Lost City

Minneapolis's riverside milling district is about to become a condo tract and history park. But there are plenty of stories the commemorative plaques won't tell

Between the sawdust from the saw mills, the bran and offal dumped by the flour mills, and the industrial and human waste produced by the rapid pace of development at the falls, the Mississippi frequently looked like black paste, a chunky jumble of logs, lumber, and trash. There was even small change to be cadged off the occasional dead bodies floating downstream.

The area's economic heart--flour, lumber, and textile mills, along with a smattering of foundries and factories and shops--sat surrounded by streets that were a sludgy mixture of mud and industrial waste. In 1904, the Northwestern Miller took note of the desolate scene. "In addition to the usual amount of flying dirt and chaff," the correspondent noted, "about half a car load of brown paper was strewn along the platform. One would have to travel far to find a roadway giving such an impression of utter abandonment and neglect."

By 5 a.m. every work-day morning--seven days a week in the days before the rise of organized labor--the streetcars were crowded with men and women who lived in boarding houses and the rough one-story homes built for working families.

Near the close of the 19th century, Eva McDonald Valesh, a union organizer and undercover newspaper reporter who wrote for the St. Paul Daily Globe under the pen name Eva Gay, rode along with them to the North Star woolen mills just downstream from the falls--in its day, the largest woolen works in the country. She, too, noted the muddy dereliction of the neighborhood, but reserved her harshest criticism for the working conditions to which women in the mill were subjected.

The laundry room, she discovered, was "lighted by windows partly below the level of the sidewalk, which makes the light rather dim. The heat from the washing and drying machines was so intense (98 degrees) that I was on the point of leaving.... Picking my way across the damp floor I found some girls working on heavy machines called 'gigs'; others were 'bushing,' or picking specks off the blankets when finished.

"'Girls, why don't you open the windows, it's so hot here?' I exclaimed.

"'We get used to the heat, so we don't mind it much, and we can stand that better than the dust and dirt from the street above,' they said.

"'How much are you paid?'

"'Ninety cents a day.'

"'Do you think it's worthwhile to ruin your health by working in this place for such wages?'

"'I don't know as it is,' was the weary reply, 'but when a girl's got her living to earn she can't choose where she'll work.'"

Water power from the falls dictated the shape of Minneapolis's early industrial landscape. The soldiers at Fort Snelling were the first to harness that power when they established a mill there in 1823 to grind flour for troops stationed at the fort. This enterprise followed the grist-mill pattern, which had been the standard for hundreds of years of wheat grinding. Water poured over a wheel, which turned a pair of large stones by way of a simple gearing system. Farmers carried wheat to the mill; the miller passed it through the stones, and sifted the results into bran and middlings and flour. Wind or mules could be substituted for water.

Even then, this model of local production and consumption was crumbling. The craftsmen who wove cloth, made shoes, or ground flour were simply starved out by machines that did the job more efficiently. Just a decade earlier in England, a group of weavers had gathered under the banner of Ned Ludd to sabotage the equipment that stole their livelihoods. "Having for centuries worked out of their cottages and small village shops," writes Kirkpatrick Sale in Rebels Against the Future, "they suddenly saw new, complex, large-scale machines coming into their settled trades, or threatening to, usually housed in the huge multistory buildings rising in their ancient valleys."

The Fort Snelling grist mill gave way to a commercial mill in midcentury, and was soon joined by more flour mills and by saw mills built right over the falls on wooden platforms. In the United States, and especially at the "unsettled" St. Anthony Falls, there were no Luddites to protest the mills that by the 1850s were crowding around the falls--just a handful of Indians who "as late as 1882," Edgar reported, "might occasionally be seen on the streets... watching with wondering eyes the strange achievements of their energetic successors."

At first the industrial flour mills merely expanded upon the grist-mill process, installing massive runs of stone powered by water or steam. Spring wheat grown in the region fared poorly under this system. Unlike the soft-grained winter wheat grown in the east, Midwestern grain had a tough shell--though it also contained more gluten, and thus had the potential to produce more and better flour. By the 1890s, the Washburn Crosby Company had installed new technology especially to handle local spring wheat. The "gradual reduction" process replaced mill stones with steel and porcelain rollers, and introduced the "middlings purifier," a set of mechanical sifters that yielded greater quantities of usable flour. It speeded milling, increased profits, and spelled the end of the old grist mills once and for all. By the turn of the century, the Washburn A produced more flour than any mill in the world, forming the centerpiece of 29 flour mills, most of them using the roller system. It set the flour-milling standard until 1965, when the Washburn Crosby mill finally closed its doors.

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