Rising from the Ruins

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August 25, 2003 // UPDATED 11:03 am - April 30, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

From a burned-out hulk, the new Mill City Museum creates human drama, hands-on fun and spectacular river views

There's a whole lot more than flour in the new Mill City Museum, slated to open Sept. 13.

The exterior of the old Washburn "A" Mill, built in 1880, might not readily evoke drama and intrigue, but once inside, the museum tells a different story.

It's a story about the transformation of a city, about people harnessing the St. Anthony Falls to power a flour-milling industry that became the largest in the world, and about the immigrants from Scandinavia, Hungary, and other parts of Europe who toiled in the Mill District around the 704 S. 2nd St. museum.

Said Museum Director Deborah Johnson, "This is not specifically about flour milling. It is not a microscopic story. The stories and the connections are global in their ramifications. People will be very surprised."

Danger hovers from the mill's past. There are tales of an 1878 explosion sparked by the highly combustible flour that rocked windows as far away as St. Paul, and the 1991 fire that left a craggy, gutted exoskeleton that museum designers preserved.

And even though the milling district's heyday was done by 1930, the museum highlights the voices of several former mill veterans who are still alive.

One is Harold Peterson of Eagan, who worked in the mills during the Depression and told historians that he'd been proud to brush the flour dust from his clothes as he boarded the streetcar after a day's work because it meant he had a job.

For Marjorie Zack, 78, of Robbinsdale, mill work became a love story.

Zack, who moved here from western Wisconsin and earned $7 a week packing flour in the 1940s, said "It was an OK job for me. I met my husband."

She packed 5- and 10-pound flour bags, building strong arm muscles in the process. "It was kind of hard at times. There was a lot of lifting," she said.

Joseph Zack asked her out on a date to go bowling. The pair hit it off quickly, got married and have three children.

While the romance was a highlight, Zack's story also sheds light on the era's sexism. When area servicemen returned to Minneapolis after serving in World War II, Zack and other local working women got laid off, ending their time in the mills.

A transformation

The $32-million museum is marked by dramatic architecture and stunning views of the Mississippi River, framed by the mill ruins from the 1991 fire that nearly destroyed the place.

The museum features a rooftop observation deck nine stories high that looks out onto the riverfront. Angular broken glass left in the window wells frame the Stone Arch Bridge and river. The glass shards, along with the limestone walls still standing after the fire, have been fortified to ensure their preservation.

The vantage point also offers a close look at the city's famous Gold Medal Flour sign.

The spectacular viewing area is one of the few along the city's riverfront open to the public, museum spokesperson Jason Schumann said.

Giant steel beams left slightly twisted and bent from the fire mark the ruined mill shell. There are also two pits where water turbines once drew river water that powered the mill.

The courtyard tucked inside the ruins will be used for many purposes, including possibly showing films, Schumann said.

Museum architect Thomas Meyer worked to keep the mill's unique features intact while blending in new features, such as an eight-story glass faade that juts out, looking out on the riverfront. The faade incorporates true-to-scale graphics of the milling machinery used to make the flour.

A city's story

Understanding the mill's history is critical to understanding the city's history, museum staff said. "It's the preeminent story of Minneapolis," Schumann said.

The location of St. Anthony Falls, the river's only naturally occurring waterfall with a 50-foot drop, was key to the milling industry's development.

"If St. Anthony Falls hadn't been located here, there wouldn't have been an incentive to create a community at this site. It was the reason people gravitated here," Johnson said.

New Englanders, Scandinavian immigrants and other European workers were attracted to the mills, she said. Hungarians, in particular, were highly skilled at milling and brought special techniques.

The Washburn "A" Mill was considered the world's most technologically advanced and largest when built in 1880.

Minneapolis milling industry leaders pushed their products globally. Brands such as Pillsbury and General Mills' Betty Crocker became household names and international marketing icons.

The industry is also credited with spurring an enormous population boom in Minneapolis. The city's population was 13,000 in 1870. By 1890 -- a decade into the mills' heyday -- the population had swelled to 165,000.

World War I's end coincided with the decline of the city's milling industry, as federal regulations favored cities closer to sources of Canadian wheat. Buffalo, N.Y., took over as the country's leading wheat producer in 1930.

The Washburn "A" Mill closed in 1965 -- with millers' caps still on the hooks, Schumann said.

The old mill stood vacant, sometimes sheltering homeless people who wandered inside.

After the 1991 fire, the Minneapolis Community Development Agency worked to clean up the mill, and the Minnesota Historical Society soon announced plans to develop a museum.

A more modest site had been planned, but business community interest and other private donors made it possible to create a larger, more dynamic museum, staff members said.

The museum expects to draw about 180,000 visitors its first year, Schumann said.

The museum is scheduled to open Sept. 13. The grand opening will feature a ribbon cutting and bread-baking ceremony.

Additionally, there will be a family pancake feed and a "Bread and Butter Jam," featuring local musical groups.

Hands On

Indoor exhibits in the museum's lower level offer many hands-on activities, including:

  • The Flour Tower -- an eight-story elevator ride that shares tales told by former workers;

  • A water lab showing how hydropower from the St. Anthony Falls fueled the mills;

  • A baking lab where bread and cookies will be baked daily; and

  • A display showing how the 19th-century milling machines worked.

    On the main level, past the gift shop and caf, sits an 1879 James J. Hill rail car. Each day, workers unloaded about 175 carloads of wheat for milling. More than 12 million loaves of bread were made from flour processed at the mill during its peak between 1880 and 1930.

    Dan Spock, the museum's head of exhibits, said officials tried to make displays interactive. Another objective: incorporating a human dimension to a museum largely about an urban industry.

    For instance, on the lower level, there's a giant table showing food prepared on a bonanza farm, a type of wheat farm found in the Upper Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota that supplied the mills.

    The display is based on descriptions from the diary of Mary Dodge Woodward, who ran a bonanza farm and prepared massive meals for the people who tended it. The display has beets, breads and other food items that would have been found on such a farm.

    "She kept such a terrific and detailed diary," Spock said. "She played this key role in keeping the farm going just by feeding everybody. She was in the constant process of preparing huge volumes of food."

    Quick Facts about the history of the Mill City Museum

  • The exterior of the Washburn "A" Mill was built in 1880.

  • The Mill district was made up of people from Scandanavia, Hungary and other parts of Europe.

  • The Mill was considered the world's most technologically advanced and largest in 1880.

  • The industry brought over 150,000 people to the city.

  • There was an explosion in 1878 caused by highly combustible flour.

  • The Washburn "A" Mill closed in 1965.

  • The old mill was empty, but sometimes homeless people found there home their for the night.

  • Fire gutted the exoskeleton of the museum in 1991.

  • Total cost of the museum is $32 million.

  • The museum hopes to draw 180,000 in the first year.

    The Mill City Museum will be open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Hours for the first Thursday of the month will be 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

    Admission is $7 for adults ages 18 to 64, $6 for groups of 10 or more, $5 for visitors over 65 and college students with a valid ID, $4 for students ages 4 to 17, and free for children 3 and younger and for Minnesota Historical Society members.