Discover a hidden treasure older than Oregon itself in the Willamette Valley

Thompson’s Mills actually started as a flour mill in the 1850s, and still has the original equipment. It’s called a “unique survivor” because so many other mills have shut down over the decades.

Does Oregon have hidden treasure? It does if you consider Thompson’s Mills State Heritage Area, a state park off the beaten path, yet in the heart of the Willamette Valley.

Thompson’s Mills was built in 1858 (one year before Oregon’s statehood) and has been one of Oregon’s oldest continuously functioning water-powered businesses.

In 2004, the property, located in Shedd, was purchased by Oregon State Parks and has become a hands-on treasure trove of Oregon history.

“The history here is that in (more than) 150 years, all the owners that have cared for and used the mill have always found ways to make the mill relevant in a changing world,” says Tom Parsons, the park’s ranger for the past seven years. “In 1858, it was built to serve the local residents and farmers who were growing wheat. The mill ground the local wheat into flour. People were growing a lot of their own food. As time went on, it became more of a commercial mill where they were buying and selling products.”

The Thompson family bought it in the 1890s, he says, and brought it up to their current standards.

The mill was going strong until the 1940s when a couple of things happened: New business regulations for hygiene meant huge obstacles for the mill, and people stopped baking their bread at home. Instead, bread production at giant bakeries required trainloads of flour.

“Many of the small mom-and-pop mills no longer had a customer base,” Parsons says. “Many flour mills went out of business during the 1930s and ‘40s.”

So rather than throw in the towel all together, the Thompson’s Mills took a new direction and began producing animal feed, which it did for many decades.

Yet again, changing times brought changing markets and big corporations took over the market for manufacturing animal feed.

“Once again, this mill could’ve shut down and been done with it,” Parsons says. “But the owners then, the Adams family, didn’t want to give up. They had the water rights to the Calapooia River and so they used those water rights.”

Instead of turning the turbines to make animal feed or flour, they used the water to turn the turbines and create electricity, which they sold to a public power company, he says.

“So, they kept the mill running for about 20 years, all the way until the state bought it in 2004,” Parsons says.

The Willamette Valley had hosted countless water mills of all sizes. Besides grinding grain, some powered lumber or woolen mills.

“There’s still some structures related to the (many historic) mills still standing,” Parsons says. “But nothing compares to this one. This still has all the original equipment; the turbines still work. This is a unique survivor.”

After the state purchased the property, it took more than three years to complete all the necessary infrastructure work to make it ready and safe for the public; it opened as a park in December 2007.

No other park in Oregon is like Thompson’s Mills. Staffed by knowledgeable and enthusiastic park rangers, and camp host volunteers, visitors to this park have an opportunity to step back in time.

“When we give tours, we remind visitors of who the Oregon Trail pioneers were and what they went through to come across the country and settle here,” Parsons says. “All the bravery and tenacity and the hardship that they went through, that same sort of spirit is what has kept the mill going.”

Previous owners continued to bring that pioneer spirit to operating the mill, and it’s why the mill still functions today.

Yet it gets even better than simply hearing about the history.

“The highlight of the tour is that we bring the visitors into the basement and open the flume gates,” he says. “The water comes rushing in and it starts to pool up in the flume. Eventually it’s enough to get the turbine spinning. So, visitors will see the mill running on water power. And it’s a real thrill. Every time we, or our host volunteers, run the mill we all get goosebumps to see it all coming to life.”

Parsons says the guides do a good job of keeping young children occupied with hands-on displays while also sharing history with adults. Tours can be catered to visitors’ needs, especially for school groups.

“The history here fits really nicely into the state required curriculum for fourth graders,” he says. “By bringing kids here we can really give firsthand living history, and interaction with Oregon Trail-type experiences in the sense that it was pioneers who built this place.

“It’s such a fantastic resource for schools,” Parsons continues. “When the kids come, they get to make flour, they get to run a hand-powered auger elevator, they get to see how the grain is moved around, and then the highlight is usually down there in the basement where they get to see the mill run on water power.”

The Thompson’s Mills Preservation Society helps school groups that might need funding to have access to the park, he adds.

The park offers even more to make for a great outing.

“We have lots of picnic tables — some are in the shade, some are in the sun, Parsons says. “Some are covered. So, come fall or winter you can be out of the rain. We’ve done our best to make it accommodating for people to hang out here and relax for a while. Beyond the mill is the scenery. It’s really a quiet, scenic spot. You can go fishing here (in the Calapooia River).”

And while summer is a great time to visit parks in Oregon, Parsons says one of the best times to visit Thompson’s Mills is the day after a rain storm.

“It’s pretty quiet here in the winter, but we’re open and we’ll give you a peek down in the basement,” he says. “We’ll check out how powerful the water is when the river is really high, when all the channels are draining, because it all comes through the mill. It’s pretty impressive.”

Plans are also in the works for restoring a typical 1930s-style heirloom vegetable garden.

“So, keep an eye on this space because it’s going to be getting even better,” Parsons says. “The best is yet to come.”

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