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A sweep of grocery shelves showcases the breadth of Ashland's bread makers.

There are crusty sourdoughs from Sunstone Artisan Bakery and La Baguette, and fruit-filled loaves from Village Baker and Apple Cellar Bakery.

Other bakers work behind the scenes, filling orders for crunchy rolls, breadsticks and ciabatta to be served at local restaurants.

Each slice contains a mix of flour, water and Ashland history.

In 1852, before Ashland had a name, gold miners on foot, land seekers on horseback, and pioneering families in wagons came over the mountains and either passed through or stayed.

The first permanent enterprise here was a water-power sawmill on the banks of Ashland Creek. Its lumber made it possible for cabins, barns and bridges to be built from here to Jacksonville, then called Table Rock City.

The same early settlers who erected the lumber mill decided a flour mill would also supply a much-needed staple and future prosperity.

Hauling bags of flour over the Siskiyou Mountains was time consuming and expensive.

A pound of flour cost $1.25 in 1852, according to Kay Atwood's book, "Mill Creek Journal: Ashland, Oregon 1850-1860."

In 1854, a grist mill in "Ashland Mills," supposedly named after founding father Abel Helman's hometown of Ashland, Ohio, was constructed on land that is now the entrance to Lithia Park. A new dam upstream from the mill and a millpond guaranteed a steady supply of water.

Helman and his partners used their nearby sawmill to supply the support beams, plank siding for the floors and walls, and split shakes for the sloping roof of the three-story barn-style building.

The owners were in a hurry to open the mill ahead of the next season's wheat harvest and before two other flour mills were completed less than eight miles away.

The Ashland businessmen countered some of the competition's punch by working out a deal with successful wheat farmers, the Anderson brothers, to trade wheat for a quarter interest in the flour mill.

The mill thrived, the price of flour dropped to 15 cents a pound, and Southern Oregon's first manufacturing facility was established.

To make the mill even more essential, the owners arranged to have the mail distributed from the building. It took six months to get a letter or package from the East to the Ashland Mills post office in 1855. In 1871, the city's name was shortened.

Over time, Ashland's commercial district developed in front of the flour mill, filling in the area that even then was called the Plaza.

During the 1870s and 1880s, agricultural Ashland grew faster than any other Oregon town south of Portland.WATCH THE VIDEO ABOUT THIS STORY

"Ashland was once the valley's bread basket," says Sheila Carder, who owns Ashland-based Sunstone Artisan Bakery with her husband, Ben. "All these hills that are hay fields used to be wheat fields."

The mill, which ground the first flour south of Roseburg, survived for almost a half a century.

When it closed in 1891, the abandoned building on Ashland's main street was an embarrassing eyesore.

In 1906, the last owner deeded the mill, land and water rights to the city of Ashland, paving the way two years later for residents to vote to create Lithia Park, an idea promoted by members of the Women's Civic Improvement Club. The ragged wooden building was razed the next year.

"The flume for the mill is still in place but not used," says Ashland historian and photographer Terry Skibby. "It's the empty ditch that runs along the park path above the playground and lower duck pond."

In 1987, archaeologists excavating the site found the mill's first foundation stones, the pieces from which Ashland's bread legacy sprang.

Although scarcity and cost make it more difficult to buy affordable, organic wheat grown in the valley, modern bread makers are determined to hold on to the artisan traditions of hand-shaped and hearth-baked bread.

Sunstone makes its Jefferson loaf from organic wheat grown on Dunbar Farms in Medford.

"We are hoping to reinvigorate local wheat production," says Carder, who sells at the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market on Tuesdays at the Ashland National Guard Armory, 1420 E. Main St., and starting May 4, at the Ashland Saturday Market on downtown Oak Street.

Sourdough baguettes, sesame wheat levain and other breads are brought fresh everyday except Mondays and Wednesdays to Shop 'n Kart, Market of Choice and the Ashland Food Co-op. Smithfields, Ruby's and the Winchester Inn restaurants in Ashland, and Julek's Polish Kitchen in Talent have Sunstone on the menu.

Portland-based Chef Matthew Domingo, the founder of the state-wide Farm to Fork Event dinners, says he appreciates the taste of Sunstone's bread and the owners' old-fashioned philosophy.

"Sunstone is the real deal," says Domingo. "Their incredible dedication to sourcing quality, organic ingredients and their commitment to their local community ranks them as one of the best artisan bakeries on the entire West Coast."

Locally made bread still has impact here, it seems, 159 years after Helman opened his mill.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.