Flour power

Farm Forum

We Americans have it made. All of life’s essentials — electricity, water, cookies — are instantly available at the slightest whim.

We seldom think about the effort and the infrastructure required to create such things. For instance, imagine the number of guys flying kites in thunderstorms it took for you to watch that last episode of The Days Of Our Lives! And how many pump handle pushes did it cost for that extra five minutes you spent in the shower?

But what makes America a truly great nation is our plenteous supply of cookies.

It takes a river of blood, sweat and tears to produce the flour that forms the foundation of cookies. Or at least it once did, which is the gist of what we learned from our recent visit to the Mill City Museum, located in the heart of downtown Minneapolis.

Our oldest son lives in the Twin Cities where he works as the IT manager for a small company. IT is an apt description for his job because whenever we ask him to tell us what he does, we always end up asking “Could you explain IT again?”

He showed us a set of refrigerator-sized thingamabobs that blazed with blinking diodes and had spaghettis of cables snaking everywhere. My wife and my reaction was to shake our heads and say, “Holy cow! What does IT all do?”

And so he explained it, in great detail. Much of it flew right over our heads.

Ironically, he also takes great pleasure in the old-fashioned, gears-and-belts type of technology. This is why we visited the Mill City Museum during our recent voyage to the Cities.

Situated spitting distance from St. Anthony Falls, Mill City Museum is where C.C. Washburn first built a flour milling plant in 1874. Four years later the mill was destroyed by a flour dust explosion that was so forceful, it was mistaken for an earthquake in Stillwater, located some 30 miles away. This marked the birth of the phrase “flour power.”

A new flour mill was immediately built on the same site and commenced operations in 1880. Washburn bragged that the new flour mill was the largest in the world. This title was held for only a year, until the Pillsbury A Mill opened just across the river. Behind the Pillsbury Doughboy’s pudgy and giggly faade is the face of a cutthroat corporate competitor.

In the 1920s the Washburn-Crosby company concluded that it was spending too much for on-air advertising, so they purchased a failing radio station and renamed it WCCO. This would be similar to buying your own private internet because you thought the guys who were hosting your website were overcharging.

The flour mill eventually grew long of tooth and was closed down in 1965. In 1991, fire again paid a visit to the old mill, destroying a large section of the structure. A decade later the city decided to stabilize the ruins and convert them into a museum.

We took a ride on the Flour Tower, a freight elevator that features a multimedia show about life in the old flour mill. We learned how, back in the day, flour was funneled into barrels and sacks which were then physically muscled into railroad cars. I wonder if the company also offered access to a workout room for employees who loaded railcars?

The freight elevator stopped at a floor that featured some of the huge milling machinery that had been driven by gigantic flat belts that had been driven by the power of the Mississippi. In an audio, former workers described what it was like to have a job in the mill. My impression was that it was hot and hard and hazardous. One worker said they would often replace a belt “live” — that is, while the machinery was still running! Such is the stuff of OSHA inspector nightmares.

I later perused old ads that were used to promote flour. There were adverts featuring the wholesome Betty Crocker, along with a poster of an enchanting wheat queen perched on a barrel of flour. These idealistic, sanitized images stood in stark contrast to my mental picture of working conditions inside the mill.

We saw colossal pieces of Rube Goldberg-like equipment that were used to collect and dispose of dust. I bet there are many who wish there was something similar available for household use.

Another machine removed insects from the wheat prior to milling. I wondered: why would they throw away such a high-quality all-natural protein booster?

In conclusion, our visit to Mill City Museum was very edifying. Plus I now have a much deeper appreciation for cookies.

If you’d like to contact Jerry to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can e-mail him at: