Horse races, hard cider, and dynamite are some of the raucous elements peppering the history of the last water-powered mill in Oregon. Thompson’s Flouring Mills, once known as Boston Mill, has perched over the Calapooia River since it was built in 1858, before Oregon was even a state. So it’s no wonder that a little drama has popped up from time to time.
But much of that history is not obvious to visitors today—at least not at first. Since 2004, the serene mill and its surrounding bucolic homestead have been part of the Oregon State Parks system. There is almost no signage or publicity for the site, so it remains one of the best-kept secrets in Willamette Valley. The striking white silos with apple and rose logos rise 55 feet above the mill pond, while a Queen Anne house, orchard and garden frame western views of Marys Peak, the highest mountain in Oregon’s Coast Range.
Free guided tours of the mill give visitors a look at the huge hand-hewn timbers, long forgotten carpentry techniques, and the intense smell of old wood, which come together for a time-warping effect. The handrails are polished from use, the walls have snarky graffiti, and the tools and hand trucks look as though they are waiting for workers to come back from lunch. But the most powerful moment of the tour is when guides raise the wooden gates to send a torrent of water in to run the turbines. The dusty, paint-chipped, seemingly worn-out machinery still works; seeing and hearing the building come to life is an unforgettable experience.
The patinas on the oak and fir are the visible result of over 163 years of constant age and use. But silent and invisible to visitors today are the struggles to build the building, the challenges of navigating changes in society and technology and the tenacity needed to overcome floods and fires, depressions and droughts to keep the business alive. The vast archives tell stories of the everyday people who owned, lived, and worked at the mill, adapting it over time to make flour, then animal feed, then electricity to make a profit.
The archives also hint at more salacious tales that are inevitable in small towns. There’s the story of a miller’s daughter shooting her lover in the behind when he would not marry her. Others recount dynamiting log jams, and a group of teenagers who leapt from the top of the building into the water below. References to wildly popular horse races, baseball games, practical jokes gone wrong, Buick convertibles tearing through wheat fields, and making hard cider have been found so far in more than 80 boxes filled with documents.
Like any new state park, Thompson’s Mills State Heritage Site is still under development. The replanted heirloom apple orchard is just starting to bear fruit and other features such as campsites and a fully accessible walking trail are still in the planning stages. But the towering mill is and always will be the crown jewel of the site. Exploring the building is an experience unlike any other in the western United States and is a must for anyone who seeks the thrill of discovering a hidden gem.
Know Before You Go
Thompson’s Mills State Heritage Site is owned by all Oregonians and is maintained on their behalf by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department in cooperation with the Thompson’s Mills Preservation Society. The site is open for tours, picnicking and walking from 9-4 every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day when it is closed. Every part of the experience is free. Check the official web site for the latest information on tours.