A new purpose for an old giant

by Meyer Sosland
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From the remains of one of modern milling industry’s first giants in the U.S., a new museum has been created in which the machinery, the process and the promotion of mill products will be exhibited to educate the public about the milling industry’s past and present.

The Mill City Museum, which opened in September, is constructed on the ruins of what was once a centerpiece of the Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. flour milling industry — the Washburn "A" Mill.


For the U.S. flour milling industry, the museum represents long overdue recognition. Beginning in 1880 and for nearly 50 years thereafter, Minneapolis was known as the "Flour Milling Capital of the World." At its peak, some 20 flour mills stood along a covered canal, flowing with water drawn from the river above the falls.

"More than 100 years ago, forces converged here to make Minneapolis the flour-milling capital of the world. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, what happened here continues to shape your world." This lettering resides upon the wall of the exhibit gallery and serves as a reminder of the important role that milling still plays in modern times, according to Kate Roberts, exhibit developer for the Minnesota Historical Society, the organization that directed the museum project.

"The museum teaches visitors the fundamentals of milling wheat through examples of key machines, explanations of the type of wheat grown in the Midwest U.S., of how water power works, but more importantly it teaches visitors to make personal connections to a place of great historical significance," Roberts said.

"We want visitors to understand that Minneapolis grew as a city in large part because of the industries centered at St. Anthony Falls — first lumber mills, then flour mills. We’re conveying that point to visitors through exhibits that tell the stories behind those industries — the inventions that made Minneapolis the ‘Mill City,’ the entrepreneurs who understood how to harness the energy of the falls, the Minneapolis-based products and companies that became household names, and so on."

The museum has 11 areas, each developed to provide visitors with hands-on experiences that would help them to understand the importance of and the fascinating history of the milling industry.

• Flour Tower — This eight-story elevator ride was designed to educate visitors on the flour milling process. The ride features stories of employees that worked in the mill from the 1940s through the mid-1960s when it closed.

• Water Lab — The driving force of the milling industry in Minneapolis and at the Washburn "A" Mill was water power from St. Anthony Falls. Visitors will have the opportunity to participate in hands-on water experiments that will help them to understand the nature of and the importance of water power in the operation of the mill.

• Rail Corridor — The museum features a wooden boxcar circa 1879 that museum officials said would be the focal point of exhibits showing how railroad networks delivered grain from farms to mills and flour from mills to market.

• Baking Lab — The museum’s visitors will witness one of the crucial elements of the miller’s job in the baking lab. As part of the experience, visitors will have the opportunity to grind wheat, bake bread, conduct experiments and package food.

• Recipe for a Mill City — A giant recipe box with a series of oversized cards will feed visitors some absorbing history about the Mississippi river and its influence on Minneapolis — in bite-sized doses. Topics will include lumber and flour milling as well as more recent developments such as the decline of the Mississippi river’s east bank after the mills closed and its recent urban resurgence as a place to live, work and play.

• Meet the Machines — In this section, authentic 19th-century milling machines, connected to an overhead network of pulleys, belts and wheels, are displayed. Museum officials said hands-on models and diagrams will explain how such devices as roller mills, cleaners, sifters, dust collectors and flour packers were used to prepare flour. Inventors, mill hands, investors and engineers — the people behind the machines — will be introduced.

• Harvesting Wheat — This exhibit will answer the question of what type of wheat to plant, whether to use pesticides, and where and when to sell. Visitors will be given the opportunity to understand the role of the farmer through recorded first-person accounts from wheat farmers past and present.

• Global Exchange — The Minneapolis flour mills utilized technologies developed in Europe that allowed them to produce flour in quantities that saturated European markets, museum officials said. The Exchange section was designed to educate visitors about this historic technology transfer as well as flour milling’s role in international trade, food relief and immigration. The exhibit also will examine how recent immigrants to Minneapolis have incorporated local products into their diets.

• Wheat Emporium — This display gives viewers the option to explore wheat’s use as an icon in household items, paintings, currency, clothing and other objects from a range of cultures.

• Rooftop Observation Deck — Visitors to the museum’s rooftop observation deck will have a view of the Mississippi river and St. Anthony Falls, the historic Stone Arch Bridge and Mill Ruins Park.

• Promoting Mill Products — The Minneapolis milling industry gave rise to such commercial powerhouses as General Mills, Inc., The Pillsbury Co., Cargill, Inc., International Multifoods Corp. and Malt-O-Meal Co. Visitors to this exhibit will learn how Minnesota food producers have influenced the way the world eats through advertising and promotion. In addition, the exhibit will include vintage television commercials, advertisements, packaging and marketing.

Richard Ferrell, a milling engineer with Pillsbury for 25 years, donated many of the pieces for the Promoting Mill Products exhibit. He made several long-term contributions while other items are on a five-year loan from his collection of milling and baking industry marketing and advertising memorabilia.

"Pillsbury and General Mills were both very helpful. We also dealt with Malt-O-Meal and Archer Daniels Midland," Roberts said. Cargill also contributed, donating $500,000 to the museum.

Katie Dishman, an archivist with General Mills, supplied a great deal of information to the staff of the Minnesota Historical Society.

"The museum will teach visitors about many facets of milling and the many details involved in producing flour," Dishman said. "For years, people simply have gone to grocery stores and paid a nominal price for a 5-lb or 10-lb sack of flour. People touring the museum will learn all that is involved with the creation of that flour. Certainly, flour production has changed over the years, and hopefully that will be shown as well."


In the "A" mill, the Minnesota Historical Society selected a museum site that stands as a uniquely apt symbol of the modern milling industry. Both the mill and its location are rich in history.

C.C. Washburn constructed his first flour mill in 1866, the "B" mill. Although implementing new innovation, critics dubbed his first mill "Washburn’s Folly." Yet Washburn strove on and began to experiment with new milling techniques especially adapted to spring wheat, working to develop a high grinding purifier.

In 1874, Washburn bolstered his reputation for successful large-scale projects by building his second mill on the site. But four years later, the new mill sustained a colossal explosion that destroyed not only the "A" and "B" mills but also flattened five other mills in the area.

Washburn moved quickly past the catastrophe with plans to build an even larger milling complex with the newest technology available — the gradual reduction process with roller mills.

Austrian engineer William de la Barre designed the new mill, which upon its completion in 1880 was declared the world’s largest flour mill. The rebuilt "A" Mill had daily milling capacity of 5,000 cwts. One milling historian said the new Washburn mill embodied "the first unqualified synthesis of the various milling theories and methods which had been gathering force as the 1870s progressed." The new mill replaced the feeding of grain between millstones with the gradual reduction of wheat into flour using a series of rollers.

By World War I, the "A" and "C" mills had combined daily milling capacity of 44,000 cwts, and the company at one point had 54,000 cwts of milling capacity in Minneapolis.

But these plants faced many challenges. In 1928, the "A" Mill was devastated by fire, forcing a rebuilding project that culminated in the restructuring of the mill into four modern milling and storage units.

In 1928, Washburn’s company was reorganized and General Mills, Inc. was formed.


Minneapolis’ population in the 1870s approached 13,000 and was fueled by the grain being brought in by rail from the Northern Plains grain belt, the Dakotas and Canada. Over time, the milling industry grew and itself subsequently fueled the growth of Minneapolis. By 1890 an enormous influx of immigrants helped the city’s population swell to nearly 165,000.

In the Minneapolis milling industry’s early days almost all flour was produced for household use. Sales were in 196-lb barrels, from which grocers and other merchants sold flour in smaller amounts. As the commercial baking industry grew in the wake of World War I, barrels were replaced by 100-lb, 50-lb and 25-lb cotton or jute sacks, and then by multiwall paper bags. Only 5% of bread consumed in 1900 was bakery-made, according to a society estimate. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, commercial bakeries were baking an estimated 30% of the nation’s bread.

The need to sell the massive production output of the flour mills motivated creative methods of marketing and advertising in order to stimulate demand for flour. Innovations included cake mixes.

By 1930, Buffalo had supplanted Minneapolis as the nation’s flour milling capital. The Minnesota Historical Society attributes this turn of events to the onset of federal import-export regulations that favored mills located in cities better situated to process Canadian wheat.

"Eventually the Minneapolis mills shut down," Roberts explained. When General Mills closed the mill in June of 1965, daily flour milling capacity totaled 13,800 cwts (this included 4,200 cwts of durum and 2,400 cwts of rye). The mill featured elevator storage capacity of 5.5 million bus.

In 1991, more than 25 years after it was closed, the "A" Mill was nearly destroyed by fire. Working through the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, Minneapolis cleaned up the rubble and fortified the charred walls of the mill in the late 1990s. Soon after the clean-up, the Minnesota Historical Society announced its intention to create The Mill City Museum.

By November 2002, private, corporate, foundation, city, county, state and federal entities had contributed $32 million for construction, equipment, exhibits, educational programs and for an endowment to help underwrite operations.

The museum design left intact many features of the original mill, including flour bins, milling machinery, the engine house, rail corridor and a wheat house. Among the new architectural features is an eight-story glass façade overlooking the Mississippi river. True-to-scale graphics of the milling machines are featured on the glass facade to give visitors an idea of how massive the milling process was.

In addition, the facade forms a reflective backdrop for the weathered masonry walls that frame a 100-by-100 foot, open-air courtyard formed by the 1991 fire. Ruins of the historic mill are showcased in the courtyard through significant excavation efforts.

Food For Thought

• More than 12 million loaves of bread were made daily from the wheat milled at the Washburn "A" Mill during its heyday between 1880 and 1930.

• Every working day, approximately 175 railroad cars of wheat were processed at the mill.

• In one year, the mill ground the wheat harvested from 23,000 farms, which extended west to the Rocky Mountains and north into Canada.

• The flour mills in Minneapolis stimulated a boom in larger farms, and by 1880, 70% of Minnesota’s cultivated land — almost 4.5 million acres — was planted in wheat.

• The powerful Mississippi River’s waterfalls, the Falls of St. Anthony, were gradually moving upstream, so mill workers had to construct a wooden apron under the falls to stop the damages of erosion. "Pay your respects…to old St. Anthony," the St. Paul Daily Press wrote on Sept. 21, 1866, for soon "the heavy plunge of the amber Mississippi will be heard no more."

• William de la Barre, chief engineer of the Washburn "A" Mill, was involved in corporate espionage when he worked at a competing mill in Budapest, Hungary as a full-time employee. While at work, de la Barre would sketch models of milling equipment that he later brought back and applied in the Minneapolis mill. He also trained workers on milling techniques he witnessed on trips to Budapest, Prague, Paris and Vienna.

• The Washburn "A" Mill suffered great loss in its history. It exploded twice — first in 1878 when it destroyed one-third of the city’s milling capacity in one night. It was rebuilt in 1880 but exploded again in 1928. In 1991, it went up in flames yet again.

• In the 1880s, flour milling comprised two-thirds of the city’s manufacturing output.

• Flour milling was celebrated in Minneapolis — the city named its first professional baseball team the "Minneapolis Millers."

• Local radio and television station WCCO takes its name from Washburn-Crosby Company.

• In 1971, the Washburn "A" Mill was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1983 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.