Native Americans have lived in, and traveled through, the Mill Creek Valley for approximately 10,000 years. They were hunters. In addition to the elk and bison which passed through in great annual migrations, they also caught fish and pursued deer, turkey, bear and waterfowl. As early land conservationists, these Native Americans used techniques that are considered best practices today. These include the concept of leave no trace living and the embracing the use of fire. The latter was used as a tool to promote the warm season grasses that attracted the great herds that they counted on.
The first white settlers arrived in Mill Creek in the mid 1800s. One of these pioneers was John Yelton who moved to Mill Creek with his family from Tennessee in 1864. Their transportation was an ox-drawn wagon and their journey took six weeks. They may have been fleeing the devastation of the Civil War. The Yeltons were attracted to Mill Creek because of the clean water and tillable soil. They planted corn, wheat and barley and also raised livestock. Two of Johns sons built a cabin in 1869 that is still present today. The scars, or ditches, they left behind from draining the wetlands are also visible.
Life in the late 19th century was hard in rural America and Mill Creek was no exception. The tombstones in the Mill Creek Cemetery bear witness to the lethality of childhood diseases and childbirth-related deaths. At this time, The Valley consisted of small sustenance farms like the Yeltons. Children attended a one-room schoolhouse. In 1886 a Methodist Episcopal Church was built where circuit-riding pastors preached to their flocks. In 1888 the Yeltons added a second story onto their cabin.
In 1890 Mill Creek greeted some most unusual guests: rainbow trout. These fish originated as the eggs collected from McCloud River Rainbows in the Shasta Mountains of California. They were transported to and hatched in Neosho, MO. They were subsequently shipped to Newburg, MO via railroad for stocking in Mill Creek. Though these fish were never stocked again, their descendants reproduce naturally in Mill Creek and a healthy population exists to this day.
The turn of the century brought unprecedented prosperity to America. Natural resources were believed to be virtually limitless. The demand for building materials and railroad ties resulted in the clear-cutting of entire forests. Again, Mill Creek was no exception, as entire hillsides were denuded and wildlife habitat destroyed
By 1904 the Yeltons had added space to their cabin again. It had now grown into a handsome two-story home. It was in this house during the Great Depression that incredibly - 18 children lived (8 Yeltons and 10 neighbor children whose parents could no longer afford to feed them). Mr. Yelton was fortunate to have a job with the railroad. Their chicken coop, gardens and fields allowed them to extend their generosity. Electricity was installed in 1949 and the first bulb was described to have shined like the sun. Running water was installed that same year and was called a miracle.
By the latter half of the 20th century, the citizens of Mill Creek were mainly comprised of small farmers and people who enjoyed living in rural Missouri. One land owner was Dr. George Bohigian who in 1981 bought the Yelton house. George, a St. Louis ophthalmologist, was attracted to Mill Creek because of its peaceful location and by the Blue Ribbon trout stream fishery. Being a scientist and conservationist, George was fascinated by the ecology of the stream and the interrelated wetland and woodland ecosystems.
At beginning of the new millennium, Mill Creek was indeed a pretty place. At the same time, it is not what it was or could be. The native prairie grasses had long been replaced by fescue to feed livestock. Almost all the wetlands had been drained. Several of the natural springs had been redirected. Several roads that cross Mill Creek were significant barriers to aquatic wildlife. The ditches that were cut to drain the wetlands in the 1800s were now contributing flooding and siltation in Mill Creek. Several of the wonderful recreational areas were in serious need of maintenance.
In 2007 Dr. Bohigian and his wife Chris decided to place their 450 acres and house in the hands of the Missouri Department of Conservation. The aim was to put the land forever in the hands of professional conservationists; to restore and preserve the land in perpetuity. This decision allowed one of the last pieces of the 7 miles of Mill Creek to be owned entirely by either the Missouri Department of Conservation or the Mark Twain National Forest (who now owns over 60% of the entire 30,000 acre watershed).
Immediately after this transaction, George began to organize his fellow conservationists, enthusiast groups and state & federal agencies into the Mill Creek Study Group. The purpose of this group was to Establish a coordinated vision of the resource management of the Mill Creek watershed and to implement an action plan. Dr Bohigian presented this in a public forum in Rolla, Mo in 2009. Central to his vision was the idea of a Living Laboratory whereby experiments could be conducted and findings shared across a wide spectrum of interested parties.
In 2011 the Mill Creek Watershed Coalition was formed as a mechanism for carrying out a more comprehensive vision for the conservation and preservation of the entire watershed. This team is unusual in its breadth and depth of collaboration and positive (and fun!) approach to getting things done. Mill Creek Watershed Coalition collaborators include Project Healing Waters, The Mill Creek Neighbors, The Missouri Stream Teams and Mo Stream Watershed Coalition, The Forest Service, Missouri Department of Conservation, Conservation Federation of Missouri, Missouri University Science & Technology, Audubon Society, Department of Natural Resources, the Missouri Master Naturalists and multiple fly fishing enthusiast groups.
Today, Mill Creek remains a very special place; for what it is and what it can become. Already, native grasses and flowering plants have replaced some of the fescue fields and the wildlife is abounding. The Audubon Society has identified over 150 species of birds and designated Mill Creek as a Missouri Premier Birding Area. Mill Creek is one of only four streams in Missouri which support naturally reproducing rainbow trout. The Forest Service and MDC have designated Mill Creek a Priority Watershed. Mill Creek contains habitat for four different endangered species. Over a dozen springs feed Mill Creek. A rare natural bridge rock formation is present on the hiking trail.
Looking ahead, we connect with the determined and hard-working spirit of those that have come before us. Much work is to be done! A strategic plan is in place. Nonpoint source pollution
is being addressed. Specific projects are being identified and funds are being sourced. There are wetlands to restore! There is wildlife habitat to construct! There are man-made alterations to be corrected! There are recreational areas to restore and new educational opportunities to create!
Feel free to follow us or better yet come join us on our journey!