The sound of water cascading over the immense wooden wheel is sometimes barely audible over the traffic on Ruidoso’s main street. But the wheel turns as steadily as it did more than a century ago. Inside the adobe walls of the old Dowlin Mill , two flint millstones slowly grind a handful of dried yellow corn into fine meal.
The mill, Ruidoso’s oldest building, was built by Paul Dowlin, a Civil War veteran and retired Army captain who served at nearby Fort Stanton. It was his second attempt in the mill business. The first mill, built at the junction of Ruidoso River and Carrizo Creek, was swept away by heavy rains just a few weeks after its completion.
Dowlin and his brother William salvaged what they could from the ruined mill and rebuilt on higher ground. Safety came at a price; now it was difficult to divert enough water to operate the mill. The brothers built a three-mile long flume system - V-shaped wooden troughs, supported by long poles and tree branches, that carried the water to the mill.
In 1877, Dowlin sold a half interest in the mill to Frank Lesnett, another Fort Stanton veteran. Lesnett’s wife Annie traveled by train, stagecoach and wagon from Chicago to her new frontier home. She later described her first impressions of the beautiful countryside, and then mentions almost casually that when she and her husband arrived at the mill, there was blood on the front yard. Paul Dowlin had been shot and killed the day before.
Annie Lesnett enjoyed life in New Mexico. She gave doughnuts and cookies to the Mescalero Apaches who came to the mill. One of her frequent visitors was Geronimo. One night, a mountain lion roared outside the mill, forcing the family to barricade the door.
Farmers from the surrounding area brought their grain to the mill, which also housed a general store and post office. It was one of the few mills that could grind grain and cut lumber. The Lesnetts raised hogs, turkeys and chickens. In the fall, more than 100 hogs would be butchered in the mill yard.
In the 1930s a hardwood floor was installed and weekly dances were held for several years. It was about this time that the great wheel stopped turning.
The building was abandoned and nearly in ruins when Carmon Phillips bought it in 1949. He hired a local man to make new adobe bricks and rebuild the back wall. The outside of the building is plastered but the interior whitewashed walls show the texture of the adobe.
The great wheel, its shaft broken, was rotted and sunk into the ground. Phillips salvaged pieces of redwood from a water tank at an abandoned gold mine and used them to rebuild the wheel.
He opened a gift shop in the historic building, whose cool interior provides a welcome escape from the summer heat. Visitors can watch the millstones grind corn meal and wheat flour, which are sold in paper sacks with printed recipes attached.
Phillips died in 1999 but his daughter, actress Delana Micheals, continues to welcome visitors and share stories of “days gone by.”