Community rallies to rebuild historic mill
Butte Creek Mill, an economic driver, rises from the ashes in Eagle Point
Butte Creek Mill has been a mainstay of the economy in Eagle Point and its surroundings since it first opened its doors in 1872. Its customers then were farmers, who came with wagons filled with grain, townspeople, who gathered to socialize at the mill’s general store and traders, who came bearing leather goods and berries.
More recently, the mill — still in commercial operation — was a popular destination for tourists, who came by the busload to tour the mill, visit the gift shop and walk over the Little Butte Creek covered bridge into town. People from throughout Oregon came to buy Butte Creek Mill’s specialty pancake and muffin mixes, which were also marketed nationally.
But all of that changed on Christmas Day 2015, when Eagle Point residents awoke to learn that the 143-year-old mill had burned down, a victim of antique wiring. “I just assumed since it was there for a hundred years, it would be there forever,” recalls resident Sue Kupillas. “The mill was the heart of Eagle Point.”
“Everyone was so upset when it burned,” says Leon Sherman, former police chief and mayor of the town. “It’s not just a part of history, it was a part of our community and an important community attraction that went up in smoke.”
The community quickly rallied behind mill owner Bob Russell, forming lines to clean up the daunting mess. Although the mill was insured, most of the insurance proceeds were used to mitigate the fire damage. Recognizing the importance of the mill to the community’s economic vitality, a group of residents formed the Butte Creek Mill Foundation and came to an agreement with Russell to buy the mill.
National Historic Register
Enough of the mill survived to maintain its status on the National Historic Register, which recognizes it as the last water-powered grist mill still commercially operating west of the Mississippi. The millstones, brought by ship from France and then carried over the mountain by wagon, were unharmed, and the basement was largely intact.
The foundation’s goal is to rebuild the mill with careful attention to historical accuracy, and operate it as a commercially viable, tourist-friendly enterprise. So far, $2.1 million of the $2.5 million goal has been raised, much of it through private donations. Eagle Point resident and entertainer Jim Belushi has hosted two benefit concerts.
“We had people from all over the U.S. sending checks,” says Kupillas, president of the Butte Creek Mill Foundation board of directors. “We did quite a bit of fund raising without even asking for money. It was totally amazing.”
Mill construction has proceeded as money allows. “We had a unique situation because of the urgency to get the building closed in to avoid damage by water and weather,” Kupillas says. “Most projects, you raise money and then you do it, but we had to raise money and build at the same time. It was pretty hand to mouth for a while.”
The mill is being reconstructed just as it was originally built in 1872, with contributions from craftsmen from all over Oregon. The two-foot-square pillars are hand-hewn with a broad ax from local wood. The frames for the mill walls were put together on the ground with wooden pegs and raised up to create the walls and roof trusses.
The mill sits between two of the state’s largest tourist attractions — Crater Lake and Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The nearby covered bridge is a popular destination for people touring Oregon’s covered bridges. “Between the mill and the covered bridge, literally thousands of people came through every year,” Kupillas says.
The foundation received a grant from Travel Oregon for ADA modifications, which include access to the lower level, where people can watch the mill stones grind the wheat. The Butte Creek General Store will reopen, and an exhibit room will showcase local culture, Native American history and milling history. The room itself will be an exhibit as its vaulted ceiling showcases the mill’s timber frame construction.
A few more chores remain — hiring a miller, installing the electrical system, HVAC and plumbing — but organizers hope to open the mill doors late this year. “Eagle Point is a nice town and everybody is going to be thrilled when that mill is finally done,” Sherman says.