Many remember the flour mill, grain elevator and silos which once dominated Pier 1 at the Port of Astoria.
Few realize Astoria had a flouring plant which predates that constructed at the port.
The earliest known proposal to build an Astoria flouring mill dates to 1891, when the Board of Trade met to discuss the virtues of such an idea. It was an idea which had legs, but slow moving ones. In 1899, the Chamber of Commerce revisited the idea. It was not until 1913 that plans were realized. It was not an isolated occurrence.
A public-spirited committee including George W. Sanborn, Frank Patton, Frank L. Parker and George C. Fulton approached Astoria's citizenry to raise subscription for the purchase of a mill site. Fulton claimed it took 15 minutes to raise $6,000 for the project. He declared leading Astorians were progressive, not a "mossback" among them. "...so whenever you hear a man talking about the 'mossbacks' of Astoria bury him, and for God's sake, bury him deep."
On April 1, 1914, articles of incorporation for the Astoria Flouring Mills. Co. were filed by E. W. Smith, E. P. Smith and C. B. Stout. Capital stock was $100,000 with shares $1,000 each. The structures, site and machinery cost approximately $140,000.
Edgar W. Smith was president of the mill and Oregon manager of the Equitable Life Insurance Co. of New York, in Portland. His father was E. L. Smith, one of the largest land owners of Umatilla County and head of E. L. Smith & Co.
Charles B. Stout was the former head of the Oregon Mill & Grain Co. of Baker. He moved to Astoria to be the mill's secretary and executive manager.
Three days later, the steamer Annie Cummings arrived from The Dalles. It carried Astoria's first load of wheat. The mill and adjoining elevator were touted as a giant step toward the economic development of the "City by the Sea." The arrival of the Cummings symbolized a fresh chapter where upon Astorians and industry worked together to insure our city's greatness. The working-class would find a welcome home on the Astoria waterfront.
The Chamber of Commerce coordinated a celebration on the scale of which has not been seen in our city since the opening of the Astoria-Megler Bridge. The Morning Astorian encouraged its readers to greet the steamer "en masse" on her berthing and "give expression of their appreciation in such form as shall be deemed proper and true."
The newspaper envisioned grandeur.
"It is to be an occasion of great moment and one which Astoria will be forced to remember long and well, and that memory ought to be heightened by the sense of duty finely and opportunely done ... it is to be a source of constant and unimpaired congratulation so long as the wheels of this mill shall turn."
A fleet of vessels met the Cummings at Tongue Point and commenced blowing steam whistles and sirens. This was a signal for Astorians to leave home and business and meet at the Chamber of Commerce, located at the base of the Merwyn Hotel (where the Hotel Elliott was constructed 10 years later). From there, Bill Haga's band led a parade to the foot of First Street where the fresh mill was constructed in wood on Mack's Dock.
There was plenty of room for everyone. The mill stood 200 feet back from the pier's end. It must have been quite a sight: hundreds of people gathered at the base of Astoria's tallest structure cheering the arrival of a prosperous future.
One month later, an open house was held in the four-story, 74-foot high building. A floor-to-floor tour revealed the layout of an impressive, modern facility. Flour packing, where flour was sacked, was on the first floor. A 100 horse power motor, which operated the mill's machinery, was located on a mezzanine above. Grinding was done on the second floor. Tempering bins, purifiers and dust collectors were on the third floor, while sifting and bolting was completed on the top level. It was thought the mill could process 1,000 bushels a day.
The adjoining grain elevator had 21 bins, 40-feet tall. Its first floor had a pulverizer for making graham, whole wheat flour and a feed mill for grinding stock food.
If seeing the new plant was not exciting enough, there was also a full program, including speeches by dignitaries and eight musical selections performed by Haga's band. Last, but not least, was an auction for the first sack of flour ground in the mill. Proceeds went to the Astoria children's playground fund. William E. Schimpff was the highest bidder at $75. He turned it back to the auctioneer who sold it to A. C. Miller for $15. Miller donated the flour to the Ladies' Aid Society of the Baptist Church who used it to bake bread for a fundraiser. They in turn gave half the money to purchase children's playground equipment.
In December 1915, it was announced a second grain elevator would be constructed, this time on the Port of Astoria docks. Commissioners awarded a $60,000 contract to local contractor Charles L. Houston who said he could cut costs by providing his own concrete--including 20,000 barrels of cement and 6,000 yards of sand--to erect a 1,200,000 bushel bulk grain elevator.
When the U.S. entered W.W.I., the flour mill's capacity became inadequate. The facility, which primarily catered to California and the east, was overwhelmed by government milling orders. For instance, in May 1919, the mill received an order for 79,000 barrels of flour to feed starving Armenians. Within days of receiving the order, a contract was let to Martin & Wills Co. (of Portland or Seattle) for $75,470 to construct a new flouring mill. The new plant, adjacent to the new elevator on Pier 1, was capable of producing 4,000 barrels of flour each day.
Both heavily reinforced concrete structures were designed by chief engineer Robert Rensselaer Bartlett. He was the chief designer of the Port of Astoria terminals as well as the designer of Astoria's Masonic Temple Lodge No. 7. Bartlett had many assistants. One was Everett N. Larry, who designed the grand Henry Hoefler residence at 1656 Jerome.
The old mill and elevator were not demolished immediately. In fact, for a period in 1923, the mill was restarted to process an abundance of grain arriving at Astoria. Then in 1929, Astoria-Pillsbury Flour Mills Co. purchased all property and interests associated with Astoria Flouring Mills. Four years later, the original mill buildings were torn down.
In 1961, the Astoria mill could no longer compete in the world market. The mill's doors were closed. The flouring plant remained empty for 25 years.
Then in 1986, the complex was imploded with more than a dozen blasts of dynamite. The story of the stubborn mill refusing to go down with ease is one of the great comic/tragedies of Astoria. But that is another story.
John E. Goodenberger is a historic building consultant who lives in Astoria