EAGLE POINT — Hard as he might have tried, Eagle Point Mayor Bob Russell couldn’t have imagined a more far-fetched solution to resurrecting the Butte Creek Mill than to have access to a matching mill straight out of the 1870s.
Until someone offered exactly that.
The Butte Creek Mill, built in 1872, was destroyed in a Christmas morning fire in 2015. Following the fire, the owners of a historic water-powered mill in Lake County approached Russell with an idea.
The State Line Milling Company Grist Mill, also known as the Keller Mill, was built in 1871 in the New Pine Creek area on the California border south of Lakeview and hasn't been used for more than 60 years.
Whit Simpson, whose family owns the Keller Mill, said the catastrophic fire at the the Eagle Point mill resonated with his family, which includes his mother, Margaret Simpson, who purchased the property 45 years ago from members of her family who ran it for nearly a century.
“When it hit the news, I thought of the mill here. I went over and saw Bob Russell a couple days later — obviously he was still in a little bit of distress. But I told him, we have a mill over there, and that when they start doing the fundraiser, that he should consider coming and taking a look,” Simpson said.
The Keller Mill, built one year earlier than the Butte Creek Mill, sits on Simpson's private property. Unable to afford the cost of revamping the mill, Simpson wondered whether the two structures could be combined to honor the history of each.
“It was water-powered but hadn’t been used in several years, so we apparently lost the water right unless we wanted to go back to the state of California. The other thing was it needs a tremendous amount of work, and to disassemble it and put a new foundation in and try to reassemble it was just too costly. It hasn’t been run since the '60s,” Simpson said.
“Last time it ran was 1966, and it ran for 10 minutes before the building started to shake so bad they shut it down. We were really excited about the idea of preserving what we have here as a way to at least keep the old mill stories going for this area of Oregon.”
Russell said his visit to the Keller Mill with historian George Kramer was like stepping back inside his own mill before it burned.
“It’s nothing less than spectacular, because what we’re missing with the Butte Creek Mill rebuild is that we are trying to reproduce elevators and equipment and just that look and feel of the 1870s. That’s hard to do with new materials,” said Russell.
“What we basically have at our disposal is an 1871 flour mill with the chutes and elevators and equipment. It’s kind of the icing on the cake when you’re putting back together the upper level.”
Russell, who purchased the Butte Creek Mill in 2005, called the Keller Mill “a time capsule, sitting less than 3½ hours away, that we’re going to be able to deconstruct and incorporate into saving the Butte Creek Mill.” The mill has since been turned over to the nonprofit Butte Creek Mill Foundation, for which Russell is president (added from previous version).
The estimated cost to disassemble and move the Keller Mill is $150,000 (corrected from previous version). Kramer said the opportunity was unique in that it could preserve two historic mills.
“I was very concerned when the (Butte Creek) Mill burned. How could anyone recreate something like that?” Kramer said, noting that 1800s construction techniques saved the portions of the mill that remain intact. The upper level sustained the most damage, while the lower level, millstones and foundation are salvageable.
“With the Keller Mill, it's almost like somebody is giving us a kidney. It’s like a transplant.”
Kramer said the Keller Mill wouldn’t be disassembled until spring. Members of the national Timber Framers Guild are expected to provide the expertise needed to replicate the techniques used in the original mill construction.
“It’s really the heart of the community. As sad as the fire and everything was ... it’s now going to almost become more important because of the story that will come with bringing it back,” Kramer said.
“The story of this mill is not only going to be the flour mill of 1872. It will be the Keller Mill giving its life to bring back Butte Creek Mill ... and all those cool opportunities that people alive today will have participated in and had memories about. It’s a new history.”
“Who knows?" he added. "We might have the whole town of Pine Creek coming over to visit ‘their’ mill.”
For information, see buttecreekmill.com or tfguild.org.
— Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.