Bob and Barbara Kipfer; Protectors of Historic Bull Mills

Jun 23, 2015

Bob and Barb Kipfer know how to keep busy. It’s understandable when you take into account the 400 acres of land they own and maintain in southern Christian County. 

Barbara and Bob Kipfer in their guest house on Bull Mills. In early June the two gave a tour of their 400 acres to the White River Valley Historical Society.
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU

Originally from Kansas, the two are quick to point out how little they knew about this property known as Bull Mills before buying their home in 1995. But you wouldn’t know it by talking with them today, or sitting in on a presentation about the land, for that matter.

“We’re not really trying to restore it we’re trying to preserve it and we’re trying to restore the land for wildlife – for wildlife habitat. So that’s our two goals,” Kipfer said.

Bob Kipfer adds that the health of the stream is a key factor in meeting those goals, which is why he and his wife have planted 6,000 trees and worked to combat invasive species, for instance, to create healthy woodlands along the stream.

He’s invited me out on a recent afternoon to join the White River Valley Historical Society in its survey of Bull Mills. This bowl shaped area of land through which Bull Creek flows features a rich bottom land and forested hillsides. It was formerly part of Taney County.

“The first thing we really know about this place is Henry Rowe Schoolcraft,” Kipfer says.

Kipfer is referring to the famous explorer who, in his quest for lead, traveled through and documented several sites in the Ozarks beginning in November 1818 and continuing into early 1819.

“And so on January 5 he says ‘We emerged from the valley.’ That would be the valley of Finley,” Kipfer notes, as he reads from Schoolcraft’s journal. “’On Wednesday, January 16, we were deceived by the valley, which we had recently entered. Instead of Swan, it proved to be Bull Creek. It was universally known among hunters and avoided as a hilly, sterile region, in which from the similarity of the hills and soil is considered a dangerous place to get lost in, particularly foggy weather.’”

About one mile of the creek – located between Sparta and Lake Taneycomo - runs through the Kipfer’s property, along which a mill once stood. Established in 1833, it was first operated by Richard Jones.

“So the mill was built there and it was an upright mill, it was a gristmill and lumber mill at various times both.”

Cobb-Keeton Cemetery, located on the Kipfer's property, has roughly 35 marked graves.
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU

As the Bull Mills timeline moves on, we’re introduced to John McCoy, whose family moved to the area in 1841. McCoy married Richard Jones’ daughter Elizabeth, and the two moved to and started a family in Newton County, Arkansas. Later a Civil War captain for the Union Army, McCoy is credited with helping lead several families to safety up into Missouri to escape the bands of bushwhackers that were terrorizing parts of a then divided Arkansas.

McCoy’s connection to Bull Mills may be even stronger, given that in 1867 it was either him or his uncle who established a gristmill in the area. Was it a replacement for the mill established along Bull Creek more than 30 years earlier?

“We don’t know if the mill here survived the Civil War – some say it did, some say it didn’t. We do know that it existed a few years later. So we know it was here, but whether it was destroyed and rebuilt or not we don’t know.”

While no mill exists today, Kipfer says by using a metal detector he’s identified a strong signature along the creek where metal pylons may have been driven into the rock to anchor the mill dam in place.

Bull Mills also served as a frequent passageway for army units during the Civil War, and over the years a collection of stories – some unsettling – were transcribed. Silas Tunrbo’s Ozarks manuscript is comprised of over 2,500 pages. Among them is the story of Abraham Shafer, who mistook his son Simon for a wild turkey, shooting and killing him.

As Kipfer describes, “He [Shafer] saw something black moving high up on the bluff, he shot, he then had to go around – because you couldn’t climb up on the bluff as you’ll see – and when we got around there he found his son, dead. In 1867. The story says his screams were heard up and down the valley.”

Outside of the written and verbal accounts of the history of Bull Mills, landmarks are evident in the form of gravestones.

The tombstone of Capt. John McCoy inside Cobb-Keeton Cemetery.
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU

Cobb-Keeton Cemetery sits not far from Bull Creek and near the site of the old mill. Kipfer says when he and Barb first moved here, the grass was so high you could only see the tops of two headstones. Now, easily visible are the site’s roughly 35 marked graves, most dated between 1880-1910. That includes the markings of Capt. McCoy and his wife, Elizabeth, who like her husband had a Union Civil War marker at her grave site.

“That’s a government-issued stone. You’ll see other stones that have that shape, but you see that it has the shield and an engraving,” Kipfer says, describing Elizabeth McCoy’s stone.

Not to be outdone is the Native American history that has been uncovered on these grounds. There are two registered prehistoric sites near the cemetery that are the focus of an archeological exploration. Researches from Missouri State University have discovered artifacts going back as far as 10,000 years and some as recent as 1,500 years.

Artifacts uncovered on the Kipfer's property.
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU

“The one I’m pointing to is a Smith point, it’s 4,000 to 3,800 years old. This is again a Snyder. This is a Hidden Valley, 7,000 to 8,000 years old.”

Needless to say that the Kipfer’s have learned a lot about the history of this land. But they focus much of their time on conservation. Look no further than the flow of Bull Creek, which the pair worked with the Missouri Department of Conservation on to stabilize and re-route back through its original channel.  

Barb Kipfer takes me inside their home, where gloves and clippers rest on a table ready to tackle the daily plant upkeep. Bird feeders and various wildlife habitats sit atop or adjacent to the deck outside, which overlooks Bull Creek. But this is just a spec of the property that the couple maintains.

When the Kipfers purchased their home in 1995, it came with 85 acres. To date, they own roughly 400, bringing with it a lot of responsibility to maintain its history and health. And that comes with challenges, like tackling invasive species, something Barb Kipfer knows all too well.  

“Right now the two most challenging things are sericea lespedeza and garlic mustard,” she says.  

Coupled with the many trees they’ve planted, Barb Kipfer notes that managing invasive species will ensure that the desirable ones remain.

“Instead of one year seeing monarda with butterflies all over it and then two years later having that area just covered with sericea, that’s preservation, trying to give that desirable native plant a chance by knocking back the one that’s being a neighborhood thug.” 

And that preservation goes hand-in-hand with the region’s history, she says. Not just from a human perspective but from that of all living organisms.

So whether it’s the Kipfer’s 160 acres of open field, 240 acres of timber, or the 1-mile stretch of Bull Creek, there’s a great deal to learn about the history of this property, and a precious amount to preserve in continuing its vitality.