“So what do you think they see when they look at this place?” I gazed across the old boardwalk at the Stone Arch Bridge, its decaying sides lined with tourists and cameras and (ugh) Segways. “I mean, I just don’t get it. They turn half of the place into a museum and suddenly it’s a tourist trap… I’m tempted to lead a few of those cuter ones inside to see how sexy Minneapolis history really looks.” Turning back to the graffiti-embellished interior and taking a deep breath, I got back to work. Camera out, headlamp on, comrades in tow and nothing to worry about but the fast-fading light.
From the dilapidated skyway that linked the 1906 elevator to its fire-gutted counterpart—from a precarious vantage point atop rotting boards and a 120-foot drop, we looked through a hole in the metal siding at the side of the elevator, dyed red. The crimson hue was not from the sunset, however, but the neon glare of the rooftop sign: “GOLD—MEDAL—FLOUR” it blinked in succession, a lighthouse in downtown Minneapolis.
It’s this sign that inspires people to wrongly call the cluster of buildings “Gold Medal Flour,” which is in fact simply a former brand name of the Washburn-Crosby Company, a major agent in making Minneapolis the prosperous “Mill City.”
Although other adventurers and I choose to experience history from ground level, far below the pedestal of interpretive exhibits and name-and-date plaques, we appreciate the same past ultimately. Gold Medal Flour stands a spatial reinforcement of that philosophy. One might say that it’s the difference between watching a story unfold and staring at it later on television. If Washburn-Crosby was a show, old Mill ‘A’ would be the star, with all eyes on it.
The mill we see today is a circa-1878 reconstruction that followed a fire that year, an inferno that perhaps foreshadowed the 1991 blaze that left the building in its current state: four walls adjoining Mill City Museum. Parallel to the observation decks, glass elevators and Minnesota Historical Society installations is the abandoned Elevator #1, “Gold Medal,” telling the same story in a different way. From my perspective at the top of the flashing sign, 185-feet up, the choice is as clear as a night sky’s harvest moon, wedged between St. Anthony Falls and the Minneapolis skyline.
Under that neon glare, where copper thieves have stripped parts and pieces, every moving part sticks rust-locked between the crumbling walls stained with tags, something’s left behind. That bit of charm—the reverberation of humming industriousness—remains caked under the rotting grain dust and lethal gaps in the floor, for which I love it all the more.
I’d like to do something out of the ordinary and close with a quote by Robin George Collingwood, a British philosopher: “Nothing capable of being memorized is history.” Certainly, where postcard captions fall short, this iconic Minneapolis grain elevator will stand as a lighthouse signaling the industrious roots of my favorite city, and at the same time a grave marker for glossed-over histories.