In 1823, Fort Snelling built the first flour mill at the falls. Thirty years later, the first commercial mill opened. By 1876, eighteen flour mills were operating on the west side alone and towering amongst them was the monstrous Washburn A Mill, which exploded and killed eighteen men in 1878. Although tragic, the Washburn A explosion did not discourage flour milling at the falls, and in 1880, total production from the mills at the falls made Minneapolis the largest flour producer in the nation, a position it held for fifty years.
|1. The Beginning of Flour Milling|
|2.How Flour Mills Work|
|3.The Washburn A Explosion|
|4. Flour Capital of the Nation|
|5. Marketing the Product|
|6. Bonanza Farms and the Grain Lobby|
|7. The Decline of Flour Milling at the Falls|
In 1823, Fort Snelling built the first flour mill at the falls. Soldiers operated a small grist mill which ground grain into flour along the west side of the falls until the early 1850s. At first, flour from the mill produced black bad-tasting bread, which sent the Fort’s soldiers into a near mutiny. The fort soon fixed the problem.
Richard Rogers built the first commercial grist mill in 1852 on the east side of the falls. Both the Fort mill and Rogers’ mill were small, and when a farmer brought thirty-two bushels of grain to the falls in 1853, newspapers proclaimed it “the largest amount of grist ever ground at the falls.” A bushel is roughly sixty pounds and produces enough flour to make one hundred loaves of bread. Both these grist mills were custom mills, and farmers would bring the grain to the mill to have it made into flour. The people running the mill would charge them for the grinding but did not buy the wheat from the farmers.
John Eastman built the first commercial flour mill on Hennepin Island in 1854. As opposed to custom mills, the commercial mills bought wheat from farmers to grind and market. The “Island” mill broke the old record of grinding thirty two bushels by grinding one hundred and sixty bushels.
While sawmilling dominated the falls, flour milling made substantial strides. Just six years after the Hennepin Island mill opened, eight mills operated along the falls producing thirty thousand barrels. Nine years later, fifteen mills were producing over two hundred and fifty thousand barrels of flour. Since a barrel consists of about five bushels, the mills produced about one million, two hundred and fifty thousand bushels in a year. 
Before steam power, the mills at St. Anthony Falls depended on water power. In 1857, the Minneapolis Mill Company built a large underground canal with a network of tunnels called headraces on the west side of the falls. From the canal, water would flow into these tunnels. The water travelled down the headrace, eventually falling into a wheel pit. The wheel pit was a sudden drop with a waterwheel in it, which the water turned. The deeper the wheel pit, the more power the water produced. The water then flowed through another tunnel called a tailrace and back into the river.
In the case of the flour mill, the water wheel transferred power to move huge millstones against one another, grinding the grain trapped between them into flour. During its early years, many considered Minneapolis flour inferior to flour produced elsewhere because the mills used spring wheat instead of winter wheat. Farmers plant spring wheat in the spring and harvest it in the fall, far better suited to Minnesota’s weather cycle than winter wheat which is planted in fall and harvested in spring. However, grinding spring wheat produces a discolored and easily spoiled type of flour while grinding winter wheat produces a fine white flour.
Nevertheless, spring wheat soon became the most desired wheat in the country when, in the 1870s, millers developed new techniques to grind flour. They switched out their old millstones, which only ground the wheat once, for porcelain or iron roller mills which could grind wheat multiple times. This allowed the smaller kernels of spring wheat to become fully ground. Next they developed a process to get rid of middlings, a nutritious layer of wheat right below the husk that yielded a low-grade, bran-speckled flour when ground. Using a “middlings purifier,” millers removed the middlings by blasting them with air, producing a high quality white flour. As a result of these innovations, a barrel of Minneapolis flour could produce about twelve percent more bread than a barrel of the best winter wheat flour. Minneapolis flour soon became the most desired flour in the county.
Photograph of iron rollers in the Pillsbury A Mill. Unlike millstones, these rollers could grind grain multiple times. From the Minnesota Historical Society. (Photographer: George Miles Ryan Studio)
By 1876, eighteen flour mills were operating on the west side. Towering amongst them was the monstrous Washburn A Mill, named after its owner Cadwallader C. Washburn. Washburn owned not only a portion of the flour milling company Washburn-Crosby, but also a portion of the Minneapolis Mill Company which controlled waterpower to the falls. The Washburn A Mill stood seven and a half stories high with waterwheels located forty five feet below street level. Built in 1874, it would only stand for four years before disaster struck the falls.
While improving the quality of spring wheat, the middlings purifier also produced large quantities of very fine flour dust. If lit, flour will burn. Consequently, flour dust, because of its high surface area, is so flammable that a spark can cause an explosion.
On May 2, 1878, tragedy visited the falls when the Washburn A mill exploded and killed 18 men. This explosion was so powerful that it blew the roof hundreds of feet into the air, toppled other mills, and shot stones into a house eight blocks away. People from St. Paul rushed to Minneapolis, convinced an earthquake had struck the city. Fire raged along the river’s shore, destroying a third of the falls’ industry. A month later, the remains of the Washburn A Mill still smoldered.
Although tragic, the Washburn A explosion did not discourage flour milling at the falls. Millers simply installed machines that produced less dust. Washburn-Crosby rebuilt the Washburn A mill and the other millers rebuilt their mills. By the end of 1878, 17 mills lined the west bank of the falls, with five more built by 1880.
The early 1880s also saw a revitalization of the flour industry on the east side. The Hennepin Island Mill, the first commercial mill at the falls, had burned down in 1872. Since then, other millers had struggled in establishing mills on the east side. In 1876, they built the Phoenix mill, where an older flour mill had burned down in 1871. Far more impressive was The Pillsbury A Mill, built in 1881, one of the largest mills to grace the falls and later proclaimed the largest flour mill in the world.
Ruins of the Washburn A Mill after the explosion. From the Minnesota Historical Society. (Photographer: William H. Jacoby, 1878)
By 1880, twenty five mills operated at the falls. Out of all of them, C.A. Pillsbury and Company owned five and Washburn, Crosby and Company owned three. Together, these two companies produced half of the flour in Minneapolis. In that year, total production from the mills at the falls was 2,051,840 barrels, making Minneapolis the largest flour producer in the nation, a position it would hold for fifty years.
Production over the next decade tripled to over six million barrels, mostly due to more efficient water conservation techniques. Mills used new and innovative techniques to increase their yield, like supplementing their waterpower with steam power to ensure production during periods of low water. The mills also benefited from six reservoirs built by the Army Corps of Engineers along the Mississippi above the falls. By opening and closing these reservoirs, the Corps could not only prevent flooding when snow melted, but could also even out the flow of the river, allowing river navigation during the summer and other dry periods. The steady flow created by the reservoirs also improved the reliability of water power at the falls. However, the reservoirs flooded many Ojibwe settlements along the river, displacing famalies and endangering the wild rice the Ojibwe harvested.
Flour production grew higher and higher throughout the 1890s, 1900s, and the early 1910s. In 1908, mills produced over thirteen million barrels, and in 1916, they produced over eighteen million. At the same time, millers began to turn away from waterpower to hydroelectric and steam power.
When, James Stroud Bell became a managing member of Washburn-Crosby in 1888, the company marketed their product under several different names. Recognizing that successfully branding their product would build consumer demand and loyalty, Bell created the “Gold Medal” label, in recognition of a prize won by Washburn-Crosby flour at an international contest in 1880. The Pillsbury Company also began to market its product under “Pillsbury’s Best.”
In 1928, Bell’s son, James Ford Bell oversaw the incorporation of General Mills, a consolidation of Washburn-Crosby with numerous other mills throughout the country to eliminate wasteful overlaps in mills and grain storage. To market its products, General Mills developed the local Minnesota WCCO radio station to increase its advertising and created the character of Betty Crocker as a response to letters from housewives seeking baking advice. Pillsbury too engaged in numerous advertising campaigns from radio advertisements by the Pillsbury Dough Boys Orchestra to the Pillsbury Bake-Off, which encouraged cooks to compete with recipes using Pillsbury’s best flour.
An advertisement for the Washburn Mill Comapny ca. 1889. From the Minnesota Historical Society.
The mills received most of their wheat from farmers in western Minnesota and the Dakotas. Many farms consolidated under massive operations known as bonanza farms, which stretched for thousands of acres. As milling industries developed, smaller independent farmers were at the mercy of managers of grain elevators. Grain elevators have an elevator that scoops up grain and deposits it in a silo. Their managers often graded the wheat so low that farmers could not recover the year’s expenses. Bonanza farmers could challenge the grain elevators; smaller farms could not.
Bonanza farm near Morrhead Minnesota. From Minnesota Historical Society. (Photographer: Frank Jay Haynes, 1878)
The mills played a direct role in this by creating the Minneapolis Millers Association in 1876. The association sent agents into the countryside, oversaw grading and pricing and distributed the wheat amongst the mills. In 1878, anger over the association led Ignatious Donnely to challenge William Washburn, C. C.Washburn’s brother and milling partner, for U.S. Senate. While he lost the election, farmers eventually formed the Equity Cooperative Exchange, which gave rise to a farmer’s cooperative movement that spread through the country. This equity established the first farmer’s terminal elevator in St. Paul.
While Minneapolis mills had reached their highest yearly output, 1916 marked the beginning of the end of the flour industry. Much of the Minneapolis milling industry was doomed when Congress established the “milling-in-bond privilege” in 1897. This allowed milling companies to import wheat from Canada duty free as long as they exported it when they had processed the wheat. If the mills paid the duty and sold the wheat here, they could receive rebates from the government. While the millers in Minneapolis experimented with this, their competitors in Buffalo, New York, near the Canadian border, were better situated to take advantage of it. This factor, combined with changes in distribution and consumption patterns, freight rail structures, and the quality and quantity of spring wheat, led to falling production rates. In 1930, Minneapolis produced a little less than eleven million barrels of flour. In the same year, Buffalo, New York produced a little more than eleven million barrels a year and to become the nation’s new flour capital.
Pillsbury A Mill complex. On far left is the Pillsbury A Mill.
Mills continued to operate at the falls until 2003. Even as late as 1960, Minneapolis was still producing nearly five and a half million barrels. However, five years later, the Washburn A Mill closed. It had been the last mill operating on the west side of the falls. In 2001, General Mills acquired its formal rival, Pillsbury Foods. In 2003, the Pillsbury A Mill ceased its operation, the last milling operation on the east side. For nearly two centuries, mills had operated on the falls. Now the machinery had fallen silent.
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1. David L. Rosenheim, The Other Minneapolis or a History of the Minneapolis Skid Row (Maquoketa, Iowa: The Andromeda Press, 1978), p. 6
2. Lucile M. Kane, The Falls of St. Anthony: The Waterfall that Built Minneapolis (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987), p. 9, 27
3. Kane, The Falls, p. 27-28
4. Kane, The Falls, p. 59
5. Shannon M. Pennefeather, Mill City: A Visual History of the Minneapolis Mill District (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003), p. 68
6. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 92
7. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 94
8. Kane, The Falls, p. 101-102
9. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 100
10. Kane, The Falls, p. 102-103
11. Kane, The Falls, p. 103
12. Kane, The Falls, p. 104
13. Kane, The Falls, p. 99, 105
14. Kane, The Falls, p. 115, 119, 128-133
15. Jean L. Carroll, “Dams and Damages: The Ojibway, the United States, and the Mississippi Headwaters Reservoirs”, Minnesota History 52 (Spring 1990) p. 10
16. John O. Anfinson, River of History: A Historic Resources Study of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (St. Paul: Army Corps of Engineers, 2003), p. 133
17. David B. Danbom, “Flour Power: The Significance of Flour Milling at the Falls”, Minnesota History 58/5 & 6 (Spring/Summer 2003), p.278
18. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 124-125
19. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 98
20. Anfinson, River, p. 82-83, 132
21. Kane, The Falls, p. 172-173
22. Kane, The Falls, p. 173
23. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 128
24. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 124