Behind the Victory Flagpole – Milling around

Between 1880 and 1830 Minneapolis produced more flour and flour-based products than any other place on earth. Even after the lumber business petered out, the flour millers prevailed surviving wars, depression, labor unrest, fires, explosions and other calamities– both distant and on the premises.

Two of the most successful milling companies were Pillsbury and Washburn­-Crosby (later General Mills, which remained competitive until their merger in 2001.) It all started in 1859 when David Morgan bought Rufus Farnham’s shingle mill and made it into one of the first flour and grist mills. In 1872, Oswald and Bergenheimer bought it from David Morgan and was known as “Oswald’s Flour Mill.” From there it was sold to one of Camden’s most well-known citizens, a man who was born in Germany in 1856 and emigrated from there in 1883. This was Gustav Adolph Haertel, who married his wife, Helena Wachel, in 1886 after she arrived from Germany. After their mill burned down in 1890, Gustav decided to give up on flour mills and run a flour and feed store instead, which was in Camden.

These were some of the first attempts at running flour mills. Another early mill was called Washburn “A” Mill. It came to an early demise in 1878 by a flour dust explosion, which seemed to be a frequent happening. The explosion killed 18 workers and destroyed the Washburn “A” Mill and surrounding businesses on the Minneapolis waterfront. Fires and explosions were hazards during much of the heyday of the city’s milling industry. Until its destruction by the flour dust explosion, the massive stone-walled Washburn “A” Mill was the largest and most technically advanced facility of its kind in the world. Later, Washburn-Crosby mills on the site were even bigger and more advanced, as well as safer. The last functioning “A” Mill produced flour until General Mills shut it down in 1965. A fire, presumably set by transients, destroyed the empty building in 1991; the remains are now part of the Mill City museum.

In 1880 the Minneapolis riverfront boasted 25 flour mills, eight of them owned by Washburn-Crosby and Pillsbury, the city’s dominant millers, between them accounting for more than half of the local flour production. The milling industry generated enormous capital and spun off countless other industries, from barrel and butter-tub manufacturing to brewing and, yes, even brothels. All the major industries were pressed into a few “blocks” on or near the river. Stone flour mills towered in close ranks over the waterfall. Wagons and railroad cars rumbled through the area, and thousands of workers found employment.

Because of the hydro power of St. Anthony Falls, Yankee entrepreneurs created the lumber- and flour-making colossus that was Minneapolis in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but tens of thousands of workers, drawn by jobs, provided the grit and muscle for the mills. Work was difficult and dangerous, but paying as much as $2 a day in 1880, it was one of the best opportunities in town.

Where did these workers live? Not on the high lands, but on the lowlands below the bluffs. Thousands of people from northern and central Europe, namely Germany and Ireland, and also from Mexico, created sprawling communities that date back to the 1850s because the land was cheap. However, it was vulnerable to the whims of the river–especially the snowmelt in the spring. One such place was Bohemian Flats, below the Washington Avenue Bridge, where the men worked in the nearby mills and related businesses while the women provided domestic help in the larger houses on the “hill.” When the river rose, everybody, including the children, did their best to carry on. And so it went–the mill workers kept the mills a goin’ and the Ole Man River just kept a rollin’