Butte Creek Mill: Grinding since 1872

Road Journals Blog—Driving out to Eagle Point, Oregon to visit the Butte Creek Mill can feel like running a gauntlet.

Crater Lake Highway, the most direct route from Medford, is essentially a roaring, five-lane racetrack girded by auto parts stores, motor-home dealerships, and spa-’n-stove outlets, until you finally get beyond the sprawling complex anchored by Costco.

Butte Creek Mill | Michael McRae

I wear virtual blinders and try to pretend it’s the late 19th century, when farmers from around the Rogue Valley would load up their grain wagons and clip-clop 10 miles out the old military road between Jacksonville and Fort Klamath, until they reached the grist mill on Little Butte Creek. During a bumper harvest, it’s said that wagons would line the road for miles.

Nowadays, the route through downtown Eagle Point goes by the name Royal Avenue, but it still parallels the creek whose waters have powered the rustic, four-story mill since it began operating in 1872.

Bob and Debbie Russell are only the mill’s fifth owners. As the front man, Bob loves to take customers on tours of the operation. If he has time, he’ll start a half-mile upstream at a modern coffer dam, which diverts part of the creek’s volume down a millrace and into the mill’s basement. Having gained about 12 feet of head by then, the water drives a cast-iron turbine before pouring back into the creek.

The spinning turbine is the heart of the mill, powering a system of drive shafts, wooden gears, fly wheels, canvas belts, and four-foot diameter grinding stones quarried in France that render kernels of organic Rogue Valley red wheat or Sacramento Valley corn into flour and meal.

When the Russells bought the mill in 2005, it was working but in rough shape. Previous owners had neglected to clean out years of accumulated mud and flood debris in the basement, so the couple rolled up their sleeves.

“We found all sorts of treasures down here,” Russell said, including perfectly usable hand tools, a tin bathtub, several mummified cats, and a dainty silver and garnet ring that Debbie still wears daily.

The excavation revealed a foundation of massive stone blocks that support a timber frame of pegged-together posts and beams, some of them two feet square and obviously hewn by hand using a broad axe. The structure’s walls, made of long whipsawed planks and battens, are fastened to this sturdy, flood-resistant frame with handmade square nails.

Butte Creek | Kyle Kruchok/Flickr

Upstairs on the main floor a freezer locker—where everyone in town stored their meat—was chilled by hazardous ammonia-filled pipes, and the wall cavities were packed thick with sawdust insulation. Reclaiming the iced-up space required hauling away about a ton of unclaimed, rapidly putrefying venison and mystery meat, as well as tons and tons of sawdust. It was backbreaking work.

Afterward, the room was painted white and lined with shelving, and today serves as the packaging room for the mill’s substantial mail-order business. Catering to health-conscious consumers and foodies (as Russell explains, stone-grinding produces more nutritious, flavorful, fiber-rich flour than commercial processing), the mill’s product line has diversified far beyond flour. Russell stocks specialties ranging from 14-bean soup mix to wheat berries, as well as couscous, flax seed, granola, grits, oatmeal, orzo, and various pancake, muffin, bread, and biscuit mixes.

The Russells redecorated the mill’s retail shop in the style of an old-time country store, drawing on a vast inventory of antiques and memorabilia that Bob had been collecting for 50 years.

The milling room required perhaps the least renovation, as it was working as efficiently as ever after 130 years. Watching flour spill from between grinding stones is a powerful connection to the past. But after Russell excused himself to tend to business, I was drawn back to the bowels of the operation, the lower level, where the whirring, clicking, belt-slapping mechanical sounds were like music to a nostalgic gearhead like me.

The once creepy basement is now an inviting space, with a 15-foot oak table that Russell picked up from the Multnomah County Library—a perfect spot for wine-tasting receptions, country music performances, or just marveling at the ingenuity of John Daley, the original builder, and his stalwart crew of pioneer workmen.

Michael McRae wrote about Butte Creek Mill for an upcoming issue of VIA.

This blog post was first published in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.