EAGLE POINT — One of the Rogue Valley’s most significant landmarks — and its tale of devastating loss and restoration — was a focal point for the Oct. 21 episode of “American Pickers,” a reality TV show on the History Channel.
Aside from sharing the story of the Butte Creek Mill — both before and since the 2015 Christmas fire that destroyed it — former mill owner Bob Russell garnered more than $10,000 by selling some of his own antiques to the show’s famous “pickers,” Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz.
The episode, dubbed “Out of the Ashes,” kicks off with Wolfe and Fritz sharing a bag of walnuts while driving to Southern Oregon. Wolf marvels at the mill being the biggest thing in the tiny town.
Russell, who owned the mill for more than a dozen years before the fire, gave Wolfe and Fritz a tour of the 1872-era mill.
After the tour, in which he showed how the mill basement and mill stones were protected when tons of flour fell as the upper story burned, Russell showed some of his favorite collectibles and dropped not-so-subtle hints about the need to raise some serious cash.
Russell lost his wife just two months before the fire, and the mill disaster claimed 50% or more of Russell’s antiques collection, which — he recounted in the episode — began with a barbershop pole he salvaged from a demolished building site when he was an 11-year-old Portland boy.
Russell, who is mayor of Eagle Point, recounted tales of generations of locals visiting the mill over the years, and told how more than 100 community members dug through the ashes to retrieve antiques and pieces of the mill, and their efforts to use as many reclaimed pieces from the original mill as possible to maintain the property’s status on the National Register of Historic Places.
To date, the Butte Creek Mill Foundation has raised over $2 million and has another million to raise. An admitted haggler, Russell said he’s always up for “a little horse trading.” The impromptu shopping trip included everything from a World War II-era tiki lamp and handmade “chunky glass” to a small-scale barber chair used by salesmen “back in the day.”
Wolfe offered $650 for the tiki lamp, to which Russell answered, “I’m kind of hoping for seven.”
Wolfe relented, “It’s going to a good cause.”
The trio moved on to a windmill weight, some high-brow mink-lined gauntlet gloves, and a leather helmet before Wolfe, who was wearing a 1940s Lee denim coat during the episode, was wooed by some Lee Jeans signs hanging on one wall.
A crystal lamp, gifted to big spenders of a liquor company in the last century, garnered its asking price of $1,500. Fritz offered $1,200, and Russell countered with $1,400, resulting in the two agreeing to a friendly round of gambling. The mayor won and declared, “There’s a god up there telling me that I’m getting what I want for it.”
One of the more unique pieces sold during the show was a 1902 official record book for California’s San Quentin State Prison, salvaged by a restoration expert after it survived the mill fire. At one time the book, packed with mug shots and tales of Wild West-style crimes, could have sold for between $10,000 and $20,000.
“There are some real desperadoes in there, I tell ya,” said Russell, noting that the restoration pro spent six hours per day, for 43 days, restoring the book. While asking for $5,000, Russell settled for $4,500, reasoning, “It’ll go a long way toward the mill,” and shook hands with Wolfe.
Worst and best
Both Russell and the two men conceded that the fire was as much a part of the mill’s story as the years prior.
“The fire was the worst thing that happened to him but, on the other side of it, one of the best things that happened to him because of the community putting its arms around him the way they did,” Wolfe said.
Russell admitted to complete heartbreak losing his wife and the mill in 2015 but told Wolfe, “You play the cards you’re dealt.”
Russell said he enjoyed talking antiques and selling pieces of his collection to Wolfe and Fritz.
“Every single thing I sold to Mike and Frank, I felt like I had a connection with it and that they appreciated it,” he said, noting that his hope was to help the mill continue to move forward in a way that would have made his late wife proud.
During the episode he told Wolfe and Fritz, “She fell in love with Eagle Point and the mill and the people. She was a reason so many people turned out to rebuild the mill.”
Russell said he’d heard rumors over the years of things “being prearranged” during the episodes, but the shopping excursion after the tour was “completely spontaneous,” he said, with nothing scripted.
Russell said he hoped the episode would bring support for the mill — donations have trickled in since the show aired — and that he enjoyed the sport of haggling with two of the antique industry’s best.
“We spent 11 hours shooting, but it was a lot of fun. I’ll put it this way, I wasn’t intimidated by them. They were just extremely pleasant,” said the mayor.
“I was happy they liked seeing my stuff. I’m sure they’ve seen some wonderful collections around the country, but for little old Eagle Point, Oregon, I’ve got a pretty good pile of junk, I guess.”