Blue Heron Beginnings: Commentary on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project

After Publishers’ Paper purchased the Oregon City Woolen Mills in September 1954, the entire complex became known as “Mill O.”

Regrettably, Publishers’ razed the main Woolen Mills building in 1980. However, two other Woolen Mills legacy structures remain. One is the former Woolen Mills pullery/picking warehouse, one of a number of buildings constructed in 1903 to replace several that went up in a conflagration that year, and which Publishers’ converted to its Carpentry Shop.

by: PHOTO COURTESY: PUBLISHERS PAPER - A mid-century photo from the cover of a Publishers' Paper Tour Guide shows the 1917 Mill O Building, foreground, with its huge windows on the north side. To the left is the Woolen Mills, and behind MIll O is the 1903 Woolen Mills pullery / picking warehouse.The other ranks as one of the keystones of the Blue Heron site’s future: the Woolen Mills’ annex built by the Oregon City Manufacturing Co. in 1917, and now known uniquely as “Mill O.”

Mill O, which stands directly on the bank of the Willamette, has survived every episode of river flooding since its construction; but another type of flood defines both its past character and future potential: A flood of light.

The Oregon City Enterprise employed this very term in describing plans for the new structure in a front-page article of its Dec. 22, 1916, edition. For its fascinating detail and context, the article merits a full reprinting:


Announcement of plans for the construction of a three-story, 80 by 250 feet, reinforced concrete addition to the plant of the Oregon City Manufacturing company and the complete re-arrangement of the plant, improvements which will increase the capacity of the mill 50 per cent and make it the largest woolen mill west of the Mississippi river, was made Saturday by Adolph R. Jacobs, president of the company. Construction will be started in the near future, said Mr. Jacobs.

The new three-story concrete addition will extend along the south side of Third Street toward the river from the present three-story brick building which fronts along Main. The top floor will be occupied by the company’s enlarged garment factory, the second floor by the weave room, with 150 of the most modern type of looms, and the ground floor will be used for a machine room, storage and a cafeteria and kitchens.

The building will have 60,000 square feet of floor space, an equal to one and a half Portland city blocks.

Much light and fresh air

One of the features of the new structure will be its lighting. The roof will be of the monitor type, with five-foot windows. On three sides of the building from one end to the other and from the floor to the roof of each story will be large glass windows, admitting a flood of light.

Ventilation, too, has received close attention from Mr. Jacobs in preparing the plans for the building, and each floor will be supplied with fresh air by use of a fan system.

On the first floor of the new building will be a modern cafeteria, in which the mill will serve food to its employees at cost. Kitchens will adjoin the cafeteria.

The construction of this new building, however, is only a part of the plans. Practically every machine in the entire plant will be moved, all old machines will be scrapped or sold and only the latest types of machinery installed.

Complete rearrangement of plant

A complete re-arrangement of the plant from basement to roof, therefore is necessary. Economy of handling the products in their various stages of manufacture has entered largely into the drafting of the plans for the new mill. Wool will be unloaded from cars on one side of the track and the finished garments, blankets, rugs and other products loaded on the other.

This entire change in the arrangement of the mill will be made principally because it will mean a saving in handling.

With these improvements made the local woolen mill will be the equal of any of the east in equipment and qualify of product, and will also rank as one of the largest in the nation. Its position as the largest west of the Mississippi will be undisputed.

Payroll greatly increased

With the addition completed 150 more hands will be employed and the payroll increased about 50 percent. The mill will then employ 550 persons.

The Oregon City Manufacturing company has a market for its wares which is national in scope. The products, or better say, the sales of their products, total over $1,000,000 per year. The famous Navajo Art Craft wares which have been a specialty in the mills for many years, have won the grand prize at practically all the big expositions in the country in the last quarter of a century. The Oregon City Indian blankets are a standard all over the United States.

The factory is one of the few woolen mills in the country where every process from the receipt of the wool, is completed under one roof. In addition to the Indian wares, the mills make almost every known article of woolen wear, including mackinaws, robes, pants, blankets, etc. These articles are made in the garment factory, itself a complete industry in the big mills.


by: PHOTO BY: JAMES NICITA - Mill O today. The south-facing windows have been covered up or obstructed by metal shed. The Woolen Mills pullery building is to the left, with the black tar roof.

The Oregon City Courier reported the completion of the building in May of 1917. After nearly 40 years of service to the Woolen Mills, Mill O rendered new service for a half century to the paper making operation of Publishers’ Paper and its successor firms. In 1958, Publishers’ converted Mill O into a kraft grocery bag plant.

Over time, changes to Mill O blocked the flood of light. In 1956 Oregon City vacated 3rd St. from Main St. to the Willamette River, to accommodate Publishers’ desire to expand the Paper Machine No. 2 and Paper Machine No. 3 buildings. In particular, the expansion of Paper Machine No. 3, coupled with the construction of an unsightly metal canopy over the remainder of the vacated 3rd St. right-of-way, now block most of the large windows on the north façade from receiving direct sunlight.

Similarly, two non-distinct metal sheds on either side of the historic pullery building — the pipe shop and the millwright shop — obstruct many of Mill O’s massive south-facing windows; several others on the south façade have been boarded over altogether.

Elements of the program in the draft Master Plan of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project (WFLP) should help restore Mill O’s flood of light. The plan calls for the demolition of the pipe shop and the millwright shop — as well as the historic Woolen Mills pullery, a much more debatable proposition — to create a central open space along the Willamette River. Clearing these two metal sheds, and uncovering the boarded-up windows, will restore Mill O’s direct southern light exposure. Restoring 3rd Street as a public street, and removing the metal canopy and the Paper Machine No. 3 expansion, will restore access to light on the north side of Mill O.

by: PHOTO BY: JAMES NICITA - Mill O interior elements include old growth timber beams and ceiling slats.Upgrading or replacing all these windows will prove one of the major expenses of a first-rate redevelopment of Mill O. Fortunately, the State Historic Preservation Officer has identified both Mill O and the Woolen Mills pullery building as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The 20 percent historic investment tax credit that comes with an actual listing on the National Register would be a significant aid in such a window upgrade, along with the rest of Mill O’s redevelopment.

If you get a chance this summer, take a tour of Blue Heron and visit inside Mill O. If you are traveling north, take the opportunity to visit Seattle’s Pike Place Market, or Vancouver, B.C.’s Granville Island Public Market, for an adrenaline-dose of inspiration and excitement as to what Mill O’s future might look like. The latter in particular is a converted industrial building, complete with historic elements like gantry cranes from which giant hooks on chains dangle above the milling crowds.

Large cuts in the upper floors of Mill O could create an atrium-like effect, whereby the light from all three floors would flood down upon the bustle of activity on the ground floor, and, in turn, people on the ground floor could gaze up at the amazing old-growth timbers and panels that support Mill O’s roof. The effect of the light might be enhanced further by the periodic insertion, in the vast array of fenestration, of grant-funded individual stained-glass windows: here a representation of the Imperial Mills, there a geometric pattern based on the Willamette petroglyphs, etc.

by: PHOTO BY: JAMES NICITA - One of the Grandville Island Public Market's gantry cranes.A Mill O public market could become the anchor of a series of other family-friendly, revenue-generating recreational destinations created out of historic-designated buildings along the riverfront, all tied together by the planned riverfront promenade: a riverside carousel within the historic Woolen Mills pullery adjacent to Mill O; a recreational complex under a twin-pitched pavilion roof built over the historic Brick Mill and Paper Machine No. 3 foundations (see “No. 3 Paper Machine: The Treasure in a Box”, OC News, April 2, 2014); a water park on the site of Blue Heron’s water filtration plant.

Encouragingly, Blue Heron’s new owner George Heidgerken has been quoted as saying that a “very active” farmers market is among the ideas he has for the site. Here’s hoping that Mr. Heidgerken will be inspired by Mill O, and its flood of light.

Oregon City resident James Nicita is a former city commissioner.

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