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Oregon Couple Grinds Out Living : Duo Finds Old-Fashioned Business is Grist for Their Mill

Charles Hillinger's America

May 03, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

EAGLE POINT, Ore. — Cora and Peter Crandall have turned back the clock. They left Southern California 15 years ago and moved to this tiny Southwestern Oregon town where they operate one of the oldest continuously operated old-fashioned grist mills on the West Coast.

Butte Creek Mill, located on a tributary of the Rogue River, has been grinding grain on the same two 1,400-pound millstones since 1872. The four-story mill is a maze of belts, shafts and pulleys powered by water flowing through the millrace, fore bay, penstock and tailrace.

Much of the equipment dates back to the mill's beginning. Crandall, 65, is a mechanical engineer--and it takes a mechanical engineer to understand all the contraptions that keep the mill running and to custom-make replacement parts.

Crandall worked for North American Rockwell's Science Center in Thousand Oaks before he and his wife, Cora, left their home in Camarillo for Oregon.

"My wife and I heard about Butte Creek Mill, found out that it was for sale. It was an opportunity we could not resist. We both have a strong interest in historical things, an equal interest in good nutrition," he explained.

They bought the mill from Frank Putman, who was 71 at the time. "Putman's father bought the mill in 1932 for $600, an incredible price. It included the building, the land, the millstones, everything. The family ran it 40 years," Crandall said, adding he paid "a nominal price."

Business has been good for the Crandalls, who have 10 employees. Last year's gross sales were $250,000. They have a big mail-order business, selling 35 products ground on the stones, including corn meal, hard red spring wheat, soft white wheat, rolled wheat, common and cracked rye, barley and bran muffin mix.

Cluttered with lanterns and old farm, buggy and mill tools dangling from the ceilings, the grist mill is a nostalgia nut's dream come true. The mill is stocked with sacks of grain and galvanized buckets filled with finished products.

The runner stone that turns and the nether or bed stone that is stationary were ground near Paris of French buhrs, a form of quartz. The stones were transported by wagons from the East Coast to the Barnard and Lea Co. in Moline, Ill., manufacturers of milling equipment.

Barged down the Mississippi River, the millstones were then placed aboard a sailing ship that brought them around the Horn to Crescent City, Calif., in 1872. From there the stones were brought by wagon to Eagle Point.

The Crandalls belong to the 1,600-member Society for the Preservation of Old Mills, headquartered at the home of Fred Beals in Mishawaka, Ind. Beals, a retired electrician and mill buff, president of the society from 1981 through 1986, is its business manager and secretary.

"Our members are people in 46 states and nine foreign countries with an interest in mills. Some, like the Crandalls, own and operate them," Beals explained in a phone interview. "Some like to photograph them, others like to look at them.

"There were thousands of mills throughout America. Almost every community had at least one," he said. "There's a renaissance of mills. More and more are being renovated and restored all the time.

He estimates that 500 mills still exist in the United States. Many have been converted into homes, restaurants and bed-and-breakfast inns.

The Crandalls operate an old-fashioned country store at the mill and have just opened the Oregon General Store Museum next door. Crandall has been collecting general store fixtures for 50 years and half-century to century-old products sold in general stores.

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