At the foot of Portland Avenue, on the banks of the Mississippi, a massive crane sketches the contours of the latest riverfront development as it hoists steel I-beams into place on the wreck of the old Washburn Crosby A mill. For 30 years the abandoned A mill and a handful of empty buildings around it have been home to squatters and pigeons, ravaged by relentless freeze-thaw cycles and fires.
All that is about to change. As evidenced by the construction crane, the city of Minneapolis is embarking on a multimillion dollar historic preservation journey billed in a brochure designed to lure private investors as "A New Kind of Community Built on the Power of the Past." This community will contain shops and condos, but its centerpiece will be the Mill Ruins Park--a memorial to Minneapolis's industrial past, and one of the largest ruin preservation efforts in the country. The park, set near St. Anthony Falls, will be a step forward for a city that likes to bury its history under parking lots. But amid the high-end condos and froufrou boutiques that will make up this nascent upscale district, it remains to be seen whose story gets told at Mill Ruins Park.
Construction began, coincidentally, just days before the anniversary of the Minneapolis Mill Disaster. On May 2, 1878, a spark ignited a flour-dust explosion in the main building of the Washburn Crosby milling complex. The blast in the A mill leveled half the city's industrial district and shattered plate-glass windows as far away as St. Paul's Summit Avenue, causing damages of more than $1 million in 1878 dollars. Eighteen men burned to death in an instant.
"The roof of the Washburn A mill rose hundreds of feet into the air, followed instantly by a sheet of flame," reported William C. Edgar, editor of the trade journal the Northwestern Miller and author of The Medal of Gold, a corporate biography of the Washburn Crosby Company. "Other explosions occurred in quick succession. The ground shook and rocked. Then came the crash of falling stones and timbers and the terrible roar of the spreading flames. In the moments after the first alarm it seemed the entire west side milling district was doomed to total destruction."
One eyewitness reported a hurricane of roofing shingles blown at gale force from the district. "A short while after the rain of shingles came a deluge of firebrands. Although our end of town was a mile from the explosion, it was in the path of the wind. The sky was filled with flying brands and sparks. This continued until darkness fell. For fully three hours, burning material swept over our section of town."
The scale of this industrial accident would have been unthinkable a few decades earlier; the pace of industrial growth around St. Anthony Falls was mind-boggling. The first commercial flour mill was built there in 1853. Twenty years later, the Washburn A mill, one of the largest flour mills in the world when it exploded, shared water power with a dozen flour, lumber, and textile mills. By the turn of the century, Minneapolis was the setting for the biggest conglomeration of industrial works this side of the rust belt.
You'd never guess it from wandering through the glass and steel streetscape of Minneapolis, 1997, but at the turn of the century this city, like Pittsburgh, New York, and Detroit, was an important staging ground of the Industrial Revolution. The shape of modern labor and commerce first took form in the muddy shadows of the milling district at St. Anthony Falls. It is a history largely forgotten today, especially when it comes to the lives and deaths of the men and women who worked in the mills.
ON ANY GIVEN day you'll find dozens of joggers in Spandex puffing along the trails by the Mississippi River where it snakes through downtown Minneapolis. A few of the old factories and mills along the river still stand, converted and remodeled: the Whitney Hotel and the Ceresota office complex on the west side, the architectural muddle of St. Anthony Main and Riverplace on the east, the Nicollet Island Inn between the two. But most of the old industrial district lies beneath the black-top sea of parking lots northeast of Washington Avenue and the jogging paths along the river.
A century ago, the scene couldn't have been more different. "Looking out of the car window," Edgar wrote of his arrival by train in 1882, "I found we were in the very heart of the milling district, with huge gray stone buildings towering above us. It was a lovely, calm, summer morning, with a cloudless sky overhead. As the mills were then operated almost exclusively by water power, there was no smoke nor grime to be seen, the splendid, substantial plants looked clean and new, and there was a feeling of exhilaration, an indescribable impulse toward enthusiastic effort, in the atmosphere of the district which appealed strongly to my imagination."
Perhaps his reminiscence was colored by the time when he was recalling the scene, some 40 years later. In any case, there's little evidence to support Edgar's pastoral nostalgia. Water powered the mills, true, but it could be a fickle source of power. During the summer months when water levels dropped, and in winter when ice occasionally locked the head-races, smoky coal-fired steam engines ran the works. The railroad engines belched soot as they crisscrossed a dozen spurs loaded with flour and wheat.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.
- A terrible Minneapolis park deal just got $2 million worse
Sat., Sep. 19, 12:00am
Sat., Sep. 19, 7:00pm
Sun., Sep. 20, 12:00pm
Sat., Sep. 26, 2:30pm
- Why you should never run over a kid while flying a confederate flag
- Minnesota has eighth most expensive cigarettes