The history of flour milling in Minneapolis induces the desire to use all kinds of metaphors linking flour with magic dust that, when sprinkled over the land, sprouted a city. It’s hard to write about the mills without sounding cheesy or clichй or sentimental even, because in our city we have a penchant for the nostalgic. So, in order to avoid sounding like a Hallmark card, it’s best to get straight to the history.
Minneapolis is located in the state of Minnesota, and is known as one half of the “Twin Cities,” – the other half is St. Paul, the capital of Minnesota. “Minneapolis” comes from the Dakota word for “water” and “polis” from Greek, which means “city”. The story of this name also tells the story of why the first settlers chose the area: the tumbling cascade on the Mississippi River that’s known as St. Anthony Falls. Settlers were drawn to the falls because of their ability to produce electricity. The power generated by the falls was harnessed to drive turbines. The first mills on the river were sawmills, built in the 1850s. Logs were brought downriver and then rendered to lumber at mills that sat on the falls.
The first flourmill on the falls was built in 1878. According to an article written by E.V. Smalley in 1886, Minnesota flour was of the poorest quality in the country when the first mills were built. The reason for this is that the mills ground a different kind of wheat, a wheat that came with a dark husk, and when the flour was ground in the traditional manner, the husks made the flour dark and undesirable. But in 1880, a man by the name of Washburn came with an invention from France – the purifier – that could separate the husks from the wheat berries and produce pure, white flour.
The Washburn Crosby A Mill was the largest and most technologically advanced in the country during its heyday – during the fifty years that Minneapolis was the flour milling capitol of the world. Grain was brought to the mills by train – 175 railroad cars of grain were processed daily at the mill, according to the Mill City Museum website. During the mill’s peak period, more than 12 million loaves of bread were produced from the flour that came from the Washburn mill – that is, the mill produced enough flour in one day to make 12 million loaves of bread.
A rival mill, the Pillsbury A Mill, was built directly across the river in 1881. Pillsbury is one of America’s largest companies, producing flour, cake mixes, and is, of course, the creator of the famous and much loved Pillsbury Doughboy.
Working in the mill at times was dangerous. Grain dust is very volatile, and in 1878 an explosion rocked the Washburn A Mill, killing eighteen people. Thereafter, changes were made to grain storage facilities and elevators, including ventilation systems and other explosion-deterring devices. However, the mill exploded once again in 1928.
In a time when the working world in the United States belonged mostly to men, the Milling District of Minneapolis was ahead of its time. Washburn Crosby came out with smaller bags of flour that were popular with housewives because they were easier to heft. Washburn Crosby hired women to fill and sew the bags. These women were dubbed “Mill Girls”. In 1900, more than forty mill girls worked at Washburn Crosby. Not only did the mill girls work hard, they played hard – they even had a player piano in the women’s bathroom at Washburn Crosby.
A source of heartbreak, and the end of an era, Washburn Crosby closed in 1965. Buffalo, New York took over as milling capital of the country, as there was more space to build larger mills – mills that were just too large to build on the narrow riverfront. The Minneapolis mills stood empty, turbines still, machinery silent. The buildings fell into disrepair and became attractive nuisances for vagrants and homeless. In 1991, the Washburn A Mill burned and became a charred, hulking ruin. One of the last in the city, General Mills has a plant, though not on the riverfront, that continues to operate to this day, and on warm days, one can drive down Central Avenue and smell the flax being ground at the mill.
Though most of the mills are gone, the imprint left by the milling industry still remains. There are several sports teams that bear the name “Millers,” including the city’s first professional baseball team (which left the field long ago) and the teams of Washburn High School. Products from companies like Pillsbury and General Mills still have Minneapolis as their headquarters. The ruins of the mills themselves still cling to the riverbank and, thanks to the opening of the Mill City Museum, they have become a major attraction.
In the mid-90s, the city began a project to protect the decaying ruins and preserve that chapter of Minneapolis’ history. The crumbling walls were fortified and the Mill City Museum was built inside the old mills. The museum includes a multimedia show – an eight story elevator ride that tells the story of the mill workers from the 1940s to the 1960s, and a baking lab where museum goers can sample fresh bread and try their hands at vintage Betty Crocker recipes. There is an observation deck where one can look out over the falls and across the river to the Pillsbury A Mill, the historic Stone Arch Bridge and Mill Ruins Park; a courtyard with one of the last pieces of the mill’s actual machinery that looms like a modern sculpture; photographs from the era; and authentic replicas of milling machinery.
The city of Minneapolis grew up around the mills. Between 1870 and 1890, the population of Minneapolis increased by 1300 percent as immigrants came to the city looking for work at the mills. The mills transformed Minneapolis from a small town surrounded by wilderness into a bustling metropolis that could rival its counterparts on the East Coast. Today, the Minneapolis skyline rises up from behind a row of brick buildings that look as though they’re part of an ancient city struck by bombs – the remnants of what was once an empire, an empire that paved the way for those skyscrapers.
Before the Mill City Museum, the history of the mills had nearly disappeared from the consciousness of Minneapolitans, as people from out of state – new settlers – moved in, oblivious to the city’s pastime. Had local historians not clamored for the preservation of those crumbling walls, they would to this very day continue their sinking down into the Mississippi riverbed. The history of the era is fascinating, the sight of the ruins along the river chilling, the discoveries one makes at the museum thrilling. In a time when history is written off as passй or boring, it is crucial that we take steps to preserve the unique histories of our communities – one could even go as far as to say we should cherish them…at the risk of sounding sentimental.
By Elizabeth Sowden