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Treasures in the rubble

Medina Russell pulled an antique medicine bottle from a zippered pouch belted to his waist.

Although the label was burned off by a Christmas Day fire that gutted the historic Butte Creek Mill, the unbroken bottle was still filled with decades-old pills and its cork stopper was intact.

"My pouch runneth over," Medina Russell said to mill owner Bob Russell (no relation) of the vintage treasures gradually filling his pouch.

"You did find some stuff!" Bob Russell said to his friend and fellow antiques collector. "I had all my pharmacy stuff stored under the eaves."

Volunteers, many of them antiques experts, began sifting through the charred rubble of the mill Wednesday. The last working, water-powered flour mill west of the Mississippi was also home to the office and personal antiques collection of Bob Russell, a lifelong collector. The volunteers are combing through a completely collapsed section of the building, staying away from the unstable sections that are still standing.

Bob Russell and Medina Russell looked through more of the vintage finds — some blackened and some almost unscathed.

A poker chip. An American-Indian ax head made of stone. A black-and-red woven Navajo rug. A glass paperweight bearing the image of President William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901. A Pluto-the-dog toy made of wood and string. A pocket mirror with a picture of a newfangled toilet promising "A Tank of Everlasting Quality."

"They are finding things that miraculously have survived," Bob Russell said.

He said there are many more objects that could be found, including an Alexander the Great coin dating from 336 B.C.

"It really is a needle in a haystack — or worse," he said of the chances of finding the small coin in the mounds of rubble.

Dried beans once sold at the mill are scattered throughout the site. Bob Russell said the beans were cascading out of the mill's doors like waterfalls as firefighters battled the blaze with their hoses.

He said the historic property was "barely insured" through Lloyd's of London, an insurance firm in England known for insuring unusual and costly items.

With the historic mill stones and foundation in place, Bob Russell is hoping to rebuild. Many of the walls and part of the roof still stand, but the architectural features are unstable. Fire investigators have not been able to enter the main part of the building yet.

Investigators and Jackson County Fire District 3 staff walked the site Thursday and used a crane to get a bird's-eye view of the burned mill.

The company Epic Scan is creating a three-dimensional map of the structure that is accurate to within one-hundredth of an inch, Bob Russell said.

The 3D imagery could help in the reconstruction of the mill and is also helping fire investigators.

"We want to know how big the rooms were, where the fire originated and how it spread," said Ashley Lara, public information officer for District 3.

Investigators are interviewing people and gathering evidence, but the investigation could take anywhere from two weeks to a year, she said.

"This mill is a huge piece of history," Lara said. "It's heartwarming to see how many people are supporting Bob Russell."

More than 100 volunteers have stepped forward to help, and donations are coming in from around the globe. Area businesses such as Eagle Point Hardware, Lowe's Home Improvement and Home Depot have donated materials. A vase filled with white flowers from well-wishers stood out against the blackened building.

"The support has been overwhelming," Bob Russell said.

With the fire so recent, Medina Russell said the loss of both the mill and Bob Russell's antiques collection is raw and painful.

"I still wake up in the middle of the night almost crying because of knowing what he had," Medina Russell said. "I never in my wildest dreams thought I would see the mill in this condition."

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Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Medina Russell digs up an old coin Wednesday from the ashes of the Butte Creek Mill fire. Mail Tribune/ Denise Baratta
Erica Vitellaro, daughter of Butte Creek Mill owner Bob Russell, salvages items from where the office of the burned-out mill once stood. Mail Tribune/ Denise Baratta