The first time I saw a picture of Thompson’s Flouring Mill, I knew I wanted to see it in person. Later, when I learned that it is the oldest water-powered grist mill in the state and is open for tours, I knew I had to experience this historic site for myself. Located an hour north of Cottage Grove — just outside of the town of Shedd — the mill is easy to access. Earlier this summer, I am so glad we took the time to head up there and explore.
Stepping out of the car in the parking lot for Thompson’s Mill is like stepping back in time. A mill was first built here in 1858. At that time, communities were beginning to spread out onto the plains of the lower Willamette Valley, and farmers in the area were hauling their wheat all the way to Albany to be ground to flour. Richard Finley built the mill to capture some of this market. He was successful, and four years later when the mill burned to the ground it was quickly rebuilt.
Named Boston Mills when it was built, Finley laid out the town of Boston along side the mill. Have you ever heard of Boston, Oregon? Probably not, because the railroad arrived in this part of the valley a decade later — in 1871. It missed Boston by a mere 1.5 miles. As residents and businesses moved closer to Shedd’s Station, a stop along the rail line, the town of Boston disappeared and the town of Shedd came to life. However, the railroad was a boon to the mill because it opened up new markets for the mill’s flour. At the turn of the century, Thompson’s Flouring Mill – now owned by Martin Thompson – was shipping flour as far away as China. During World War I there was such international demand for flour that the mill operated 24 hours a day.
As a State Heritage Site, touring Thompson’s Flour Mill on your own is a fun experience. The well-done signs and displays explain the history of the mill and surrounding area. But to truly enjoy and experience this mill, I highly suggest taking the free guided tour. Through our tour guide, the mill and the people who worked here truly came to life, as did the building and the machines when the water turbines were turned on below.
Over the years, many things have changed. As wheat crops in the lower Willamette Valley gave way to grass seed, the mill’s owners switched over to processing animal feed. Later, the water turbines were used to create electricity which was sold back to the grid to add supplemental income to the mill. Finally, operating a water-powered mill of any sort was no longer feasible. With work by the owners and the newly created “Boston Mill Society” the property was sold to the State Parks and Recreation Department to become a State Heritage Site in 2004.
OPRD is removing dams along the Calapooia and sold some of the water rights to restore the health of the river and improve fish habitat. Even bigger plans are in the works as the Queen Ann house beside the mill is being restored to open to the public, and the land around the mill is being transformed back to its 1880s to 1940s state, including the recent addition of a heritage apple orchard.
For directions, open hours, and tour schedule see the Oregon State Parks website: http://www.oregonstateparks.org/index.cfm?do=parkPage.dsp_parkPage&parkId=186