The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

Museum collection tells story of Finley’s historic flour mill


August 29, 2017

Along a mile stretch of Highway 228, just west of Crawfordsville, is a thick growth of young firs, beyond the bridge.

Go further, and on the right stand the few headstones of the Finley Cemetery. Travel on, and to your left comes the McKercher Park, a way station among some older trees.

Still further, on the left, appears a popular swimming hole which used to be called the Crawfordsville Dam. A large farm house that stood across from the dam has been replaced by a newer building.

Today, one would not envision the flour mill that once stood at the falls above the swimming hole, nor of the discord which brought about its beginning in pioneer days.

That first flour mill, was built in 1847 by Richard Chism Finley, who lies buried between his two wives in the Finley family cemetery, along with some of his children who did not reach adulthood.

The falls over the chunky basalt stone above the swimming hole attracted Finley to the area as an experienced miller. When it came to turning the water wheel of a simple grist mill, the force evident in the turbulent flow held promise as did the shelf of land paralleling the falls where they ended in the pool below.

It was a good place to site a mill, the best he’d found on the Calapooia, he insisted to those eager to have grain ground close at hand, especially because it took weeks to haul a load of wheat by ox team to Oregon City where the nearest grist mill was located.

A claim had been filed on the land with the falls, but the person who’d done so had left. Although likelihood existed of his coming back, the claim had not been proved up – no house, no crop.

For those whose priority was having a grist mill, necessity out-weighed the custom of granting leeway to men who, for some reason, left claims intending to return. Legally, Richard Finley’s right to file on the claim lay open. To others, it smacked of claim jumping.

So, with his neighbors’ blessings, Finley began building the mill. The first mill building, not large, was built with sides 12 to 15 feet long.

One day, as Finley was out in the woods working with his axe, the original claimant to the site returned. The man was not happy. He spoke harsh words to Richard Finley. In turn, Finley threatened him with the axe.

The man rode off, never to return, according to some versions of the story included in the Works Projects Association collection of pioneer stories at the East Linn Museum.

Another version of the story, however, suggests that McAlestar, the only name mentioned, who was a relative of the Courtneys, returned with his ireful kin.

In the meantime, according to that account, Richard Finley had contacted his neighbors to the west, the Blakely, Brown and Kirk contingent. These opposing units of armed men faced off. Had the Courtneys not decided against bloodshed, the history of the Crawfordsville area might have been different.

McAlestar did leave, the grist mill got built, and for years the Courtneys did not care much for the Finleys.

Today there’s little evidence that an important grist mill once existed by those falls except for possibly a channel cut along their north side, but Finley built not only the first flour mill, but a second bigger and improved one a few years later.

In 1861-62 an extensive winter flood wiped out the first mill building. Finley had used the building as a shelter for fattened hogs, his daughter Eliza Finley Braden recalled. Some were drowned but others managed to scramble up on logs, where they perched for days before being rescued. They’d lost so much weight they had to be fattened up all over again.

Without the grist mill in operation because of the flooding, people ran low on flour, too, and some resorted to eating grated, dried corn. But perhaps those days of hardship did not match the earlier days of the ones the Finley family had faced.

As a young man, Richard Finley had worked in Wisconsin lead mines, and an accident in which one leg was broken in two places left him with a distinctive limp. Since he was partially crippled, hunting proved more difficult for him, and the animals he shot were often in poor shape and the meat less than good.

At one time, he bought a small pig, smoked it and hung it in the cabin rafters. Eliza’s mother, Polly Ann Kirk Finley told her, when a young child, that the children cried for that meat, but she had to say, “No.”

It was reserved for sickness.

Polly Ann was from an important family in the early history of Linn County, her father, Alexander Kirk, having operated a ferry in Brownsville among other things, so she is well represented in the 1930’s WPA stories collected from pioneer descendants.

No sooner had Finley built his first mill then he headed for the gold fields of California to earn enough money to pay off his creditors. He was fortunate enough to send back pokes of gold by mail.

Polly Ann Finley could then settle some of the debts from the mill. However, people would come to look at the gold and feel of it and she soon realized her gold supply dwindled when the dust clung to the fingers of the admirers.

She developed a plan. Whenever gold arrived, she would send out word. Those to whom money was owed would be paid on a first-come, first-served basis. When the gold ran out, those unpaid would have to await the next supply.

This made one man unhappy and he went away muttering, “I am disappointed on every hand.”

When Richard Finley went to the California mines, he worked half a day at the mill then set out by horse, even though riding was painful for him. When he returned to Oregon Territory, he traveled by ship to Portland but he became ill with convulsive chills, as they were called.

Three bouts were considered fatal, so he sent word to Polly Ann of his illness while he stayed in Oregon City.

Polly Ann had considerable strength of character.

She asked a neighbor, Timothy Riggs, to go with her to Oregon City. They had one horse between them and traveled by the “ride and tie” method, starting off, one riding, the other walking.

The rider reached a point where he or she stopped, tied up the horse, and walked on. The walker who’d been left behind, would catch up, mount the horse, ride past the partner, tie up the horse, and so on, sort of a leap frog progression.

When the pair reached Oregon City, they spied a man on the porch of a boarding place rise and walk toward the door. The limp allowed Polly Ann and Timothy Riggs to recognize Richard Finley, whom, they were greatly relieved to see, had survived his third bout of fever.

One Finley son, George, recalled his father as being a trustworthy and honest man who never locked the doors to the mill and who allowed credit.

Only once, said George, did a creditor renege on his debt. Richard Finley was offered Jacksonville (Ore.) gold for flour but didn’t accept it. He declared the flour should be reserved for the new influx of immigrants who would be in need when they arrived.

His own father had once backed a neighbor’s note in Finley’s younger days and the neighbor had not paid, so the father had to pay it, leaving the family so poor the children were forced to work hard.

For that reason, Richard Finley was generous to those needing help and was known as “Uncle Dick.”

Robert Glass, the Jacksonville miner, solved his problem of getting flour for the other miners by buying wheat from a farm near Lebanon for eight dollars a bushel and then having it ground at Finley’s mill.

Richard Finley’s generosity had limits, however.

At one point he bought a fat ox to roast for the men building his mill. Indians stole it. Finley and others tracked the culprits to a campsite where the Indians had butchered the animal and were making jerky over a fire.

The Finley group drove off the Indians, took pot shots at them to scare them, and destroyed the camp. The meat, they thought, was too badly handled to be eaten.

Other settlers feared this would cause an Indian menace, but nothing happened.

Finley’s enterprise served as the primary mill south of Oregon City. Farmers would bring harvests to be ground from as far away as the Rogue River. Often, men stayed at the mill, their stock pastured nearby. Polly Ann Finley’s job was to feed them.

As her daughter, Eliza, remembered, the mother was too busy to weave so the children never wore homespun. The best Polly Ann could do was knit stockings.

Richard Finley helped organize the Methodist Church in Crawfordsville, but when he kept the mill running on Sunday, church members complained, so he and Polly Ann switched their allegiance to the Christian Church which was more concerned about the question of baptism – whether complete immersion was best or a symbolic sprinkling would do – rather than sabbatical issues.

Where the firs now grow thick at the end of the Crawfordsville Bridge was the location for a sash mill, a slow process in which lumber was cut vertically. This was another mill in which Richard Finley had an interest.

With two partners, he also built another flour mill down the Calapooia east of what is now Shedd.

That mill still stands as a historical site, the Thompson Flouring Mill (see page 13). It’s really a second building, with additions, the first having burned. Timbers for both projects were felled and hewn in the Crawfordsville area.

That mill was established in what was hoped would be a town called New Boston, usually known only as Boston. For a time it thrived, but the expected railroad stayed two miles back from the Calapooia River and the town of Shedd grew up and siphoned businesses away from Boston, including Capt. Frank Shedd’s blacksmith shop.

Meanwhile, Polly Ann wanted a new home, away from the mill below Crawfordsville.

She had a houseful of girls and she meant to keep them away from the goggles of rough miners who came to buy flour.

She did get a new house, a painted one, below the hill north of where the Finley Cemetery would be.

When first reaching the new house, the children kicked at the locked door, scarring the not yet dried paint and gaining a spanking from their angered mother, as remembered by daughter Eliza Braden Finley.

Richard Finley had been born in Tennessee in 1814 and Polly Ann in 1827, also, in Tennessee. They were married with two daughters when they came to Oregon Territory.

According to a family record, they had 11 children in all, some of whom did not survive childhood.

After Polly Anne died, at age 39, Richard married again. His second wife, Elenor, has only her first name and middle initial on the tall obelisk marking the Finley graves in the family cemetery.

A guess was made suggesting she may have been a Robnett.

Richard C. Finley died in 1882 and Elenor in 1909 at the age of 89. Polly Ann appears to have been the mother of all of the little Finleys.

Yet, at the East Linn Museum, gratitude must be offered for those WPA books on Linn County. Accurate or not, they supply information otherwise unavailable.

After Richard’s death in 1882, the flour mill continued in operation, bought by a Canadian family from Manitoba, the Mc-Kerchers.

Of the family, two brothers, Daniel and John, eventually operated the mill. Their father was also named John and their uncle, Duncan, was involved in the mill’s ownership for a time.

Initially, John farmed up Courtney Creek while Daniel, generally known as Dan, handled the mill. Then in 1895 Dan died tragically and John W. became manager of the mill.

Dan’s loss came as a great blow to his family. It holds interest now because of the tale of a triple murder found among the East Linn Museum files.

To be continued...


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