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Minneapolis has been the flour milling capital of the world for almost a century. But this industrial achievement, which lasted 50 years, remains a major pride of the “Mill City”.
High school student Nick Zylstra discovered the prowess of the city’s flour mill in his Minnesota Studies class in sixth grade. But he asked himself: what happened? He sought answers as to why the flour boom didn’t last with Curious Minnesota, the reporting project fed by Star Tribune readers.
The basic answer is that in 1930, transportation, tariffs, and other factors made it more profitable to mill and ship flour to other cities – especially Buffalo, NY. Pillsbury, continued to prosper by investing in factories elsewhere.
“All the things that were [Minneapolis’] the benefits slowly eroded over time, ”said David Stevens, site director for the Mill City Museum, which is owned by the Minnesota Historical Society.
Become the city of mills
Before the spread of electricity, Minneapolis became an industrial hub because factories operated their machines using hydraulic energy from the natural elevation drop of the Mississippi River at St. Anthony Falls. As early as the 1840s, sawmills took advantage of this power to process tree trunks that had been floated into the river from the forests of northern Minnesota.
The flour mill, however, posed challenges.
Hard-spring wheat grown in Minnesota has a tough exterior that shatters when milled using traditional methods, Stevens said. The resulting flour was speckled brown and spoiled quickly, due to the oil in the germ. So, millers in southern Minnesota began to experiment with a more gradual reduction process to extract the bran and germ, he said, leaving only the white endosperm.
“Once they figured out how to do this, durum spring wheat flour really was the best bread flour in the world,” Stevens said. These methods were eventually adopted by the millers on the Minneapolis riverside, resulting in what he calls a “democratization” of white flour – once considered a delicacy enjoyed by European aristocrats.
“Not everyone could afford it,” Stevens said. “It was a combination of cheap energy and this new technological revolution that made it available for a mass market.”
Expansion into European markets around 1880 made Minneapolis the world’s leading flour mill, he said.
It was boom time for Minneapolis. The town’s population nearly quadrupled in the decade following 1880. Washburn Crosby Co. – now General Mills – and Pillsbury Co. opened what were then the largest flour mills in the world in 1880 and 1881, respectively, located by the river. (One is now the Mill City Museum and the other contains apartments.)
Minneapolis flour production increased from 7 million barrels in 1891 to over 20 million barrels at its peak during World War I in 1916, according to a 1929 History of the American Flour Mill by Charles Kuhlmann. Just one of these barrels was equivalent to 196 pounds of flour.
“Take away from this city its greatest prestige”
There is no simple explanation why Minneapolis lost its title as a flour mill. The decline was the result of several factors, as noted in a summary compiled by the Mill City Museum.
First, it just became more expensive to ship flour from Minneapolis compared to other cities. Kuhlmann’s story explains that “special favors from the railroads” helped the Minneapolis millers develop their empire. The Interstate Commerce Commission, which regulated freight rail rates, removed some of these benefits from the early 1900s.
Minneapolis had benefited from lower rail fares because of the competing Mississippi River trade route, for example. But the board removed that in 1922. The millers also had only paid once for an inbound shipment of wheat and an outbound shipment of flour, but the board eliminated that in 1920, requiring them to pay twice.
When Washburn Crosby announced the construction of a new factory in Buffalo in 1903, the president of the company told the Minneapolis Tribune that freight rail congestion was hampering shipments to eastern markets.
“Of course, Minneapolis is and will remain a dead center in the world’s grind,” James S. Bell told the newspaper.
The city of Buffalo has benefited from its location. Grain shipments from ports like Duluth could reach it via the Great Lakes, and the processed flour could easily be shipped to the East Coast and international markets.
For this reason, Buffalo also benefited more than Minneapolis from an 1897 tariff change that allowed Canadian wheat to be imported, milled and exported duty-free, according to the museum’s summary.
During this time, other varieties of wheat began to compete with Minnesota’s prized spring force wheat in the early 1900s. And the benefits of cheap hydro power were dwindling day by day due to advancements in technology.
“Buffalo is fast becoming the world’s largest milling center, depriving this city of its greatest prestige and the reason is – freight rates,” proclaimed HG Benton, secretary of the Minneapolis Real Estate Board, in 1925, according to the Minneapolis Star.
By 1930, Buffalo was producing more flour than Minneapolis, ending Mill City’s half-century domination of the market. Kansas City also rose to prominence as a grinding center. Pillsbury and Washburn Crosby have invested in factories at or near both locations.
“Buffalo was the main competitor, but no city will again dominate the industry like [Minneapolis] did this from around 1870s to 1915s, “wrote historian Bob Frame, who writes a book on milling in Minneapolis, in an email.” Buffalo didn’t really become ‘Mill City’ like [Minneapolis] was the city of mills. “
An industrial heritage
The grinding by the Minneapolis River eventually died down (with the exception of one factory in Pillsbury which continued to operate until 2003). Loggers ran out of white pine for sawmills around 1910, Stevens said. Many riverside flour mills were demolished in the 1930s, Frame said.
“This left the [Minneapolis] the St. Anthony Falls grinding district is not much different from what it is today, with five grinding structures remaining, ”Frame wrote.
Patrick Ryan, who oversees education and programs at the Buffalo History Museum, said the Buffalonians take great pride in the region’s role in the history of flour milling. Grain elevators still dot the waterfront, he said, some of which have been reused in art installations.
“The large grain and milling structures in the area and what to do with them have been hotly debated in recent years, with most residents pushing for historic monument status,” Ryan wrote in an email. Among these structures, currently the subject of a court battle, is the 1897 Great Northern Elevator, which was owned by Pillsbury Co. for several decades.
The city is also home to a huge General Mills factory that produces Cheerios. “My Town Smells of Cheerios” products are popular in local stores, Ryan said, and even the local visitor’s bureau is promoting the phrase.
Today’s flour milling industry relies on a smaller number of larger factories, Josh Sosland, editor-in-chief of Milling & Baking News in Kansas City, Missouri, told the Star Tribune in 2019. Their location depends more on in addition to the proximity to the main population. centers, he said, relative to the location of an abundant wheat supply.
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