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

As the St. Anthony Falls industrial district grew, so did the city of Minneapolis. Between 1870 and 1880 the population nearly quadrupled. Over the next four years, it tripled again. Among these crowds of failed farmers, west-wandering drifters, and new immigrants from Northern and Eastern Europe and China, there were surely millers displaced by the new industrial flour works. This change in the laboring ranks began to accelerate dramatically in the late 1800s with the introduction of the roller mills, and was complete by the 1930s.

In 1929, James Bell, president of General Mills--the company that inherited the Washburn scepter--boasted that back in the 1870s, "there were more than 20,000 individual flour mills in the United States; today it would be difficult to make a list of 5,000. Of these, less than 1,000 practically perform all the commercial milling done in America. Many thousands of millers found it impossible to remodel their plants to the roller process.... Thereby they missed the tide of successful endeavor and became stranded on the melancholy shores of failure."

Virtually every industry was undergoing similar seismic shifts. In the early years of the falls, textile mills--notorious for employing women and children under terrible conditions--gave the flour mills a run for their money. It was here that the undercover journalist Eva Gay paid her visits, leaving a rare first-hand record of the life of local industrial laborers. At a factory that produced flour sacks she found the air "so thick with dust and lint from the bags that I could scarcely see." At a shirt factory she found that "all light and air were provided by windows below the level of the sidewalk. The girls crowded close to the windows to get enough light for their work." Wages in these shops ranged from $2 to $6 a week, and a new worker could expect anywhere from a week to three months without pay while she learned the machines. Meanwhile, the "better class of boarding house," reports Gay, charged $5 to $7 a week.

At the turn of the century in Minnesota and across the country, child-labor laws were minimal, and lightly enforced. Most factories in Minneapolis and St. Paul employed at least a handful of children under the age of 16, and in some factories children comprised up to 20 percent of the work force. Like their parents, children worked 12-hour shifts on the machines, though they were paid only a fraction of what an adult earned. By 1902, the Bureau of Labor counted more than 1,000 children at work in Minnesota factories--a number that by their own admission fell far short of reality.

The drive to end child labor leaves us some of the few first-hand accounts of work in American mills. In 1911, Frederic Kenyon Brown published Through the Mill: The Life of a Mill-Boy, which told the story of his time in an Eastern textile factory where he worked from the age of 10. "I just adapted myself to conditions as they were," he wrote. "I had to clean fallers, which, like teeth, chopped down on one's hand, unless great speed and precautions were used. I stuck a hand-brush into swift-turning pulleys, and brushed the cotton off; I dodged past the mules and the iron posts they met, just in time to avoid being crushed."

But parents relied on their children's scanty earnings to augment their own. "The very least that a family... can live upon in anything approaching decency is $700" a year, reported a 1909 Congressional Commission on Industrial Relations. Fully 80 percent of working men earned less than that, the same report noted. In fact, a third of all working-class families lived on less than $500 a year.

AGAINST THIS backdrop, the milling barons assembled their industry at St. Anthony Falls. If there is little evidence that the flour mills employed children in any great numbers it's not due to philanthropic sentiment on the part of the millers, but because the work demanded two kinds of laborers: skilled men who understood the nuances of milling and strong men who could pack, lift, and load flour.

The gradual-reduction machinery that turned wheat into flour at the Washburn Crosby Company filled several stories, and while it was not as intricate as the machines that wove thread into fabric, it demanded constant attention. In the roller system, wheat passed through a dozen cleaning machines before it even touched the rollers. Magnets drew out stray nails and scraps of metal. Machines shook the grain through zinc screens that sifted out larger impurities; smaller screens separated the grain from smaller impurities. Scouring machines beat off the bits of clay stuck to each grain and swirled them away. Fans sucked or blew out the chaff.

Once the wheat was clean, it passed through the first of several rollers and into the middlings purifiers. The middlings eventually become flour; the rolling, purifying process slowly separated the middlings from the bran and dirt particles, collectively called "ash." Tending these machines were the highest-paid men in the mills--second millers, millwrights, and machine tenders all earned between $12 and $36 a week, according to Minnesota Bureau of Labor statistics from 1903-1904. At the bottom of the mill, literally and figuratively, were the packers, who arranged barrels (and later bags) under spouts to catch the flour as it poured off the assembly line, and the nailers who nailed the barrels shut, and who were paid starting wages of $6 a week. Down there with them were "female wage-earners," whose earnings peaked at $10.50, and the sweepers, who earned the same amount.

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