Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Down By the Old Mill (River)

Yesterday, we had the chance to visit the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis for the first time. The Minnesota Historical Society has built the museum in the old Washburn Flour Mill site at St. Anthony Falls. This rugged old ruin of a building (the abandoned mill burned in 1991) is now a truly wonderful museum that has a great story to tell, the story of flour milling.

The mills came into being because of two things, the falls (water power) and the wheat fields of the Great Plains. Flour milling was the industry of Minneapolis comprising two-thirds of the manufacturing output of the city in the 1880s. The need for more and more people to work the mills drove the population of this little town west of St. Paul up 1300 percent in just 20 years. The mills even gave rise to the name of their baseball team, the Minneapolis Millers.

A central character in all of this was William de la Barre. He came to Minneapolis in the late 187os to try to sell dust collectors to the Washburn Company. The collectors were intended to remove the fine flour dust that had caused the Washburn mill to blow up the previous year, killing 14 people.

Washburn was not buying the untested technology so de la Barre installed three collectors with money out of his own pocket to demo the technology. It worked. The comapny bought 50 more and they hired de la Barre to oversee the construction of their new mill. He stayed for the rest of his life, retiring in the 1924. Along the way, de la Barre oversaw the installation of many new technologies including new steel grindstone rollers that dramatically increased flour production. He lead the group that was instrumental converting the mills from water power to electricity generated from hydro-electric plants built on the falls. This electricity not only powered the mills but also the Minneapolis electric street car line.

The sad ending to the story was that the mills went out of business because of changes in government import-export laws which favored the milling of Canadian wheat. By 1930, Buffalo had surpassed Minneapolis as the leading flour milling center in the country. By 1965, the mills were gone. These old buildings lay abandoned until they were rejuvenated into the museum that tells their tale today.

The museum is well worth a visit if you are ever in the Twin Cities. If the weather is accommodating, you can walk across the great Stone Arch Bridge that crosses the Mississippi right in front of the museum.

I know that I will never look at a bag of Gold Medal Flour the same way again.

"You are the like the rest of us. You have everything to learn and nothing to forget."
- C.C. Washburn to de la Barre on offering him the superintendent's position

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I should visit sometime.