Going to Minneapolis for the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association? Readers of this blog will probably want to explore the diverse foods available around the Twin Cities, maybe check out the markets, or seek out some craft beer. If you have time, however, I suggest you visit the Mill City Museum, located on the site of what was once the largest flour mill in the world. It is a fascinating museum, an architectural marvel, and located next to what was once the only natural waterfall on the Mississippi. And it may give you some insights into our food system’s biggest players.
The Twin Cities have a reputation for being home to hipsters, a diverse array of immigrants, progressive politics, and Garrison Keillor. There is, however, a pantheon of American food deities based in Minnesota. The Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy, Betty Crocker, the Trix Rabbit, Count Chocula, Lucky the Leprechaun, and many of the other characters that inhabit your grocery store shelves or home pantry were born in Minnesota. As the historic home of General Mills, Pillsbury, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Hormel, Land O’Lakes, Schwan Foods, and many other food-related corporations, Minnesota might just be the Mount Olympus of American industrial food.
I grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, more or less unaware of any of this. I think I imagined that the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant was somewhere in rural Minnesota, possibly near my grandparent’s home in Austin, not far from the Iowa border. Austin is where Hormel is based and where they make Spam. But the food industry was actually right in front of me nearly every day in Bloomington and I never noticed it. I grew up on Washburn Avenue South and attended Washburn Elementary School. I never gave any thought to the name “Washburn.” The streets in Minneapolis and its suburbs are arranged in a series of convenient alphabets. Washburn is between Vincent and Xerxes, which seemed like an explanation all by itself. After all, Xerxes is not, as far as I know, a figure in Minnesota history, so why raise questions about Washburn?
It turns out that the street is named after Cadwallader Colden Washburn. Washburn was one of those nineteenth century guys with an amazingly varied career. Originally from Maine, he was involved in a wide range of businesses in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. He was elected to Congress from Wisconsin in the 1850s, was an active abolitionist, and served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was eventually elected governor of Wisconsin. For our purposes, perhaps the most important thing he did was build some of the biggest flour mills in the world. Those mills contributed to making Minneapolis into one of the world centers for flour milling from the late nineteenth century until the 1920s. Whence the name “Mill City.” Washburn’s company eventually became General Mills.
The museum is located inside the ruins of the Washburn “A” Mill, built in 1874. In 1878 flour dust triggered an explosion that destroyed the mill, along with several other mills along the Mississippi, killing at least 18 workers. It seems that flour dust can be quite explosive. In rebuilding the mill, Washburn worked with an Austrian engineer, William de la Barre, to develop a system for controlling the dust and making the mills safer. You can learn about this whole process at the museum – they even stage demonstrations of flour dust explosions in the museum, for those who like pyrotechnics with their museum experience.
The mill closed in 1965 and, after sitting derelict for decades, nearly burned down in 1991. Built inside the ruins of the mill, the museum is a great example of what can be done with abandoned industrial sites. The museum exhibits detail the history of making flour in the Twin Cities and should provide you with some insights into how Minnesota became a center for industrial food. And if you have had enough industrial food history, there is a farmer’s market nearby.