Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Down by the Old Mill Stream

An 18’ water wheel adorns the outside of the Bob’s Red Mill Visitors’ Center in Milwaukie, Ore. While its function is largely decorative, there was a time when these wheels dotted the countryside of rural America. For centuries, it was the force of water that turned these wheels, that engaged the gears, that revolved the millstones, that ground the grain, that fed the farmers and their families. Wherever there was agriculture, there were mills and the Pacific Northwest was no exception. The first grist mill was built at Ft. Vancouver in 1828 and was soon joined by many more up and down the Willamette Valley. Not only were they an important part of the food-chain, mills often became the community social center. Neighbors would gather to gossip and exchange news while the miller ground their grain. Today, grist mills have disappeared from the landscape, but a few survivors in the area remind us of this important part of farming history.
Butte Creek Mill and Store
Claiming to be the last original, operating, water-powered, grist mill west of the Mississippi, the Butte Creek Mill, is located in Eagle Point, about 12 miles east of Medford. The three-story building on the banks of Little Butte Creek dates to 1872 and was one of the first flour mills in the Rogue River Valley. Its 1400 lb. millstones were quarried in France, milled in Illinois, carried by ship around Cape Horn to Crescent City, California, and hauled by wagon train over the Siskiyou Mountains to the mill. Today, visitors can watch the miller at work and observe the hand hewn timbers and old machinery. Also in the building is a homey country store selling freshly ground grains, cereals, and pancake mixes. 
Thompson's Mills State Heritage Site
Oregon’s oldest surviving flour mill was recently saved from dilapidation by the State of Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Dating back to 1856, Thompson’s Mills, once known as Boston Mill, was purchased in 2007, renovated, and developed into a living history museum describing Willamette Valley agriculture in the 19th century. Inside the five-story mill, you'll find antique machinery, hand-hewn beams, and interpretive exhibits. The mill is the only one remaining of seven mills along the Calapooia River in Linn County.
Cedar Creek Grist Mill
North of Portland and east of Woodland, Washington, is the Cedar Creek Grist Mill. Tucked away in an idyllic, forested gorge, it remains the only grain-grinding mill in Washington that has maintained its original structural integrity and still uses water power and millstones. Built in 1876, the mill was used for years by families throughout north Clark County, but by the turn of the century it had transitioned to a machine shop and gradually fell into decline. Fortunately, a group of dedicated volunteers rescued and restored the old mill and today it serves as a working museum. On weekends, visitors are invited inside to admire the intricate system of pulleys, gears, and belts, and observe the milling process. In fact, if you bring your own grain, they will grind it for you. At the mill site is one of the few covered bridges in Washington.
Bob's Red Mill
By the early 1900s, most of these labor-intensive mills and their grain-grinding stones were replaced by electric power and high-speed steel rollers. Farmers no longer grew their own grain, and a preference developed for white flour and store-bought bread.  Stone milling became increasingly rare. Today, however, there is a renewed appreciation for this old-time process, and many believe the highest quality flours are made by the slow, cool grinding of stones. Grains are crushed without generating excess heat, thus preserving the nutritional value and flavor of the flour.
Bob’s Red Mill is one of the few commercial mills still using this traditional milling process. While electricity has replaced water-power, the grains are still ground by 19th century, French quartz millstones acquired from old mills. The Visitors Center, designed to be a replica of the original mill in Oregon City, includes an outlet store, an enormous selection of bulk grains, bakery, deli, cooking classes, and milling display.

Steve is the official tour guide at the Thompson's Mill

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