and there are a lot of creek rocks for the boys to throw. One spring also comes out here, just below the mirror in the picture above.

Another project since day one has been to open the creek up from end to end. When we got it, there were at least 20 trees laying across the creek, and many more on the sides and in the water, clogging up the stream. When it floods, Jimmie’s Creek turns into one of the wildest streams you will see in this part of the country. It comes up in a hurry and the water runs incredibly fast, taking all kinds of debris with it.

The easiest way to get trees out of a creek – a chainsaw and a winch. Ryan and I cleared almost the full 1/2 mile in one afternoon this way. The Jeep is my TJ that Ryan put together for me using a bunch of random parts we had and a driveline from a built XJ.

Beyond cleaning up the creek and the banks, and documenting all of the cool things I find, not much else has been done to the property yet. We did clear a spot on top of a hill with a great view, and are planning on putting a small cabin there for weekend trips. I also widened the road to get to our land. It was a pretty good road about 30 years ago but has not been maintained at all, it was just wide enough for a truck to fit without getting too scratched up. It is now wide enough that I can pull a 35′ gooseneck behind the truck and not have to think about getting around the curves. I used the excavator and pushed out about 2 to 3 feet on both sides of the road in places. Also cleaned up a bunch of trash that had been dumped on the road. Our road is only for our property, but it does run through two other properties briefly to get to ours. People would drive back onto these other properties and dump bags of bottles and cans, old toilets, bumpers, tires, and more. It’s disgusting but it’s part of living in this area. People would rather dump trash on someone else’s land, than drive a few miles to the Marion County Dump and get rid of it. We’ve hand cleared a lot of brush and tree limbs on the existing trails on the property, and brush hogged a lot. I’ve probably done more of that than anything else.

So unless clearing brush and exploring are considered farming, we don’t really have a farm yet. That is an idea that we’ve put on a shelf and will visit later if we find something we’re interested in. If I won the lottery, I would rebuild the old mines and put a steam plant down there, turn it into a small outdoor museum of sorts. Mining in the Ozarks was the first thing that really brought a lot of outsiders to this area, it’s sort of the beginning of the modern history for Marion County and surrounding counties. Prior to mining, the population was very sparse and everyone just farmed to survive. The first mines were started by farmers who needed to make money in the winter when things were slower. It wasn’t until the discovery of large deposits of zinc and lead that we had a “gold rush” type event here that brought it lots of new faces and investments by large companies. If you aren’t familiar with Rush, and want to know a lot about mining here in the late 1800s/early 1900s, read up on Rush Arkansas on the Buffalo River. That was a legitimate boom town. Most of the other mines around here were more like camps.

Thanks for reading! I’ll post more pictures and info about our land when I have more to report. It’s still new to us and we haven’t even begun to explore the NW 40 acres yet, so I’m sure there will be a lot more cool stuff in the future.

My beautiful and talented wife, she took the good quality pics you see on here.