Ashland Past Times: A town of many mills

Aerial view of the McGrew Brothers Sawmill, 1962. Southern Oregon Historical Society Image
May 23, 2022

Former Croman Mill site still the largest undeveloped section of land in Ashland

By George Kramer

Originally called “Ashland Mills,” Ashland was founded around Abel Helman’s water-powered sawmill on Ashland Creek, later transformed into a flour mill. The Ashland Woolen Mill, on Helman Street, was one of the city’s major employers in the 19th century.

As late as the 1950s, Ashland still boasted half a dozen lumber mills. Those companies still echo in Ashland. The city’s community center and shops are built upon a mill site. Just down East Main Street, the name of the Mill Pond subdivision reflects the earlier use of the site, as does the Old Mill Village student housing development.

McGrew Brothers log truck, Main Street, Medford. Southern Oregon Historical Society Image

Other lumber mills were located on Hersey Street, and on Highway 66, near the railroad overpass. Smaller lumber-related businesses like Parsons Pine Products operated in Ashland into the late-1990s, where neighbors either enjoyed (me!) or despised the always faint smell of sawdust in the air and the noon lunch whistle.

Aerial view of the McGrew Brothers Sawmill, 1962. Southern Oregon Historical Society Image

The last full-scale timber mill in Ashland, Croman Mill, operated on a large parcel southeast of Bi-Mart until 1996. The property, once the site of the municipal airport, was first developed as a saw mill by Arthur Peters, in 1946 (although some sources say that happened as early as 1934). Peters, who was elected to the City Council in 1959 and served until the mid-1960s, built a planing mill and then added dry kilns and a sawmill.

Peters’ Mistletoe Mill, mostly on the airport land leased from the city, employed between 25 and 50 men, according to newspaper accounts. In 1965, the mill was sold to McGrew Brothers Sawmill Inc. Founded in Medford after World War II, the McGrew’s Medford mill was located off Barnett Road, roughly in the area that is today Bear Creek Park.

01. Pink McGrew’s wooden business card, c1962. Southern Oregon Historical Society

It was a large operation, cutting timber throughout southern Oregon to fuel the post-war building boom. The McGrew family had deep roots in southern Oregon, where Curtis McGrew first established a mill on Wagner Creek, near Talent, in 1915. The family’s second generation, headed by Elroy McGrew (the company’s president, universally known as Pink), played a significant role in the timber industry. The other company officers were Pink’s brother Melvin and Mel’s son Jerald, known as Jerry. After McGrew lost its lease on the Medford property, they purchased the Mistletoe Mill. Pink McGrew “said plans call for the construction of a completely modern mill,” in Ashland.

Sorting Table at the Fir Planing Mill, Ashland, 1952. Still from Chamber of Commerce Video on YouTube

The McGrew Mill became Ashland’s largest private employer, at times with nearly 200 workers on its payroll. The late-1970s downturn in building hit the company hard. By October 1981, McGrew was $4.8 million in debt to banks, to the Federal government and to the city, along with equipment suppliers and others. Chapter 11 bankruptcy didn’t help and in early March 1982 the mill was ordered to liquidate. Croman Corp, a helicopter-based logging firm from Medford that had first supplied McGrew with logs and then leased and operated the Ashland mill, eventually purchased the property. Croman operated the mill until 1996, when changes in the logging industry led to its final closure.

Aerial view, Mistletoe Mill, 1952. City of Ashland website

The future of the Croman mill site, as the property is today known, has been the subject of a few development proposals and a masterplan study over the years asking many questions: Should it be housing? Mixed use? Reserved for economic development? Or all of those?

In 2007, the city commissioned the Croman Mill Site Redevelopment Plan and, in 2010, adopted that plan as the Croman Mill District Zone. This new district included the Croman Mill Land Use Ordinance & Design Standards; governing streets, access, transit, physical orientation of buildings and parking, and specific uses allowed in the zone, designed to encourage development. Little has happened however, and the plan hasn’t generated any activity. City staff and the property owner are again discussing alternatives, including the possibility of another plan that would allow more housing on the site.

The future of the property remains undecided. About the only thing that is certain about the old McGrew Brothers Sawmill site is that there won’t be a timber mill there, on what is still the largest undeveloped section of land in Ashland.

Ashland historian George Kramer is founder of Kramer & Company, which provides historical preservation services. Email him at george@preserveoregon.com.

McGrew Mill Wigwam Burner, April 10, 1965. Daily Tidings

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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