Friday, November 10, 2023

Finding Oregon's Roots: Boston, Shedd's Station, and Thompson's Mills

Near the unassuming town of Shedd in the central Willamette Valley stands a group of bright white siloes and an attached mill. This peaceful spot is one of the valley's best kept secrets: a slice of Oregon's history that looks like the workers have just stepped out for a quick break. The old buildings wait for history buffs of all ages to come take a free tour and imagine a time when the mill was the gathering spot for neighbors from miles around.


This historic site is also a tribute to the owners' careful planning, hard work, and ingenuity. In 1858, before Oregon was even a state, R.C. Finley and his partners built a flour mill to serve the local farmers and named it Boston Mill. The structure was not built on the nearby Calapooia River, as one would expect; instead, the machinery was powered by a millrace diverted from the river and directed through a flume and turbines. The water rights, still valid today, were purchased for the grand sum of $75. By 1861 the town of Boston had been platted, and in time, visiting farmers would find a post office, a blacksmith shop, two general stores, a stagecoach stop, and a saloon. The town prospered, and by 1869 about 80 people lived in the area. 

Building in Boston Shedd's Station

Then Boston faced the classic old west story: the railroad came through, but not through Boston. Instead, it ran a mile and a half to the west, with a stop at Shedd's Station. The town of Boston moved to Shedd's Station, including some of the buildings. Today there is nothing to be found of Boston, Oregon.

But the mill still stood, and now its flour could be hauled over to the railroad and easily shipped to the  Portland market. Processing expanded to include oats, corn, and barley. In the 1890s, German immigrants Martin and Sofia Thompson acquired the mill. Martin updated the mill equipment and made many improvements, and in 1904 the current mill keeper's house was constructed. When Martin died in 1910, Sofia and their sons took over running the mill, which stayed in the Thompson family until 1974 under the name of Thompson's Flouring Mills. During World War I, the mill operated 24 hours a day to produce flour for famine relief in Europe. The family continued making updates and improvements over the years, and by 1940 they had completely switched from milling flour to producing animal feed. In 1986, the new owners installed a generator and began selling the power the mill produced to Pacific Power and Light. In 2004 the property was sold to Oregon State Parks.

Today the 6-floor mill stands in a 6-acre park alongside the mill keeper's house, a carriage house, and a shop building. Picnic tables stand beside the millrace, where friendly ducks paddle about. The grounds and mill are open to the public for self-guided tours most days of the year; click here for a visitor's guide. Explore room after room of sturdy old mill equipment, made less mysterious by the booklets provided and explanatory signage. Volunteers are often on hand to fill visitors in with even more information, and if you are lucky enough to arrive when they have sufficient staff, you may be offered the chance to go downstairs into the guts of the enormous machine that is the mill (please note that, while the main floor is accessible, the lower level is reached by very steep stairs). 

And then it happens. A volunteer opens the flume, and suddenly it is evident what makes this structure so special: the old mill is still functional. First you hear the sound of water rushing through and then under the mill. Then, slowly, the mechanism begins to turn. Those lucky enough to be downstairs will witness a huge axle coming to life, turning to drive a whole collection of long belts that reach upward through the ceiling. This runs the entire mill; this is water power. Those on the floor above will see the belts running smoothly to power the machinery of the mill, machinery that once ran on multiple floors, decade after decade, until local crops transitioned from an emphasis on grain to other products such as grass seed and nursery stock.

To find the mill, take I-5 to the Highway 34 exit and turn toward Lebanon. Turn right on Seven Mile Lane, then swing right onto Boston Mill Road. Take a right turn into the park immediately after the bridge over the mill race.

Methodist Church

A mile and a half to the west of the mill lies the tiny town now known as Shedd, an assemblage of buildings that includes a Methodist church built in 1873. Highway 99E and the railroad tracks both run straight as an arrow through town. From time to time, a wail and rumble announce that the railroad still runs through here, the railroad that sealed Boston's doom but provided a lifeline for its mill.

Looking down the millrace
The four silos were a gamble for the Thompsons, but they paid off when the mill was called upon
for famine relief during WWI. These two logos were used before the mill switched to animal feed.
The truck bay. Winches tipped the trucks up on end to dump grain into
the chutes below.
Chutes from above deposited the milled grain back into the trucks.
Footprints from "Bud", who stood here bagging
grain for 40 years.
Technology marches on

"Strong-Scott Improved Safety Manlift." Installed 1955.

In the basement, where the turbines roared

This axle powers all of the belts for the entire six-story building

These belts carry power from the axle in the basement
Flume mechanism, which controls water flow

Another bagging station. The metal wheel changes the type of grain coming through the chute.
Note the names and numbers on the wall.

Depression-era flour bags. Flour bags were used by thrifty housewives to sew dresses when other
fabric was too expensive or unavailable. Competitive mills began using printed fabric for their bags
to make them more appealing.
Feed bags still sit on sturdy hand trucks. Note the old bag stamps
on the floor.

The improved bathroom, installed when ladies began working at the mill.

The original bathroom. A hole in the floor.
Wooden grain chute

Millrace and flume
Millkeeper's house, a private residence

Downtown Shedd