ETNA — The sweetest thing about Treat Day on Saturday at the Cedar Creek Grist Mill was the element of surprise.
Many visitors who showed up to marvel at the rustic beauty and hands-on history of this north county oasis had no idea there were free baked goods in store as well: cookies, brownies and other goodies, made from whole wheat flour that was milled on-site.
Scenery was what drew plein air painter Tom Daniels, who set up his easel across the stream from the working 1876 mill and admitted that he was “a little reluctant” to paint what amounts to a major local historical monument. Daniels relocated from Portland to Vancouver 15 years ago and has been on the prowl for Clark County scenes to paint ever since, he said — but he still finds famous spots like the Grist Mill a bit daunting.
“It’s like painting a famous face of some celebrity,” he said. “You better get it right.” Scenic inspiration is what drew Daniels here on a nice end-of-summer day, he said; when he learned it was Treat Day, he figured he might just reward himself for a strong likeness of the building with something yummy.
Likewise, the Johnson family — Don, Robin and their daughter Wendy — also had no idea they were traveling to Treat Day. They were drawn to the Grist Mill on Saturday by historical curiosity, they said.
“I always enjoyed history but I didn’t realize how much of it there is here, and how accessible it all is,” said Robin Johnson. If they weren’t history buffs before moving to this area from California, they said, they sure are now.
“When you grow up and live in one place, you miss what’s right in front of your eyes,” said Wendy Johnson. But when you’re a newcomer, the richness of a place’s history — especially a place like Clark County — hits you all at once, she said. Just like the rich taste of a homemade chocolate chip cookie.
The Cedar Creek Grist Mill was first called the Red Bird Mill when it was built in 1876 by George Woodham. Various owners came and went over the years, until a durable dam and water flume were built upstream to power the turbine that replaced the mill’s original water wheel. More than just a mill, the place served as a de facto community center, with different owners hosting dances, musical performances and social gatherings.
Decades later, the state bought the 12-acre property, removed the dam and added a fish ladder; in 1975 the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places; and not long afterward the “Friends of” group formed to refurbish the sagging structure. Volunteer-driven repairs, maintenance and preservation have been ongoing, slowly, ever since.
Sweet and sour
Treat Day may have been a sweet occasion at the Cedar Creek Grist Mill, but the small corps of volunteers who love and maintain the place confessed to a bitter, lingering aftertaste left over from earlier this year. They’re still irritated that a misunderstanding or miscommunication with Clark County Public Health over rules, regulations and permits spurred them to cancel Bread and Butter Day on the last Saturday in May.
Food events have been back monthly since the issue got straightened out, they said — except, the nonprofit Friends of the Cedar Creek Grist Mill organization now finds itself spending far more money on mandatory permits and inspections than they ever make back in donations, according to Jeffrey Berry, group president. Meanwhile, group members can’t cook and serve food to the public on-site; they’ve got to do the cooking in private kitchens, package the food hygienically and bring it to the mill.
That’s not exactly how an authentic “working museum” wants to function, the volunteers said. It’s more like bringing food to a potluck, longtime volunteer John Clapp said.
Still, the schedule grinds on. Cornbread Day at the Cedar Creek Grist Mill is set for Sept. 28 and Apple Cider Pressing Day, complete with bluegrass jam, is set for Oct. 26.