Milling on the Calapooia: 1847-1980 (1980)

Horner Museum Tour Guide Series

Milling on the Calapooia: 1847 -1980

Saga of the Old Boston/Thompson Mill

By Lucy Skjelstad

(Originally published in the Horner Museum Tour Guide Series, 1980)

After the long arduous trip west, supplying the necessities of life became the first order of business for Oregon's pioneers of the 1840s. Supplies could be had at older settlements in the lower (northern) Willamette Valley, but for families settling in Linn County and south, these centers were distant and, more often than not, all of a family's cash resources had been used on the trip west. Clothing, shelter, basic furnishings and tools were needed because so much had been left behind or along the trail. Above all, food was a priority need. New settlers set about planting as soon as they had made their claims of land, but food was still a long way from the table.

"As wheat was the first crop to be planted and harvested, the next consideration was that of grinding it into flour for home use. The nearest flour mill was at Oregon City, a round-trip journey of six days by ox team and not all settlers were equipped to make the trip. By necessity homemade flour sufficed for the daily meals. Some wheat was ground into flour by coffee mills, other wheat was boiled and eaten whole." (Mullen, p. 217.)

The population of the Willamette Valley grew quickly in the late 1840s. Milton Hale, Linn County's first settler, crossed the Santiam River in 1845 with his wife and small daughter and, after staking a claim, returned north to winter over at Molalla. They returned to their claim in the spring of 1846. Other immigrants followed Hale's wagon tracks that spring and arrived at the river crossing even before he had completed the construction of a ferry with which to cross the swollen spring river.

One of the 1846 pioneers, Richard Chism Finley, settled on the Calapooia River near what would later become Crawfordsville. Accompanying him was his young wife, Polly Ann Kirk, who had been only 13 when they were married. (Although census records indicate that her given name was Mary, she was called 'Pop' by her family.) She was 19 and her husband was 26 when they crossed the plains to Oregon in 1846 with their two small daughters, Sarah, 5, and Elizabeth, 2. Two more daughters, Martha and Eliza, were born in Oregon. Years later, Eliza described the family's plight that year:

"The first winter in Oregon, before the mill was finished, was hard on my parents. The family had almost nothing to eat at times. Wheat was ground in the coffee mill and bread was made from it merely by mixing it with water. There was not even salt to season it with, nor grease of any sort for shortening. Parched peas were ground for coffee. My father was always more or less of a cripple and could therefore do but little hunting. Once in a while he would get a poor thin deer, but the meat was so bad and rank that never afterwards could my mother bear the taste of venison. My father bought a small pig during the winter. He smoked it and hung the meat up in the cabin to keep it. My mother often told me how her hungry children would sit on floor before the fireplace gazing up at that pork and crying to have some of it, but she had to save it for use in case of sickness." (WPA, p. 30.)

Finley's Mill

Richard Finley had badly broken his legs working in a lead mine in Wisconsin and was considered by some to be a cripple. Nevertheless, in 1847 he began building a grist mill at his place on the Calapooia. It was a small building, 'not over twelve or fifteen feet square" according to Eliza. The mill stones or 'buhrs' had been quarried from granite rock near Brownsville. These stones and those of other early mills in the area were probably cut by Jarvis Briggs, a stonecutter from Massachusetts, who had come to the Oregon Territory with his wife and two young children in 1846 or 47. Eliza Finley Brandon further relates:

'The other settlers encouraged father to establish a mill on the Calapooia … Father started his mill in 1847. In building it he became indebted to
almost everyone in the region. About the time the mill was completed in 1848 news of the California gold strike reached the Calapooia. My father
saw hopes of finding a quick way out of his debts and, on the day the mill was finished, ground wheat in it in the forenoon, and in the afternoon mounted a horse and rode away to the mines.

He was quite successful and often sent gold dust to my mother to be used in paying off debts. When the settlers heard, they were anxious to see it. Each would pour a little in his palm and finger it, then pour it back into the pouch. However, a litt1e would always stick to the hand and my mother worked out a scheme to prevent this waste. She kept the dust as short a time as possible - in fact tried to apply it on debt payments as soon
as it arrived."

Richard Finley returned from the mines traveling by ship from San Francisco to Oregon City and rejoined his family. Their home, a log cabin, was built "well away from the mill" because as Eliza recalled:

"My mother insisted on this location because there were so many rough miners coming to the mill to get their wheat ground. The miners would come from many many miles away and were often compelled to remain overnight. My father kept them and fed them at the mill, but mother would not allow them to stay at the house to associate with her 'house full of girls.'"

The importance of the mill to the settlers and miners in the region is evident. George Goodall, another settler, stated:

"The first settlers had gone to Oregon City for flour and later to Salem. After Finley's Mill was built people came from as far away as the Umpqua Valley to get flour there...Currency was scarce in the settlement and wheat served to a large extent as a medium of exchange."

More settlers arrived each year and another mill was built at Syracuse (Milton Hale's town at the ferry) in 1849, and yet another at Waterloo on the South Santiam in 1850. By that year, just four years after the arrival of the first families, 173 households were recorded in Linn County. Settlers included the stonecutter Briggs, a physician, Reverend Spalding of Whitman Massacre renown, a cooper, a blacksmith, a gunsmith, a miller (it's uncertain which mill he was associated with), three merchants and three carpenters. The rest of the adult males listed themselves as farmers or laborers.

In addition to producing wheat for home use, the farmers quickly found wheat growing to be a prime source of income. The California Gold Rush provided an instant and burgeoning market. The Willamette Valley of Oregon with its rich alluvial soils was the closest populated farming and wheat-growing area. Waterpower from the streams and creeks flowing out of the Cascades added to the ideal situation for the development of grist and flour mills and the wheat acreage continued to expand. Long trains of pack mules carried flour and other supplies to the mines.

By the mid-1850s steamboats coming up the Willamette River from Portland brought better millstones which had been quarried in France and shipped around Cape Horn from New York. New mills which began operating in the 1850s were built at Albany (1852), Sodaville (1852), Scio (1856), Boston (1858), and Brownsville (1859). (Mullen, pp. 217-20.)

In 1900, fourteen more mills had been built at various Linn County locations supplying a flour market which extended to Europe and Asia. Today, Boston Mill, built in 1858, is the oldest continuously operating water-powered mill in Oregon. (The only other currently operating water-powered mill in Oregon, located at Eagle Point, was shut down for some years.)

Boston: The Early Years (1858-1866)

Richard Finley's first mill on the Calapooia River at Crawfordsville had done well. In 1852 the Magnolia Flouring Mill was built in Albany. A pack train reportedly was established making ten trips a year carrying flour to the gold fields of California. Some accredit this pack train to P. V. Crawford, a pioneer of 1851, but by Crawford's own admission, he did not arrive in Linn County from Yamhill unti1 1853. This pack train is said to have become well known for carrying the Magnolia brand flour, apparently from the Albany mill.

Six years later in 1858, P. V. Crawford and Richard Finley (along with Alexander Brandon) became partners in the new mill at Boston located several miles south of Albany. One can only speculate on the reasons for the Crawford-Finley partnership and for the mill's valley floor location. There was, perhaps, a distant family connection because Philomen Vawter Crawford's unusual middle name was the same as that of the miller Cyrus Vawter who ran Finley's first mill and married Finley's daughter, Sarah, in 1858. Crawford's first land was not far from the location of the new mill on Muddy Creek two miles west of Halsey.

Carey and Hainline (1978) suggest that the location of the new mill was deliberately chosen to intercept valley traffic heading north to the competing mill at Albany. The location was certainly central to the wheat-growing farms of the flat valley floor (especially important when transportation was by horse and wagon), but it also necessitated turning a portion of Courtney Creek into a five-mile long millrace with a series of five dams to achieve enough "drop" for the mill to function. (After 120 years, the millrace and dams are still in good condition.)

For whatever reasons the site was chosen in 1858, Finley first purchased land from Americus Savage and then the right to build a dam and operate a millrace on the Donation Land Claim of R. M. Elder and his wife whose property was just south of Savage's Donation Land Claim. He also obtained Territorial water rights.

Little is known about the original mill built by Finley, Brandon and Crawford except that huge hand-hewn timbers cut near Crawfordsville and hauled to the site were used and that a buhrstone shipped from France was installed to grind the wheat into flour. Apparently the mill's success inspired Finley to plat the town of Boston in 1861 in hopes that it would become a major supply center for miners and farmers in the southern valley and foothills. The little town was laid out in eleven square blocks with a public square near the center, similar to New England towns. (Figure 1.) Two houses still stand where once there were two general stores, a blacksmith shop, a har­ness shop, a saloon and a post office, in addition to numerous residences.

The years 1861 and 1862 must have been very eventful ones for Finley and his family. The massive flood of 1861-62 destroyed the original mill at Crawfordsville although the newer mill, just built, survived. Within a year the second mill, at Boston, was burned to the ground, Finley's daughter Eliza, 11 years old at the time, later blamed the fire on the nearby carding mill, located southeast across the millrace, where a fire was kept continuously burning to keep the wool warm for working. The flouring mill was immediately rebuilt. Again, hand-hewn timbers were brought from Crawfordsville. These large timbers with their telltale ax marks can still be seen in the oldest part of the mill.

The new two and one-half story building measured 45 feet x 60 feet. The timber frame was constructed one story at a time using mortise and tendon joints held together with wooden pegs. This building held the milling machinery including the old French buhr­stone from the original mill and grain storage bins. The main power machinery, the pulleys, belts, fly­wheels, and gears were in the basement with the grinding machinery and office on the first floor and the storage bins on the second floor. A separate one-story storage building was also constructed and the two buildings were connected by a covered passage for wagons. (Figure 2.)

The Finley-Simmons Years at Boston Mill (1866-1891)

Not a lot is known about the Boston Mill during the next 25 years. William "Billy" Simmons bought out Crawford and Brandon in 1866 and operated the mill until 1891. Al and Ed Simmons purchased Finley's half-interest in 1875 and then Billy Simmons' half in 1878. In 1885 Billy Simmons again acquired a half interest and, in 1887, Finley repurchased the other half-interest from Al and Ed Simmons, thus reestablishing the Wm. Simmons / Finley partnership until 1891.

A critically significant event during these years was the routing of l.5 miles of the new Oregon and California Railroad to the west of Boston (perhaps because of the higher ground there) in 1871, thereby dashing the hopes of Finley for the growth of Boston and creating the town of Shedd's Station, now Shedd. The people residing in Boston soon began relocating at Shedd because of the better services there due to the railroad. Nevertheless, the mill at Boston continued to prosper. A warehouse was built in Shedd in 1872 to store and handle wheat to be shipped by railroad. Both incoming wheat and outgoing flour were sacked for shipping and handling. The building, purchased by Otto Thompson in 1917, still stands in Shedd.

In 1891 Richard Finley sold his interest in the mill to Stanley Noel. In less than a year, Noel sold his interest to Martin Thompson, thus setting the stage for the long era of Thompson family ownership at Boston Mill.

The Thompson Years (1891-1974)

German immigrant miller Martin Thompson first settled in Washington Territory, founding the town of Husan (named after his hometown in Germany) across from Hood River. Upon coming to Oregon, Thompson had a mill at Champoeg, but it was destroyed in the flood of 1890. He went to a mill near Turner for a short time and then he purchased a half-interest in the Boston Mill from Noel in 1891.

Thompson soon set about modernizing the mill. He installed steel rollers in place of the old French millstone and proudly changed the mill's name to Boston Roller Mills. In 1897 he was able to buy out Billy Simmons' interest. For the next 75 years the Thompson family was the sole owner of the mill and for most of that time it was known as The Thompson Flouring Mill.

The progressive changes were continued. Two new building areas for storage were built in 1900 and 1902. Thompson's son Otto became involved in running the mill and assumed full management in 1910 of Thompson Bros. & Co. when his father died. The greatest number of structural changes in the mill was made in 1917. (Figure 3.) The storage building was moved to one side, four concrete silos (grain storage tanks) were built where it had stood, and two more storage sections for storing sacks were added. The mill was modern for its time - the silos were the first concrete tanks south of Portland. In addition to these changes, a new concrete dam or headgate structure was built.

Before motorized transportation, routine at the mill had probably not changed much since the Finley - Simmons years. During the decades of horse-drawn and rail transportation, the mill was a major market for farmers of the area. In those years the mill's customers lived as far away as a team of horses could travel in a day. Four grey horses were kept by the Thompson mill and the delivery wagons left early each morning (before daylight in the winter months) and returned late in the evening. Farmers bringing wheat to the mill could exchange it for flour at 40 lbs. for a bushel, a standard which stood for many years. They could also exchange, on the same basis, for corn meal or rye flour. Hardened flour was exchanged for 33 lbs. Young Myrle Thompson arose early each morning. His father started up the mill at 5 a. m. and he had to be there at 6 to oil all of the bearings of the mill machinery before going to school. The mill ran until about 6 p. m. in the evening.

During World War I the mill began running 24 hours a day and ground flour for the government. The flour was put into 98 lb. sacks and then sacked again in burlap for shipment overseas. Local farmers came to help haul the sacks of flour to Shedd and to load them into railroad cars.

The Depression years brought other changes to the mill. During this time much of the mill's business was done on an exchange rather than a cash basis. Customers often brought in 90 lb. bags of rolled oats to exchange for flour. Wheat was taxed at 30¢ per bushel unless it had been grown for personal use. Myrle Thompson became a partner with his father.

By 1933 the Thompsons were handling many other grains besides wheat. When Otto Thompson bought the warehouse in Shedd and installed grain handling machines, the place became a site for shipping and receiving corn and other feed ingredients. The first rye grass cleaner was installed in 1925 and more were added in 1928. Soon rye grass, both thrashed and cleaned, was stored in bulk and it became the major product handled. A peak year saw 160 30-ton capacity railroad cars leaving Shedd. Locally raised oats were stored and shipped by rail also. Molting barley grown in the Klamath Falls region was shipped to the warehouse and then to eastern and midwestern points by rail. The warehouse was one of the few transit houses in the Willamette Valley and it became a major shipping point to the eastern and southern states.

Early in World War II Thompson's Mill gave up milling wheat entirely. During the 1930s valley farmers had largely switched to seed growing. Because so little wheat was being grown nearby, the mill had to ship wheat in from eastern Oregon for milling purposes. Other contributing factors included better roads and truck transportation for delivery to bakery stores, competing self-rising and mixed flours produced by bigger mills, and the decline in the number of women baking their own bread.

Another change was the development of a chemical bleaching process in other mills. At the Boston/Thompson Mill the flour had always been aged for six weeks before selling, achieving the same result. (Myrle Thompson notes that beginning in the 1970s more people are rejecting the chemically bleached flours and are seeking flour bleached by the more natural aging process.)

The foresight of the Thompsons in the 1920s and 1930s in gradually switching to the production of feed allowed the mill to continue as a profit-making enterprise. Whereas when Myrle Thompson was growing up in 1910-1930 there had been twelve flour mills in Linn County, now only three remain, all producing feed. The Thompson Mill now produces livestock feed and feed for poultry which is hauled by truck to various parts of Oregon from Eugene south. Whereas once big dairies in the Florence area were a major market for feed in the past, now many of the mill's customers are "backyard farmers," hobbyists and small farmers who buy feed for horses and beef cattle.

As the oldest continuously operating water-powered mill in Oregon, the old Boston/Thompson Mill stands as a symbol of the initiative and perseverance of Oregon's early settlers. In 1979, in recognition of the important role that it has played in the development of Oregon, the mill was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, the mill is now just breaking even financially and is in need of major repair. The present owners of the mill and the State Historic Preservation League are mounting a major effort to save the old mill.


Carey, Margaret S. and Patricia H. Hainline. Shedd. Brownsville, Calapooia Publications, 1978.

Goodall, Geo. O. "The Upper Calapooia." Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 4 no. 1 (1903), pp. 70-77.

Mullen, Floyd. The Land of Linn. Lebanon, Oregon. 1971

Olsen, Charles O. History of Linn County. Federal Works Agency, Work Projects Administration. Linn County Pioneer Memorial Association. 1938.

Youngberg, Elsie. 1850 Oregon Territorial Census. Lebanon, End of Trail Researchers, 1970.