FLOUR POWER

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 4, 2008 - 7:49 AM

For 150 years, Minnesota has kept the world well-fed. Innovators in our state have changed the way the world eats, cooks, shops and lives.

Minnesota’s front-and-center role in food history might have been a mere footnote if it weren’t for St. Anthony Falls. This 16-foot precipice, the only falls along the Mississippi River’s 2,340 miles, provided the energy in the pre-electricity era to run the mills that spawned General Mills, Pillsbury and a host of other food giants.

The falls were named in 1680 by Father Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan priest who christened them for his patron saint, Anthony of Padua.

The falls’ power was first harnessed in 1823 by soldiers from nearby Fort Snelling, who built a crude grist mill on the river’s West Bank.

The first flour mill appeared on the East Bank in 1854, and as technological improvements revolutionized the milling process over the next few decades, the area around the falls — sacred to Native Americans — became crowded with several dozen mills, all using the river’s  water power via an intricate network of dams and canals to churn out flour on a monumental scale.

The falls were also the site of the nation’s first urban hydroelectric power plant.

At their peak in 1916, the city’s mills were producing 3.6 billion pounds of flour a year, enough to fill the Metrodome 1 ¼ times.

By 1930, the city lost its “Flour Milling Capital of the World” title to Buffalo, N.Y., and the falls’ last water-powered mill was shut down in 1960.

Remnants of the district’s powerful industrial past remain. The Pillsbury A Mill, the world’s largest and most advanced flour-making operation when it opened in 1881, still stands at 301 SE. Main St. At its peak, it produced 3.5 million pounds of flour a day.

The last sack of flour left the building in 2003; plans call for the elegant limestone structure to be converted to condominiums.

Across the water sit the remnants of the 128-year-old Washburn A Mill. It was retired in 1965, heavily damaged by fire in 1991 and is now part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s fascinating Mill City Museum, which tells the story of the city’s flour-milling past.

Unfortunately, today’s falls have none of the natural beauty that inspired 18th-century explorer Jonathan Carver to write, “A more pleasing and picturesque view cannot, I believe, be found throughout the universe.”

Still, the most captivating views of the now-tamed water works are from railroad magnate James J. Hill’s stunning Stone Arch Bridge, the thrilling new Water Power Park, which takes East Bank sightseers right up to the river’s mists, and the open-air platform on the Guthrie Theater’s breathtaking Endless Bridge.

MARQUEE NAMES

The state is home to some of the biggest players in agribusiness as well as some of the supermarket’s most familiar names. Minnetonka-based Cargill, one of the world’s largest companies, has roots that go back to Albert Lea, in 1869.

Cadwallader Washburn’s first flour mill, precursor to what is now Golden Valley-based General Mills, opened at St. Anthony Falls in 1866 (at right, the Washburn flour mills).

Three years later, Charles Pillsbury bought minority interest in a nearby mill, signaling the start of the Pillsbury empire (General Mills acquired the company in 2001 for $10 billion).

Land O’Lakes began as the Minnesota Cooperative Creameries Association in 1921; today it processes 30 million pounds of milk a day. Daniels Linseed Co. opened in Minneapolis in 1902 and 21 years later evolved into Archer Daniels Midland.

Watkins Inc. has been selling its famous vanilla extract and other specialty foods from Winona since 1885.

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