We don’t know why millwright Ernest Grundman stayed late at work nearly 140 years ago. In fact, most of his living descendants didn’t even realize he worked at Minneapolis’ massive Washburn A Mill on May 2, 1878.
“Mr. Grundman was not a member of the night force, but was working after time,” according to one newspaper account. Another Minneapolis Tribune story from that May described Grundman as “the unfortunate member of the day force of hands who remained in the mill to complete a piece of work.”
His decision to hang around after his shift proved deadly. Grundman was among 17 millers and a neighbor killed in a ground-shaking explosion and fast-enveloping fire. The blast leveled the cornerstone of a burgeoning grain milling industry in the early days of Minneapolis — barely a decade after the city’s incorporation. The Washburn Mill was a precursor of General Mills.
Grundman was killed less than six months shy of his 50th birthday, ending a journey that began in the Netherlands and wound its way across the Atlantic. He trekked halfway across the country to Pella, Iowa, and eventually moved up to Minneapolis to work in the city’s signature industry and its prestigious seven-story mill. When he was killed, Grundman left behind his wife, a fellow Dutch immigrant named Lydia, and 11 children.
His family was “quite well provided for,” according to the St. Paul Globe, which said the Grundmans lived at 1211 Harmon Place, a couple blocks northeast of what soon became Loring Park.
“This information leads me to believe that he may have held a position of some importance,” said Kim Johnson, 61, Grundman’s great-great granddaughter from Coon Rapids.
Johnson, a mother of three sons and longtime art teacher for the Anoka-Hennepin School District, stumbled across Grundman while doing some family tree research years ago at the Minneapolis library. Ernest’s tragic demise wasn’t a story passed down through the generations.
“Even my father was not aware of this bit of history until I uncovered it,” she said. “It just seems strange that, with so many surviving children, his memory might have kept them connected. But, as far as I know, they all just went their own ways.”
Johnson’s branch of the family settled in St. Cloud and their immigrant ancestor’s workplace death soon slipped through the cracks of family history.
Records show that Ernest Henrik Grundman immigrated to America at 21, became a naturalized citizen six years later in 1855, worked as a carpenter and moved to Minnesota sometime after registering for the Civil War in Iowa in 1863.
If that weren’t enough to show his loyalty to his adopted homeland, there is this: A May 18, 1876, Minneapolis newspaper story said an E. Grundman was playing center field for a new “Base Ball club that will, no doubt, scoop the field.”
Less than a year later, his baseball career was probably kaput. “A miller by the name of Grundman mourns the loss of the tips of two fingers,” the newspaper reported May 8, 1877. And less than a year after that, Grundman was among the first to die in the horrific mill explosion.
Although we don’t know why Grundman stayed late at work that night, the old newspaper accounts help pinpoint his location in the mill when disaster struck about 7 p.m. His badly burned body was found near the east water wheel pit.
“I think he saw the fire and ran from his bench toward the wheel pit to shut down the mill,” head miller Charles Janney told the coroner’s inquest.
From his work bench, Grundman would be among the first to see fire in the suction flues that sucked away dust and steam generated from milling. Two millstones, running dry, were later blamed for creating a spark that ignited flour dust that triggered the explosion and fire.
“Grundman was at the bench, probably at the time of the explosion,” John Christian, the A Mill’s manager, told the coroner. “Grundman’s body was found about 100 feet away from his bench. He had probably discovered the smoke, and had gone away from his place to notify the millers of the fire and danger.”
Christian insisted the mill had used “every precaution to guard against all dangers.” There was neither dynamite nor nitroglycerin around — just a barrel of lard oil and another containing kerosene. Grundman’s bench, his boss testified, was about 25 feet from the oil barrels.
In some ways, his family was fortunate. At least they had a body to identify at the undertaker’s morgue and then bury. The body of another miller, Cyrus Ewing, also was identifiable.
But the trunk of one body had not been identified six days after the accident, the newspaper reported, along with “the few handfuls of burned bones believed to represent all that is left of three other victims.”
A roster of the millers killed May 2, 1878, appears in two places. A plaque, originally carved into a mill wall, listed the names “of the faithful and well tried employees who fell victims of that awful calamity.” That etched stone is now housed at the Mill City Museum along the Mississippi River at 704 S. 2nd Street in Minneapolis.
The names reappear on a 37-foot-tall stone obelisk, erected in 1885 in the northwest corner of Lakewood Cemetery. The name etched atop one of the Lakewood memorial’s panels belongs to “E.H. Grundman” — the millwright who stayed late.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.