Just as the mighty smokestacks rising from the Columbia riverside made an impression on the skyline of Camas, the imprint the paper mill made on the Camas community has left an impressive mark.

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The Camas Mill was built in 1883 and drew engineers, chemists, researchers, and other specialists from around the country to live and work in Camas. Photo courtesy: Caroline Mercury, Downtown Camas Association

Reflecting on the city’s rich history, it’s impossible not to tell the story without the mill, the products that were produced, and the thousands of people who made it all happen.

Downtown Camas will continue to mark the community’s history with the mill by adding a new, three-dimensional work of art commissioned to grace the side of the downtown building facing the front door of the mill on Adams Street.

The final touches are being made to the art work, an outdoor photo collage, on the west wall of 217 Northeast 4th Avenue.

Caroline Mercury, Downtown Camas Association board president, spent four decades working for the mill’s parent company, 25 of those years at the Camas factory. And she said it was that dedication and love for the mill, and the city of Camas, that fueled the idea for this three-dimensional piece of public art that now calls downtown home. “I was always interested in the rich history of the mill and the town,” she said.

Before retiring from the mill, Mercury said her mill colleague Anna Fry, also a devotee of the mill’s rich history, remodeled the lobby just off Adams Street into the Mill Interpretive Center. “People love to visit the center, talk with employees and retirees about the mill, and view the many artifacts and photos,” Mercury said. “Especially compelling is a wonderful 10-minute video of local historian and lifelong resident Virginia Warren (age 92 at filming), speaking to the mill’s role in the town from the beginning.”

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Caroline Mercury and Camas historian Virginia Warren in 2019. Photo courtesy: Caroline Mercury, Downtown Camas Association

During the lobby design process, Mercury helped comb through hundreds of archival photos from the mill’s collection. And as she began her tenure as board president and design committee chair for the Downtown Camas Association, the idea of using those photos in a more accessible way became clear: A large-scale collage.

“This was a way to create a beautiful public art project and share the town’s history with residents and visitors alike,” Mercury said. “Public art, community engagement and preserving history are all part of the Downtown Camas Association’s mission, so it was a great fit.”

After receiving a grant from Georgia-Pacific, design on the public art piece began. Soon, local grants were made possible by the Clark County Historic Preservation Commission and Riverview Bank.

The Downtown Camas Association’s Design Committee became the steward of the project. Throughout the process of editing photos and consulting with mill retirees, the narrative and photo captions went through many revisions. The actual design was completed by Allan Jeffs, a professional artist and design committee volunteer living in Camas at the time. “He took our original idea for a collage and dramatically enhanced it,” Mercury said. Jeffs is also known for his downtown Camas mural featured on the 6th Avenue wall of Young’s Deli, which showcases the famous Camas lily plant and the early settlers of the area.

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An iconic shot of the mill at night during the Crown Zellerbach years. Photo courtesy: Caroline Mercury, Downtown Camas Association

The Downtown Camas Association recognized other important partners that played a key role in the creation of the new downtown artwork, including Tracy Hook of Big Hook Graphics, who helped produce and install the collage, as well as Kitchen Electric in Washougal which installed the high efficiency gooseneck lighting to keep the collage illuminated at night.

“The building owner, Mel Locke of Universal Martial Arts (located in the building), was excited about contributing by having the piece installed on his building, a prime spot for public art,” Mercury said. “And U.S. Bank has also been a great partner as we execute the project in their parking area.”

Now that the design work is done, the project is officially ready to be unveiled. The 12-foot by 40-foot historical art piece features 22 vintage photos of the mill and its employees in multi-layered panels. There will be a range of photos showing buildings, equipment, and employees from the late 1800s to mid-1980s: A 100-year peek into the mill.  “Many of these are exclusive to the mill collection and have not previously been used publicly,” Mercury said.

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At last year’s First Friday event, mill employees help visitors to make a sheet of handmade paper by dipping a screen into a container of pulp. Photo courtesy: Caroline Mercury, Downtown Camas Association

There will also be a narrative panel that tells the story of how the mill began and how Camas grew around it. There will be a photo legend with captions, as well as a QR code that takes you to an informational historic walking tour that discusses the core of downtown and its buildings.

The ribbon cutting event for the art installation will happen promptly at 5:00 p.m. on April 3, at the city’s annual “Spring into History” First Friday event, which is expected to draw hundreds of members of the community. There will be several activities happening at the event, including the option for visitors to create a handmade piece of paper in the mill lobby, courtesy of Georgia-Pacific.

“This artwork is an homage to the mill, its employees, and what it has meant to the Camas community,” Mercury said. “Literally, it’s the reason the city is here.”

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