One by one, the flour mills that built the “Mill City” a century ago have ground to a halt, leaving one last plant to carry on Minneapolis’ industrial legacy of making food from kernels of wheat.

Looming across from the 38th Street light-rail station in south Minneapolis, the century-old Atkinson Mill will soon be the only flour mill left in a city that once boasted dozens of them. The last mill alongside the Mississippi River — which powered the industry’s growth — shuttered in 2003, and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is closing one of two plants on Hiawatha Avenue.

“It’s sad that with that kind of history that you see that disappearing,” said Charlie Hatch, Atkinson’s plant operations manager. “But it is nice to be still here and still operating and still providing for the community.

The 24-hour operation produces more than 1 million pounds of flour a day, enough to fill 20 tanker trucks. Its floors are packed with rows of grinding and sifting machines, all transforming wheat kernels into flour for bakeries and food production plants. A tangle of pipes transports wheat up, down and across the facility, passing it through textured rollers — some still protected by wooden covers — and giant gyrating sifter boxes that separate flour from its bran shell. It’s hot, and visitors are greeted by a pleasant barnlike aroma that’s hard to find in the city.

A symbolic tug of war between old and new Minneapolis is playing out just beyond the plant’s sparse brick exterior. On one side of Hiawatha Avenue, freight trains arrive with wheat from across the Upper Midwest. On the other, light-rail trains packed with commuters and shoppers have spurred demand to convert crusty industrial buildings into dense housing.

Yet some of those modern urbanites heading to work on the train rely on Atkinson, even if they don’t realize it.

“We have a lot of local customers,” Hatch said of companies that might turn the flour into bagels, pizza crust or bread. “So I’m sure that a lot of the people sitting across the street probably eat products that originated here.”

With 25 to 30 employees, the Atkinson Mill makes seven times as much flour as when it opened in 1915. While Atkinson will soon be the only industrial mill left in the city, Baker’s Field Flour and Bakery also produces about 1,000 pounds a day at its three-year-old milling operation in northeast Minneapolis. Most of it is used to make the company’s bread.

A consolidation plan

ADM will soon cease operations at Atkinson’s sister facility, the Nokomis Mill, as the company consolidates operations into a massive, state-of-the-art facility under construction in northern Illinois. But Atkinson will get a boost in the process.

“It’s our plan to invest in this facility to make it more efficient,” Hatch said.

The Atkinson Mill was one of about two dozen in the city in 1915 when William Atkinson left the Washburn-Crosby Co. to open his own facility. Flour production was reaching its peak in Minneapolis. The area around St. Anthony Falls was growing increasingly crowded with mills, and Hiawatha Avenue and its important rail links had already been home to grain elevators for decades, according to Bob Frame, who is writing a book about the history of milling in Minnesota.

Minneapolis was the flour-milling capital of the country at the time. In his research, Frame found that railroad pricing changes, tariffs, shifting wheat production and the diminishing advantage of water power boosted the industry in Buffalo, N.Y. — which took away Minneapolis’ title in 1930.

ADM traces its roots to linseed-oil businesses founded in Minneapolis at the turn of the century. It was still based in Minneapolis when the firm scooped up the family-owned Atkinson Milling Co. in 1962. It has since moved its headquarters to Chicago, and become one of the country’s largest corporations.

Still, the number of flour mills has been declining, said Josh Sosland, editor of Milling & Baking News in Kansas City, Mo.

“The mills have become fewer and they’ve become larger. And that’s been a steady trend for over 100 years,” Sosland said.

Sosland said it grew more economical to locate mills closer to large population centers, rather than major wheat production hubs like Minneapolis and Kansas City. There is no equivalent “Mill City” today, though Sosland highlighted Dallas as one of the country’s modern milling centers.

Some of the flour mills left in Minnesota are still an important source of flour milled from spring wheat, Sosland said. Apart from Atkinson, the remaining mills are located in Hastings, Lake City, Mankato, New Prague, Rush City and Winona.

Though flour milling commonly refers to milling wheat, General Mills also produces oat flour at a facility near Broadway and Central avenues in northeast Minneapolis. Spokesman Mike Siemienas said the operation is winding down in the coming months and will move to the company’s oat sorting and milling plant in Fridley, which processes oats for Cheerios.

Development opportunity

The closure of the Nokomis Mill means the approximately 20 people who work there can apply for other jobs at ADM or be offered severance packages, said Jackie Anderson, an ADM spokeswoman.

It also opens up a spot for development on the southwestern corner of 35th Street and Hiawatha Avenue, alongside the light rail Blue Line. The city’s 2040 plan envisions the tracks behind the mills becoming parks and open space, stemming from bike advocates’ hopes of replacing them with the “Min Hi Line”greenway.

City Council Member Andrew Johnson said the city has conflicting goals for the corridor between adding dense housing and jobs, vs. preserving the remaining industrial land.

“There’s been interest before in housing there,” Johnson said of the Nokomis Mill area. “At the same time there’s businesses looking for industrial land in the city… I could really see it going either way.”