Cedar Creek Grist Mill History
Originally published as "Grist Mill meeting garners 75 visitors" in The Lewis River News, 1995
“My mother didn’t like the local ground flour as well as store bought. She said it was too sticky.” said one. “Did you ever eat the middlings for breakfast with cream and sugar?” asked another. “In 1922, when i was 17, i caught 23 trout under the covered bridge.” contributed an old timer. “Do you remember homesteaders in the area taking apart the water flume for timber to build their houses?” asked another.
These were just a few of the memories rekindled at the annual Cedar Creek Grist Mill this year, that I, and 75 others, attended. I learned through these conversations something valuable; something important: that the Cedar Creek Grist Mill is a truly historic and cultural site to be valued not only for my heritage, but for others too.
Every weekend, flour is made by the volunteers. I was surprised that day, how quietly the turbine driven belt milled the flour. Each turn sent puffs of flour into the air. The cobwebs, covered with a white dusting, reminded me of old fashioned lace. People visited and talked about “the way it was” while waiting their turn to take home the freshly milled wheat.
I couldn't help but wonder if conversations such as these had taken place ever since the grist mill was built in the exact same spot, and that generations and generations have had picnics on Sunday afternoons, just like i had done that day.
Etna Was a historic community on the south bank of the Lewis River, about nine miles upstream from Woodland. It was in existence for more than 100 years.
I grew up on the south bank of the north fork of the lewis river, not too far from cedar creek. A lot of the original settlers families, including mine, are still living in the area. I lived in the same house as my father and his father before him lived in. My father, Walt Hansen, has often told me about the steamboats, his father working the fish traps, the community of Etna, the Indians that might have camped at the big oak tree, and the grist mill.Not many people are aware of this history, or even its location in North Fork country. This country , where the mouth of cedar creek meets the Lewis River, was once a robust community called Etna.
Etna Was a historic community on the south bank of the Lewis River, about nine miles upstream from Woodland. It was in existence for more than 100 years. During the time the grist mill was grinding locally grown wheat into flour, Etna thrived.
The name of Etna is credited to AC Reid, who had come to Clark County from Etna Green, Ind., and named the new community after his home town. Reid came up the Lewis River by riverboat and landed at the mouth of Cedar Creek, He then built a sawmill on the creek, close to the grist mill. Etna also had a store, post office, school, church, and a boat landing for the many steam ships that came to the area. There is nothing left at the mouth of Cedar Creek to suggest that at one time a community existed, with the exception of the grist mill.
Clark County’s first “highways” were its rivers and Indian trails. The river was much more convenient travel that going by narrow trail or wagon road the entire distance from Portland or Vancouver. The Lewis River was host to many steamboats. A lot of history has been written of the steamboats on the Columbia, Willamette, and Cowlitz rivers, but rarely for the Lewis. My grandmother, Esther Hansen, and her family came from Finland. Their last leg of that journey was from Portland to LaCenter on a steamboat in 1916.
My father’s grandfather, Peter Hansen, died on the steamboat “The Mascot”, trying to get to a doctor. The Mascot was the queen of the Lewis River fleet. It was the finest boat ever put on the river and included elegant quarters on the passenger deck. It was the first boat to establish daily trips on the Lewis River run. On Sundays, it would make trips to Etna for freight. there was great competition between several steamboats in the area for freight that was leaving Etna. Actual midnight raids and steamboats approaching Cedar Creek neck and neck have been told. In 1895, a news item reported an unusually heavy smelt run. It was reported that 13 tons of smelt were loaded into “The Mascot” one night to go to Portland.
Clark County’s first “highways” were its rivers and Indian trails. The river was much more convenient travel that going by narrow trail or wagon road the entire distance from Portland or Vancouver.
But the early river transportation was unpredictable, since the boats needed an adequate level of water to keep from scraping bottom, and with the coming of the automobile, steamboats became obsolete.
My grandfather, August Hansen, worked the fish traps on the lower Cedar Creek. The traps were used to catch the female fish in order to save their eggs. The state later bought property for a permanent hatchery. Since my grandfather lived on the south side of the Lewis River, he travelled back and forth across the river in a boat. He anchored a large hook in a boulder on shore to contain his boat overnight. Till this day the large hook remains directly across from the fish hatchery.
Not too much information was found out about the area Indians. Lewis and Clark estimated there were 16,000 Chinook Indians along the Columbia River. In 1855 there were 112, and now there are none. The Flathead Indians in the area did not use horses because of the heavy timber, so almost all of their travelling was by boat. They were easily identified because of their bowed legs from sitting in canoes and their flat foreheads.
The Indians frequented the Cedar Creek Grist mill to listen to music and trade at the store in Etna. One Indian, Old Indian George, used to go to the Etna store owned by Jim Forbes with a sack of nuggets from his gold mine on the Lewis River.
During the years from 1855 to 1856, the Lewis River Indians were frequently enlarged by additions of renegade Indians from Yakima who came over the Cascade Mountains and down the river to the white settlement. The renegades tried to get the resident Indians to join them in an attack on the white settlers, but the area whites treated them well and they not only refused to join the renegades, but warned the settlers to be aware of the Indians from Yakima.
The Cedar Creek Grist Mill was built the same year that Custer made his last stand at the Little Bighorn in 1876.
Indian Louie, a skilled boatman, lived on the Lewis River about eight miles from Woodland. He was the last survivor of the original Indians in the area.
Cedar Creek was named for the many cedar trees in the area which it and its tributaries drain. Cedar was a very desirable wood to the homesteaders because it didn’t decay as quickly as fir and was easily split. The Cedar Creek Grist Mill was created of timbers hand-hewn with a broad axe from the towering cedars and firs that surround the valley.
The grist mill is the oldest in the state of Washington and is one of 19 mills in the nation registered as a National Historic Site. It is one of the only brace-framed industrial sites in the state. It is located nine and a half miles east of Woodland on Grist Mill Road, between Hayes Road and Spurrell Road. The Cedar Creek Grist Mill is the only mill in the state in its original location and remains in its original architectural design.
The Cedar Creek Grist Mill was built the same year that Custer made his last stand at the Little Bighorn in 1876. It was also built 13 years before Washington became a state. It has been generally agreed the mill was built in 1876 but exactly who built the mill is another matter. The Vancouver Independent Newspaper of July 22, 1876, carried an article that George W. Woodham was building a grist mill on Cedar Creek. In 1953, in a special edition of The Colombian, an article credited the building of the mill to AC Reid, who the writer said “arrived by ox team in the early 1870’s”. A 1961 edition of The Columbian reported the grist mill was built by AC Reid for George Woodham. According to “Battle Ground In and Around”, the builder was Adam Reid.
Margaret Hepola, a representative of The Friends of the Cedar Creek Grist Mill, confirms that George Woodham built the mill in 1876.
George Woodham did business as Red Bird Mills until 1879. Horse-drawn wagons were used by families to bring their home grown grain to be made into flour, bran, and middlings.Grist milling was an early important industry. The mill had a 700 foot wooden flume to provide water to spin the mills turbine. The tongue-and-groove planks carried the water to an 18-foot penstock underneath the mills main door. The penstock looks like a huge barrel held together with metal hoops. Water then flowed out of the bottom of the penstock to the turbine to provide power to the grain mill. At full power, the turbine generated 16 horsepower to spin the 150 pound stone that ground the grain. The huge round stones have grooves in their flat surfaces where the gran was forced between. One of the stones was rotated against another stationary stone.
Families came from miles around, put their children to bed in the grain bins and danced until dawn.
Grist mills were built along creeks to take advantage of water power. In the early years a splash dam was built. The dam held back the creeks water between times it was released to float logs down stream. Water in the flumes could either bypass the penstock or be piped through it by opening and closing a valve at the mill. After Woodham sold the mill, it sat empty until Gustav Utter leased it from Mike Lynch. Utter installed new machinery in 1886 because when Woodham moved to Centralia he had taken the equipment with him. AC Reid with his sawmill, assisted Utter with the remodeling. He and his sons ground wheat, oats and barley from Lewis River farmers.The mill quickly became the center of activity where dances and music were frequent occurrences while the harvest was turned into flour. Families came from miles around, put their children to bed in the grain bins and danced until dawn. Even local Indians would come to listen and dance. One Indian wanted to join the festivities, so he would dance by grabbing a woman by the elbows and shuffle a few steps back and forth. It was his way of being sociable.
Soon, because of economic conditions, Utter was forced to raise hogs, which he fed with their share of the millings. Utter closed the mill in 1901, and the mill was abandoned again until Goran Roslund reopened it in 1905. In 1912 the grist mill was turned into a machine shop by Roslund's son, Victor. He also built a generator which provided the area with electricity. A shingle mill was added to the rear of the building also. Because logging was booming and Victor was a mechanic, the entire floor was rigged up with different types of lathes and machinery, run by turbine driven belts. The grain mill was completely discontinued at this time. The shed on the front of the mill was added last by Victor’s brother, Elmer, who operated a blacksmith’s shop.
Victor Roslund was a bachelor, so he built a five room apartment upstairs for him to live in. The musical activities continued upstairs after that. Victor played the accordion and was accompanied by other local musicians that played drums and piano long into the night.
After Victor’s mother was widowed, she too moved upstairs. Since she was elderly, Victor rigged a belt driven handle with a horn that tooted so she could call her son of she needed assistance if he was out collecting wood, working on the mill, or fishing.
Because of the expansive machine shop, Victor worked long hours repairing.Locals native to the area remember Victor getting angry when he made mistakes, and he would throw his tools into Cedar Creek. later, he would be seen wading in the creek looking long and hard for his misplaced, but much needed tools.
Victor played the accordion and was accompanied by other local musicians that played drums and piano long into the night.
My great uncle Jim Swanberg, a volunteer and board member at Friends of Cedar Creek Grist Mill recalls Victor quite well after breaking a window in Victor's apartment. “My dad had to go down there and fix it.” he said. “I got the seat of my pants warmed that night in 1921.”
Victor died soon after World War II and his mill was sold to the Department of Fisheries. The department blew out the old dam, that had been constructed upstream, and built a fish ladder. The mill was abandoned again for many years. Time and vandalism were merciless on the mill. In 1961, the Fort Vancouver Historical Society leased the mill and surrounding property. They registered the old grist mill a historic place, but the mill was abandoned again in 1976. Jeff Bizzell, and artist, mechanic and craftsman, obtained a one year lease on the mill from the state in 1976. He spent two and a half years working part time on the mill. His plans were to restore it to operating condition and making a living as a miller. Bizzell became frustrated with the lack of funds and vandalism and eventually moved on. In 1980, volunteers determined to do restoration and preservation work on the mill formed a group appropriately called “The Friends of the Cedar Creek Grist Mill”. The friends were able to acquire the lease for the site from the state Department of Fisheries which is still the owner of the land.
In the years that followed, more than 50 different volunteers have rebuilt the roof, flume, and the east wall; shored up the foundation to keep the structure from tumbling into the creek; and have begun milling flour again. A caretaker's cabin has also been built across the creek to protect the mill from vandalism. During the last 11 years the volunteers have learned to use the broad adzes to replicate the post beams authentically. Even the pegs were whittled just as it was done more than 100 years ago. The working museum was completed in time for the Washington Centennial celebration in 1989.
The use of steamboats, fish traps and the grist mills all became obsolete when modernization took place in the North Fork country. Store bought flour and bread became cheaper and easier to purchase when better roads were built and automobiles began travelling on them. The use of steamboats no longer provided the quickest mode of transportation for freight of citizens and they were forced to make a living by shipping livestock. Schools became more centralized, again because roads and automobiles provide quicker travel.
But with the help of The Friends of the Cedar Creek Grist Mill, volunteers and other descendants of homesteaders, the area around Cedar Creek hopefully will not be forgotten. The past stands in striking contrast to the present when visiting the Cedar Creek Grist Mill, offering people of all ages the opportunity to see and experience not only the past, but hopefully the future of this historic place with pride.