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

Search among the corporate biographies, company records, and historical documents of the period, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a single firsthand account of life in the Minneapolis flour mills. But the turn-of-the-century rollers of the Washburn Crosby mills churned out flour until the 1960s when the mill shut down, and the last of the millers who worked on the old machines are now in their 70s and 80s and many are happy to tell tales of the work.

Flour was everywhere, always. "There used to be choke-ups," remembers Harold Peterson, who started out in the Washburn mill as a sweeper in the 1940s, "when something went wrong, say the flour got sticky--could be the weather's a little different--and it plugged up on one of the spouts. Then it would back up, and the covers would pop off the conveyor belts." The flour would spill out into the mill until the choke-up was fixed.

"I can remember coming on the midnight shift--couldn't sleep all day; no air conditioning--and you'd walk into that C mill basement and the heat was like an oven. You wonder how you ever made it through the night there. And then the flour would get on your hands, and you'd sweat, and it'd get all caked up. It would pull the hairs off your hands."

Dust had always been at least a nuisance where wheat was ground, but in the great mills it became for the first time a hazard. In the early days of industrial flour milling, dust from the machines was pumped into a "settling chamber," a room which became an abiding powder keg. The Washburn A explosion, while unprecedented, didn't necessarily come as a surprise; that flour dust is flammable to the point of explosive force was no secret to millers.

Aside from the dust, the principal hazard for workers in the mills was the belts that wound from the water turbines below the mill through every floor to every machine. Along with flour and lumber, artificial human limbs became a homegrown industry with half a dozen local manufacturers of prosthetic legs and arms competing for the millers' business. "We can furnish a hand," boasted one catalog, "which can be removed instantly and replaced with a double hook."

When I met with a group of retired millers not long ago, they all remembered the particular dangers that attended mill work. "How come nobody ever got killed on the man lift?" one of them wondered. The man lift was a belt-driven open elevator, a vertical tow-rope, that brought the millers to the top of the grain elevator bins.

"Harry Mattson got killed on one," recalled one man.

"Wasn't that the belt on the sifter?" asked another.

"No. On the man lift. Remember that?"

"One guy went over the top, they told me, before I got there and he left a little meat all the way down on the concrete."

"I went over the top once."

"There was a safety shut-off on top, though."

"Boy, the way them young guys used to do that, they'd come down the hall and they'd hit the rail with one foot and up on that man lift."

"Yah, I did a lot of that too."

"We took chances. We all did that."

THE HARDSHIP of life in the mills made it easier for unions to gain a footing there. Labor won some limited concessions, but the men who owned the mills knew how to play skilled workers against unskilled. The former, relatively well-paid, were less likely to strike, and the first to go back to work during a strike. In 1894 the unskilled packers and nailers struck for an eight-hour day. "Within a few days," writes Edgar in The Medal of Gold, "hundreds of men were applying for work at the Washburn mills, eager to get the wages which, at this time, were regarded as good. These were inexperienced but the new crews soon became skillful enough to do the work acceptably."

In 1903, contention over an eight-hour day flared up again, and this time the workers were better organized. The International Union of Flour and Cereal Mill Employees represented both skilled and unskilled workers at the mills; still, the divisions between the two groups undermined the strike.

In later years, the milling barons adopted another strategy for dealing with labor unions. In 1920, John Crosby, the Pillsbury heir, and Albert Loring agreed to hire agents from a private-detective agency in Kansas City to infiltrate the unions. "We make a specialty of Strike Breaking," reads a letter from the firm on file at the Minnesota Historical Society, "and within the last year have broken all the strikes that occurred in Kansas and Missouri." Over the next two years, the private dicks fed names of union activists to Loring and Crosby so they could fire them from the mills. During a time when the International Union of Flour and Cereal Mill Employees was battling a company union and agitating for better working conditions, agents working for Loring, Pillsbury, and Crosby spread anti-union propaganda. According to the agents' letters, they numbered among their allies "the boys at the Northwestern Miller" and the U. S. Department of Justice in St. Paul, where an agent "promised to give... all the help his office could give," according to one letter. "The Department of Justice here says that this is the worst spot in the U.S. and they will give me all the help they can to stop this I.W.W. movement."

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