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Eagle Point's historic Butte Creek Mill destroyed in fire

EAGLE POINT — The historic icon of the Upper Rogue region, Butte Creek Mill, was destroyed in a predawn fire on Christmas Day.

Owner Bob Russell was among the first on the scene after a security company notified him shortly after 4 a.m. that there might be an intruder at the 143-year-old national landmark he acquired 10 years ago.

The moment Russell opened the front door of his nearby home, he could see flames and feared the worst.

"My heart sunk and I screamed to my son that the mill's on fire," Russell said. "When I arrived, there was just a wall of flame. The whole front of the mill was on fire. I thought I was in some sort of dream, because it was surreal. I was just screaming 'fire!' and there was nobody around anywhere."

Moments later, an engine crew from Fire District No. 3  showed up, but it was too late to save what many think of as the heart and soul of Eagle Point.

"When the fire truck came up the street, I thought 'Thank God, maybe they can get it out,' " Russell said. "But within a couple of minutes it was blowing out both ends of the mill and I knew it was over."

Firefighters found half of the 5,522-square-foot mill engulfed in flames. A total of five engines and 18 personnel responded to the scene, including Medford Fire-Rescue and Lake Creek Rural Fire District. Firefighters continued to shower the ruins with water late into the day.

A neighboring 2,275-square-foot erstwhile cheese factory converted into an antique shop by the Russells years ago escaped the flames, but the thousands of gallons of water shot onto the mill flowed toward the building, forcing crews to place sandbags around it. 

Surrounded by family, friends and neighbors, Russell watched for hours as a decade of his blood and toil was consumed by flames and carried away in the smoke that cloaked the early-morning sun. 

"It's just been total shock and lots and lots of tears because they recognize how important this has been as an anchor for our little town, and it's up in smoke," Russell said.

Russell says his personal collection of antiques kept in the mill's upstairs office are gone, along with artifacts and photographs associated with the mill's history.

"There's heartbreak knowing how important this is to our community," said Russell, who has served both as mayor and chamber of commerce leader in recent years. "It has survived 143 years and I had hoped it could be around another 143 years. It's the last water-powered flour mill operating west of the Mississippi River. We were it, and now we're gone. We may be able to salvage the mill stones, but it will never be like this again."

Butte Creek Mill, perched on the west bank of Little Butte Creek near downtown Eagle Point, was  built in 1872. Russell, 65, and his late wife, Debbie, were the sixth owners. Water rights were assigned to what was then called Snowy Butte Flour Mill in the 19th Century. Water diverted from the creek a half-mile upstream flowed down a hand-dug canal.

The mill has withstood economic swings, rampaging floods and challenges to its water rights. It was drifting toward anachronism before Peter and Cora Crandall bought it 1972 from Frank Putnam, who milled a little bit of flour there while selling feed to local farmers. 

In 1976, the state of Oregon nominated the Butte Creek Mill for inclusion in the National Register for historic buildings, over the opposition of two local irrigation districts, which unsuccessfully attempted to have the mill's water rights revoked.

Since moving to Southern Oregon from Lake Oswego a decade ago, Bob Russell has been in perpetual motion, rehabbing the mill, while inspiring and leading Eagle Point and the Upper Rogue business community. 

"It's been non-stop for 10 years, working on the infrastructure of the building," he said. "We needed to jack-up floors, put in I-beams and stabilize the place, then open it up so people could go down to the lower level and see where the water comes in, where it used to be dark, so we could tell the story better." 

From the hand-hewn timbers and the wood pegs than pinned them together to the stone foundation and the sound of the water coming into the mill, Russell never tired of his life at the mill.

"Anytime I walked in the door, and every day I walked in I was so proud of being part of it," he said. "That's the hard part."

The electrical and plumbing systems, landscaping and exterior were overhauled, he said, so people could visit and enjoy the place.

When Mike Frey moved to the area eight years ago, the mill was as much of a magnet as anything.

"The Butte Creek Mill is the capital of Eagle Point. It's the brand. It's where the community comes and gathers," said Frey, owner of Paradux Media in Eagle Point. "It signifies everything Eagle Point is about."

Former Jackson County commissioner and sheriff C.W. Smith, who lives a few miles upstream, was among the people who frequented the mill to socialize with townspeople.

"This was a tourist location, plus the fact it was a great place to be and be around," Smith said. "It's a tragedy for us."

It had already been a particularly difficult year for Russell, whose wife died of lung cancer in September. 

"People pitched in here and we have loyal, loyal employees," Russell said. 

One consolation, he said, was that the lending library kiosk in the parking lot developed by Debbie Russell withstood the flames. A National Register of Historic Places plaque and a couple of coffee grinders remained as well.

Russell said he had a minimal insurance policy with Lloyd's of London. There were no initial reports on the source of the fire.

"They think it started in the center area, but they can't understand why," Russell said. "There's not much there, and the flour dust is only in the milling room."

Sawdust between the interior and exterior wall that originally served as insulation was long ago removed.

"We had heat and smoke devices throughout. We had lots of fire extinguishers and all of electrical checked and double-checked and in a conduit," Russell said. "Like the previous owner said, my fire insurance is vigilance, so we were always careful about that."

Butte Creek Mill hosted community events the second Saturday of every month, and just last week Christmas carolers gathered out front.

"There can't help but be a giant pit in my stomach because of what this mill meant," Russell said. "It appears it's just not going to be able to be saved in any way, shape or form. It's a tough day and a tough year for Eagle Point, but I'm going to continue to be a cheerleader."

—Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31