The birth of the flour-milling industry in the mid-19th century was the second act in the industrial drama that took place at St. Anthony Falls, the only significant naturally occurring waterfall on the Mississippi River, and established Minneapolis as a major U.S. city. Sawmills came first, in the 1850s, but were supplanted within decades by the flour mills. It was the extraordinary power-generating potential of the falls' 50-foot drop that brought the two industries to Minneapolis.
Flour milling's heyday outlasted that of saw milling by several decades. Beginning in 1880 and for 50 years thereafter, Minneapolis was known as the "Flour Milling Capital of the World." At the industry's peak, 20 stone flour mills stood along a covered canal, flowing with water drawn from the river above the falls. When the Washburn A Mill opened in 1880 - two years after a predecessor and several other mills were destroyed in a catastrophic fire that claimed 18 lives - it was the most technologically advanced and the largest in the world. At peak production, it ground enough flour to make 12 million loaves of bread in a day.
The city grew up around the mills, which received grain via rail lines stretching across the Northern Plains grain belt into the Dakotas and Canada. Trains also carried the milled flour to Duluth and to eastern U.S. destinations both for export and domestic distribution.
Immigrants - part of an enormous influx during the period - kept farms, railroads and mills running. In 1870, the city's population was 13,000. Twenty years later it had grown to nearly 165,000. Businesses supporting milling, such as bag making, barrel making and iron works, also employed the city's new citizens.
The entire flour-milling complex spawned a host of innovations in manufacturing and processing. In flour milling, the Washburn, Crosby and Pillsbury families implemented innovations that both improved the quality of flour made from wheat grown in the northern plains and increased production efficiencies.
The need to sell the enormous output of the mills inspired creative approaches in marketing and advertising to generate more demand for flour and for the mills' product innovations, such as cake mixes. General Mills, for example, introduced Betty Crocker in 1921, today an icon in the history of marketing.
In the industry's early days in Minneapolis, almost all sales were of "family flour," used in home baking and sold in 196-pound family barrels. It wasn't until later that the barrels were replaced by 100, 50 and 25-pound cotton or jute sacks. Home baking declined, however, as more people moved from farm to city. But as they did, the commercial baking industry grew. Estimates are that only five percent of bread consumed in 1900 was bakery-made. By the time the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, it has been estimated that bakeries were making 30 percent of the nation's bread.
After World War I the milling industry in Minneapolis began to decline, chiefly due to federal import-export regulations favoring mills located in cities better situated to process Canadian wheat. In 1930 Buffalo, N.Y., supplanted Minneapolis as the nation's flour-milling capital, producing 11 million barrels to Minneapolis' 10.8 million annually.
As the industry moved out of Minneapolis, the old mills fell into disuse. Many were abandoned and subsequently razed. The Washburn A Mill closed in 1965. Meanwhile, the water from St. Anthony Falls increasingly was put to work generating electricity for the growing city. In 1991 the mill was nearly destroyed by fire.
Working through the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, the city cleaned up the rubble and fortified the charred walls of the mill in the late 1990s. Shortly thereafter, the Minnesota Historical Society announced plans to develop Mill City Museum. Private, corporate, foundation, city, county, state and federal entities all contributed to this $32 million project.