Working Mills in the West

Watch sawmills and gristmills operate at six historic sites in California, Oregon, and Washington. 

Washington's Cedar Creek Grist Mill on a river, image

Washington's Cedar Creek Grist Mill grinds by water power to this day.

The mechanical masterpieces of their time, mills once churned throughout the United States. By 1840, more than 55,000 sawmills and gristmills across the country provided lumber, flour, feed, and gathering places for settlers. Most have vanished, but you can still experience the rumble and rush of water and industry at these impressive sites.

  • A 36-foot waterwheel built in 1846 drives antique French buhr millstones at the Bale Grist Mill in California’s Napa Valley. The slowly turning stones and moist air produce ground meal that some find especially good for corn bread, shortening bread, and spoon bread. After a tour, pick up a bag of the organic grain or enjoy a picnic in the nearby park. (707) 963-2236, parks.ca.gov.
  • Forty-five minutes northeast of Portland, the scenic 1876 Cedar Creek Grist Mill in Woodland, Wash., not only ground wagonloads of grain but also served as the local social hub, where dances and music shows were held. Explore the covered bridge and take home samples of flour or cornmeal scooped straight from the hopper. (360) 225-5832, cedarcreekgristmill.com.
  • Since 1872, the waters tumbling down Little Butte Creek through Eagle Point, Ore., have driven a cast-iron turbine in the bowels of the Butte Creek Mill. Through an ingenious series of spinning shafts, canvas belts, hand-cut wooden gears, and augers, the mill shuttles wheat and other grains from basement to attic, then to the grinding furrows of two massive quartz buhrstones that were quarried in France, shipped to California by sea, and hauled across the mountains by oxcart. Rogue Valley grain farmers once paid the miller by letting him keep one bag of flour out of every seven he ground. Apart from the inauguration of free tours and the end of barter payments, the system still runs as it did 139 years ago, and owners Bob and Debbie Russell wouldn’t have it any other way. Lifelong antique collectors, they’ve mingled curios—from vintage coffee cans to beveled-glass windows—with the bags of stone-ground cornmeal, pancake mix, and scores of other products in their two stores. One other addition: picnic tables overlooking the creek, where visitors can take a break from the daily grind. (541) 826-3531, buttecreekmill.com.
  • At Sturgeon’s Mill in Sebastopol, Calif., an 1860s Atlas steam engine spins massive saw blades as they slice through redwood logs, just as they did during the mill’s commercial heyday from 1914 to 1964. “It runs just as sweet as it ever did,” says co-owner Bob Sturgeon. Watch the sawdust fly at upcoming demonstrations Sept. 6–7. (707) 829-2479, sturgeonsmill.com.
  • The 1889 Thomas Kay Woolen Mill at the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, Ore., includes a pioneer herb garden, two 19th-century homes, and a Methodist parsonage. Stroll along the flower-lined millstream to see the redbrick and stone structure and its waterpowered machinery, which aided workers in spinning and weaving raw wool. (503) 585-7012, oregonlink.com/mission_mill.
  • At Thompson’s Mills State Heritage Site in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, watch water from the Calapooia River cascade through turbines as the clanking of machinery reverberates around the five-story grain mill, built in 1858. Handpainted advertisements for the mill’s own flour brands—Delicious Hard Wheat and Valley Rose—still decorate the 50-foot-tall silos. (541) 491-3611, oregonstateparks.org.

Photography by Alan Majchrowicz

This article was first published in July 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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