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

The detectives were as good as their word. By 1921 the union was in tatters, its leader hounded out of the organization, and one of the operatives had taken his place as the president of Local 92. Rather than close down shop altogether, the agent suggested "we could maintain a half-hearted union which would do no harm whatever to your industry." Loring, Pillsbury, and Crosby wrote back in the affirmative.

The windows from the mill are gone,
Gray moss has clad its sides of stone,
The old mill-wheel is overthrown,
The buhr has ceased its roll.
The stout-braced bins are burst and fell,
the long-ribbed reel a ruined shell,
The miller said his long farewell,
God bless his dear old soul.

"Desolation," 1892, from the trade journal Milling

IN TIME ROLLER mills, and for that matter the whole of urban industry around the Falls, succumbed as surely as the old grist mill and its abandoned pond. As Edgar tells it, the mills of St. Anthony Falls at the turn of the century "made a solid and imposing appearance, and impressed the visitor with a sense of industrial importance and productiveness; of power, strength and permanence." But steam and then electricity rendered the giant water turbines obsolete. The work force started moving into Minneapolis's ever unfolding landscape of suburbia, and the factories followed. And with that, Minneapolis began to reinvent itself.

Between 1960 and 1965, one-third of the city's downtown was razed, mostly in the Gateway district, which was home to about 3,000 laboring men and skid-row characters. Downtown, once the industrial heart of the entire region, began its slow metamorphosis into an enormous retail mall. In 1965, General Mills, which had bought the Washburn Crosby Company, closed down the milling complex on the river, leaving the Pillsbury mills on the east bank standing alone.

Several devastating fires, added to 30 years of neglect and erosion, have transformed the industrial works into a ragged ruin of monumental proportion, overflowing with rusted metal and splintered timbers. The buildings are a symphony of texture: the brick backdrop of the smaller mills that still stand set off the rough limestone rubble of the ruined mill. The soaring, smooth concrete bins of the grain and feed elevators to the southeast are balanced on the north by an 11-story utility building. Together they frame the A mill ruin and its architecture of decay: window frames seem hung independent of mortar, stairways rise to nowhere. A sink has grown saplings. Floors have sprouted carpets of moss. Pigeons wheel in and out of the ruin.

For centuries, writes Rose Macaulay in The Pleasure of Ruins, people have "meditated before ruins, rhapsodized before them, mourned pleasurably over their ruination.... [I]t is interesting to speculate on the various strands in this complex enjoyment, on how much of it is admiration for the ruin as it was in its prime, how much aesthetic pleasure in its present appearance, how much is association, historical or literary, what part is played by morbid pleasure in decay, by righteous pleasure in retribution (for so often it is the proud and the bad who have fallen), by mystical pleasure in the destruction of all things mortal and the eternity of God, by egotistic satisfaction in surviving, by masochistic joy in a common destruction, and by a dozen other entwined threads of pleasurable and melancholy emotion."

A great deal of this romance will be lost when the ruined mill is stabilized and tidied up for mass consumption. In the CRM: Bulletin, a newsletter for practical historians, Bruce Fry decries the sort of undertakings planned for Mill Ruins Park. Stabilized ruins, he writes, "more often than not are affronts to both aesthetics and authenticity: What remains of the original is barely discernible." This fact isn't lost on David Wiggins, who runs tours of the district as program manager for the Minnesota Historical Society's St. Anthony branch. But as a historian, he's happy to take any sort of preservation, condos and all, over the usual Minneapolis wrecking ball. "Ruins have meaning," he believes, "but they don't have value." Not the kind of dollar value, anyway, that a modern city looks for in its development deals.

An obscure memorial to the men of the mills is set in stone above the rotten doors of the old Washburn A ruin. The inscription to the memory of 14 men who died in the great mill explosion reads: "Labor, wide as the earth, has its summit in Heaven." Be that as it may, the most public legacy of the mills lies in the places around town that bear the names of Minneapolis's flour barons: Loring Park, Peavey Plaza, Lowry Hill, Pillsbury Avenue, Dunwoody Institute, and WCCO. In death as in life, those who actually labored in the mills must settle for less--abandoned gravel fields, acres of parking lots, crumbling ruins, and a few faint lines of tribute.

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