Hydropower and Pancakes: The History of the Cedar Creek Grist Mill of 1876

Cedar Creek Grist Mill (est. 1876) is a “Working Museum”
Cedar Creek Grist Mill (built in 1876) is a “Working Museum”

We had grain but no mills, so I designed a special mill of wood so we could make flour.

Mikhail Kalashnikov (1919-2013)

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Along a backroad in Clark County Washington, is an enchanting place surrounded by lush forest of cedar, maple, and fir. A narrow, paved road winds a short distance downhill where a covered bridge crosses a narrow gorge. Below, the beautiful and swift waters of Cedar Creek are heard. Across the covered bridge, is a grist mill.

Timeline . . . 

In 1876, George Woodham and two sons, along with the help of A.C. Reid and his nearby sawmill, built a water-powered grist mill (they named Red Bird Mill) on a steep rock face along Cedar Creek; one of the largest tributaries of the Lewis River. Farmers traveled from all over, often spend days on the road to deliver their wagon loads of grain that would be milled into flour, cornmeal, and animal feed; farmers would camp nearby, resting up before making the long journey home with heavy wagon loads of flour and feed.

The log dam that was built to form a millpond that supplied water to the flume, was damaged by floodwaters. Cleaning debris from the millpond must have been a laborious task, and George Woodham packed his equipment, and left the grist mill in 1879. It was then was then purchased by Mike Lynch who let it sit for seven years. During which time, a man by the name of Gustave Utter built a flume and installed a Leffel turbine that could double flour production. Gustave Utter leased the grist mill in 1888, and the grist mill was running once again.

By 1901, Gustave Utter, despite his efforts, could no longer turn a profit. Mike Lynch sold the grist mill in 1905 to Gorund Roslund, and once again, the grist mill sat idle. In 1909, Roslund got it operating again, at which time he added a shingle mill to the back of the grist mill. By 1912, Roslund’s son Victor (a mechanic and lifelong bachelor) turned the upper floor into an apartment, and the lower floor into a machine shop. There, Victor machined parts for Merwin Dam (est. 1931) that forms the 4,040 acre Merwin Lake on the upper Lewis River. It’s said that the parts that Victor fashioned, are still in use today. Later, a blacksmith shop was built at the front of the grist mill, and operated by Roslund’s other son Elmer.

In the late 1950s, after Victor’s death, the property was purchased by the State Fisheries Department who replaced the Cedar Creek Dam with a fish ladder. In 1961, the grist mill was leased by the Fort Vancouver Historical Society who listed it on the United States register of historic places. In 1975, it made the National Register of Historic Places; and in 1986, was added to the Clark County Heritage Register.

In 1961, the eighty-five-year old grist mill was badly deteriorating. The Vancouver Historical Society replaced the decayed foundation timbers to stabilize the structure, but by 1980, weather and vandals had taken their toll. To keep this historic treasure, residents formed a nonprofit organization, The Friends of Cedar Creek Grist Mill. With the help of volunteers and donations, authentic restoration began, and the Cedar Creek Grist Mill was restored to its former self. Getting the grist mill to run again, volunteers extended the wooden flume 650 feet upstream where a constant flow of creek water provides intake to power the turbine.  A stainless steel mesh screen was added to keep fish from entering the flume.  The shingle mill and blacksmith shop were rebuilt. Restoration was completed in 1989.  The covered bridge was rebuilt in 1994.  The Cedar Creek Grist Mill operates as a museum, and is the only working grist mill in Washington State.

During our visit, grains that were being milled were for pancake flour, supplied by Bob’s Red Mill. Other times, it might be corn meal or bread flour. (Can’t wait to try those too!) The mill was abuzz with running belts and turning wheels. Below, through the floor boards, Cedar Creek flowed clear and bright; its waters filling the flume and powering the turbine. It was exciting to see hydropower at work, and to witness fresh ground flour pouring into a hopper. A volunteer scooped the flour into paper bags. These were given out as samples (and generous samples at that!), and we were sure to get us one. The volunteers did a terrific job answering questions, and explaining the process. Because the grist mill relies on donations to keep it operating, we were happy to contribute. We drove home that afternoon recalling the days events of hydropower, history, and pancakes.

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Cedar Creek Grist Mill Buttermilk Pancakes
Cedar Creek Grist Mill Buttermilk Pancakes

As I finish with this post, I’m also finishing the last few bites of grist mill buttermilk pancakes; the best I’ve ever tasted! So light and fluffy, they almost melt in your mouth. The grains have a delicious white wheat flavor. These pancakes are great with some melted butter and powdered sugar; the flavor is sheer heaven! The quality is outstanding, and sure beats those store-bought pancake mixes. And forget those frozen things—toss ‘em out!

Copyright 2015.  All rights reserved.

Sources and additional reading . . .

Cedar Creek Grist Mill Woodland, Washington 

Grist Mill says pancakes deserve a good turn by Sue Vorenburg, Features Reporter, The Columbian

Cedar Creek Grist Mill Recipes 

The Old Grist Mill Today 

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