ETA: A fire on Christmas morning in 2015 burned the Butte Creek Mill down. The Butte Creek Mill Foundation was formed and became the owner of the mill. The Foundation is currently engaged in fundraising to reconstruct the Butte Creek Mill in a historically accurate manner.
A feature I wrote for the Jefferson Monthly just came out. It’s about the Butte Creek Mill in Eagle Point, Oregon.
The Daily Grind: Butte Creek Mill Keeps History Alive
By Jennifer Margulis
“This road that goes past the mill was the military road from Jacksonville to Fort Klamath,” explains Bob Russell, the owner of the Butte Creek Mill in Eagle Point. He’s a tall man with a decidedly Oregon twang to his speech. He’s wearing jeans and a black vest over a button-down light denim shirt. Bespectacled with tousled gray hair and a kid-in-a-candy-store smile, Russell is standing in front of the Butte Creek Mill on a misty morning in January. “In 1872 the mill was the only thing here, there was no Eagle Point, there was no Medford,” he says, “but the cavalry went back and forth here because the Indian Wars were going on and the Indians came into the mill and traded leather goods and huckleberries, things like that, for flour.”
I’ve long seen mention of the Butte Creek Mill—a short blurb in a travel guide to Oregon, a highway sign on the way to Crater Lake—but I’ve never visited. As a freelance travel writer, I’m often sent to faraway places that take more than one plane ride to get to. But lately my editors have been asking for more local, US-focused stories. They’ve noticed that with the downturn in the economy more Americans are taking “staycations,” traveling close to home to save money on transportation, hotel, and other costs. So I’ve been eager to discover interesting travel destinations close to home, which is why photographer Sean Bagshaw and I are at the Butte Creek Mill today.
Russell, who’s 58, talks about the history of the mill and the surrounding area with contagious enthusiasm. He points out a dilapidated rock building across the street and tells us it was built by George Brown—the founder of Brownsboro, Oregon—as an icehouse in 1877. “We just bought that at the end of the summer, and we’re going to do something with it,” Russell says. He and his wife Debbie live across the street, in a 1911 craftsman that once belonged to Lottie Brown, one of George’s three children. The house had been a rental for 46 years when they bought it three years ago. They have been renovating it ever since, replacing rotted wood, cutting down the enormous holly and fir trees that were so overgrown the house was as cold and shaded as a cave, pulling out the white vinyl floors to restore the original hardwood, and taking down sheetrock to unveil the original classic craftsman style wood beams that had been painted over. Russell’s not sure exactly what he’s going to do with George Brown’s icehouse, which has been abandoned since 1910, but his plans include putting in a blacksmith shop.
Renovating old buildings and restoring antiques are two of Russell’s lifelong passions. A self-described “city boy” who grew up on Tillamook Street and 28th in Portland, Russell has spent most of his life working as a district salesman for Canon and, as he puts it, “living on an airplane.” But when he and his wife came down to Eagle Point on a foggy, wet December day and saw the mill for the first time, it was love at first sight. “We just turned our lives upside down,” he remembers. “We weren’t looking for a business or a move, we’d lived in Portland all our lives.” Two days later they put an offer on the mill. Thirty days later the details were worked out and the mill was slated to be theirs.
When Russell and his wife bought the mill in 2005, the 800 feet of creek frontage were so overgrown with blackberry bushes, weeds, wrecked cars, and broken refrigerators that you could not see the creek. Although Butte Creek Mill, which is the only gristmill still in operation in Oregon, has been in continuous operation since 1872, the Russells have made enormous improvements to the mill itself and the buildings around it. We walk to the creek past a small garden of desiccated wheat stalks that are planted every year as a school project by third graders who then harvest it and grind it into flour at the mill.
“Literally you couldn’t even walk where we’re standing,” Russell says, talking loudly over the roar of rushing water. It took more than three months to rip out the blackberry bushes and remove the rusty car bodies. Now there is a pathway that leads to picnic tables and a wide open space where visitors can enjoy a creekside view.
The creek itself is an important tributary to the Rogue River for wild Chinook and steelhead and its waters are protected. Blue heron, wild turtles, river otter, beaver, deer, and salmon are among the wildlife Russell has seen near the creek. And it’s this water from Little Butte Creek that powers the mill itself. “In the old days the irrigators would suck the stream dry,” Russell says “but nowadays because our water right is number one priority the creek has water in it year round.” But the mill is not operated by a water wheel. “People expect to see a big waterwheel in the back,” Russell says, “but there’s never been one.” Instead, the pressure and weight of the water that flows into the 12-foot penstock from the millrace activates a turbine that runs the millwheels, belts, and pulleys. Visitors get to see this complicated system from inside when we go down into the mill’s cavernous basement.
But first we make a stop at the building next door, which Russell also owns. Once the Ladino Cheese Factory, the building is now a shop where Russell sells the antiques he has been collecting since he was a kid. The shop has embossed tin ceilings and Douglas fir tongue and groove floors. It’s crammed with curiosities: a teapot shaped like a camel with an African rider on top of the lid, a glass butter churn with metal paddles, a steam-powered peanut roasting machine from 1880, a child’s barber chair from 1910 with a Parker Carousel Company carousel horse head on the front of it, and a large wooden door from the Morning Oregonian building in Portland.
“I love to take basket case projects and make them into something,” says Russell as we admire some of the antique pieces he has painstakingly renovated piece by piece. A lover of antiques, he’s also a packrat: he tells us they moved 17 rental trucks of stuff over a five-month period when they came to the area.
“The only thing that’s not for sale is the jukebox,” Russell continues, pointing to an enormous Wurlitzer jukebox that was made in the early 1960s and plays 45s. “A guy came in and offered $10,000 for that but my wife said, ‘there’s no way you’re selling my jukebox!’”
After visiting the store and his house, we finally get to tour the mill. When you walk in, the first thing you see is a large case that displays some of the history of the area and of the mill itself. There is a black and white photo of the mill from 1883 with horse drawn wagons lining the streets—farmers waiting their turn to grind grain, an old Indian mortar and pestle found by the creek, and an Indian arrowhead found where the water comes into the mill. Then comes the grinding room itself, where the flour is made. It’s noisy in here as the belts and the 137-year-old French Buhr grinding stones turn. The air is sweet with the smell of wheat and corn, like in a bakery. Everything moves fast and it seems chaotic and exciting as freshly ground corn shoots into a sifter while some kind of flour comes out into a 25-pound bag. There are crisscrossing metal tubes, some sort of grain elevator, and ropes dangling from the ceiling. I can imagine the eager faces of the hundreds of school kids who visit the mill each year.
“What’s happening?!” I ask.
Russell tries to explain: “Up above, all of those are storage bins,” he begins, pointing to the ceiling above the ropes. “We have soft white wheat, rye, hard red spring wheat, and yellow corn. When I pull a rope, gravity releases the grain into the hopper here,” he points to an enormous contraption that I can only describe as some kind of holding machine. “This is the original hopper,” Russell continues, shouting over the noise, “and you can see this high tech string regulates how much grain goes between those stones … and those stones are now rotating with water power. As those stones turn at about 100 rotations per minute it grinds the into flour.”
The man overseeing this complicated yet old-fashioned system is Mike Hawkins, the same miller who has been working at the mill for more than 20 years. Like Russell, he’s wearing a button-down light denim shirt and glasses. Unlike Russell, Hawkins has flour smeared on his cheek and nose and a hurried air as he goes from a tube spouting ground grain to a mixer noisily churning a batch of pancake batter. By now it’s almost noon and before Hawkins goes on his lunch break he turns off the machines. The loud clanking noises stop. I use the lull to ask him some questions. I’ve never talked to a miller before. In fact, the only reference to millers in my life is a traditional much-loved French lullaby I sing to my kids. Translated, the words go something like this: “Miller, you’re asleep/Your mill is turning too fast/Miller, you’re asleep/Your mill is going too strong.” So my first question is pretty basic and sounds a little silly, even to me. “So what do you do every day?” I ask.
“My main job is to grind flour and to make mixes,” Hawkins says, answering my questions with patience and good humor. “Of course I have to order supplies to make sure we have stuff to grind. I also do some maintenance, and deliveries.”
I ask him if he ever thinks about the fact that he’s in a mill from 1872. “It’s definitely a unique place to be,” he answers gamely, adding that one of the best parts of his job is leading tours of the mill for school children and other visitors. Hawkins also likes that he is making healthy food, as everything the mill produces is whole grain. “When you take out part of the flour, the germ and the bran, you just took off two-thirds of the nutrients. We don’t do that here, so it’s nice to feel good about the product that you’re making—that it’s a good product for people.”
In 2008 the Butte Creek Mill produced about 250,000 lbs of product, including pancake and cornbread mixes. They deliver to stores, bakeries, and restaurants from Ashland to Grants Pass. A retail store in New York City also buys their products, and they ship gift boxes around the United States. You can also buy their products at the mill’s large retail store, which is our next stop. The store is warm and sweet smelling, heated by a World War II U.S. Army potbelly stove, which has a pan of cloves and cinnamon water simmering on top of it. I linger here admiring the refrigerator case full of different kinds of Butte Creek flours and things like Wacky Jacky cake mix (a whole wheat cake mix) and Better Beer Bread (a quick bread made with a bottle of beer). They also sell other local products like Dagoba chocolate and Butte Creek concoctions which Bob and Debbie designed together. Confetti soup, a mixture of different colored lentils, catches my eye.
Still, 2008 was not an easy year for the mill. Due to a variety of factors, including an increased demand for corn-derived ethanol, widespread drought in Australia, and more demand from the Chinese for wheat, the worldwide price of wheat skyrocketed. In 2007 the mill’s standard load of 30,000 lbs of grain cost $2,180 but by the end of 2008 that number had quadrupled to $9,710. While this was good for wheat farmers, it has been difficult for consumers and the Russells. The mill has seen sales of gift boxes drop and has been forced to raise prices. When one full-time and one part-time employee left, Russell decided not to hire other people for those positions.
But despite the down times, Russell’s attitude is upbeat. Owning a historic mill for a history buff like him is a dream come true and you can hear it in his voice when he greets visitors with a hearty welcome as they come into the mill. A tourist wearing suspenders and a plaid shirt tells us his name is Harvey and that he’s originally from Texas but lives in Crescent City. Harvey says he and the missus have been coming to the Butte Creek Mill every three or four months for the last twenty years to stock up. “We like the cornmeal real well,” he says. “Its ground like the wife likes to make cornbread.”
“Everything tastes better when you see how it’s made,” Russell jokes, “except maybe sausage.”
The mill, open Monday through Saturday from 9 to 5 and Sundays from 11 to 5, offers free 20-minute tours daily. I’m eager to come back with my family when the weather’s warmer . We’ll bring a picnic to eat at the benches by the creek. Or maybe we’ll come for the kick-off summer event on May 9th, a vintage festival with old-timer fiddlers, a Dutch Oven cook-off, free samples, antique tractor races, and petting zoo for kids. Any visit to the mill is free but beware: your wallet will be lighter when you leave and your hands full of confetti soup and Better Beer Bread. The idea of a staycation in southern Oregon is sounding better all the time.
Published: April 15, 2009
Updated: January 18, 2020