To the locals, it’s Mill Hell: where elevators go to die.
To the city it’s the Southeast Minneapolis Industrial area (SEMI). Everyone else—they just see the grain elevators, or look through them.
As someone who could not find too much about these concrete colossuses for years, I felt like I owed fellow children of the Twin Cities the story these elevators, when I learned it.
Everyone who lives in Minneapolis and St. Paul has driven past the rows of silos hundreds of times, but not many know what they were for, or when they popped up…
…to give the short answers: they stored different kinds of seeds to make flours and oils with, on behalf of malting plants, flour mills, and linseed presses. The first elevators here were built in the 1880s and the newest date to the 1940s.
You may now skim the photos if you wish, guilt-free. Below I simply elaborate, going company by company and elevator by elevator, to give a biography by amalgam. Mill Hell is a composite, so why should its history be any different?
I hope you enjoy. -Dan
The letters “ADM” are the first thing you see when you walk into Mill Hell—fitting, since it was (and, arguably, still is) the king of this grainy inferno. Linseed oil was Minneapolis’ second largest industry (after flour, of course), and Archer-Daniels Midland was its chief producer.
*ADM-Delmar #4 Elevator
The double-header. It stands at 122 feet and dates to 1931, but it has had more than its share of retrofits. Most of the machinery nowadays seems to date to the 1970s.
Parts of this elevator have been scrapped over the past five years—an adjoining warehouse to the east, its truck shed on its north side. It also has the largest capacity of all the standing elevators: 7,000,000 bushels. That’s more than twice the capacity of the Electric Steel, the former record-breaker.
The most interesting features are a two-level skyway that connects its cupola buildings and the operator rooms packed with old photos of the plant staff. One picture shows some curious elevator-men with a derailment—nearby is a press clipping from the Minneapolis Star Tribune reporting Elvis’ death.
*Meal Storage Elevator
A late arrival and uncanny survivor. This 1948 elevator, at the time of writing, now overlooks the demolished ruins of what used to be ADM’s ‘Oil Bodying Plant’ and ‘Earth Extraction Plant’. I personally find it strangely beautiful in its starkness.
*Quality Assurance Laboratory
This lab was built in 1934 and often goes by the name “Oliver Labs” online. Like every other plant like ADM, there had to be regular tests of the product to ensure it met standards of the company. Now, though, this is the most likely building in the area to find squatters in—and they do not like company. On my first visit, the laboratory rooms were mostly intact, but now almost every space is thoroughly destroyed. At the time of writing, the city even demolished the rear staircases to prevent access to the rear doors!
*Maintenance Department (1930s-1940s)
From east to west (closest to ADM-Delmar #1 to farthest), this string of buildings were a locker room, carpentry shop, grain dust bagging, and the millwright shop. Behind the dust bagging house used to be a small incinerator to dispose of what couldn’t be sold. The dark brick circle can still be seen on the south side of the building.
Inside, it appears that the locker room was converted into offices before being abandoned. It was turned into a binge room by what I guess to be bored University of Minnesota students a few years ago.
The other buildings in the set have not changed very much—the parts room still has a collection of various spark-proof electric switches and alarms. A single desk is stacked high with parts catalogs. The dust bagging department smells like fuel oil. Since this was designed to be one of the most fireproof buildings in the ADM campus it was probably used to store flammables after the incinerator was removed.
Kurth Malting (Electric Malting)
Kurth is the biggest extant survivor in SEMI—although almost all of its identity as a malting plant has been erased, all of its silos have survived. It even still has two Kurth logos still showing–though one is hidden. See the photo comparison.
What exists today is a beautiful wedge-shaped administration building, a train shed, and five big elevators that were built between 1924 and 1961. The smallest elevator was put up in 1925 and stands just shy of 70 feet, while the biggest tower (with the logo) measures about 150 feet, making it the tallest surviving elevator in the immediate area.
Besides the height of the light brown concrete tower, the most notable feature is the stainless steel arch cupola building on the southern elevator.
“Kurth” is a newer name for this complex, however. The original name for the operation is The Electric Malting Company, which built its first elevator here in 1907—a busy one too. It processed 750,000 bushels per annum and boasted in ads of its electric-powered machinery. Many elevators and factories at the time relied totally on steam.
The Minneapolis malt market attached its reputation to the flour market, which was renowned worldwide. Accord to Thomas Snelling, one of Electric Malting’s salesmen:
“Minneapolis is located in the midst of the finest barley section of the United States and is to day the great barley market of the world… Our system we believe has been shown by experience to be the best method for growing malt with absolute accuracy and as our plant is strictly up to date I am satisfied that our customers will have no reason to complain of any deliveries we may make to them.”
Photo Comparison: Kurth’s Metal Workhouse 1939-2006
Before the big Kurth elevator was added, the main logo for the complex was on the circa-1920s metal workhouse. The letters are still barely visible today, even though a new conveyor skyway has been added to the fasade. Compare the 1939 photo (from ADM-Delmar #3 I expect) of Kurth’s metal workhouse and see if you can pick out any of the ‘Kurth Malting Company’ letters.
In 1912, Electric Malting was bought by Pioneer Malting, and the complex was operated under the new flag. A decade later, John Pank, the manager of Pioneer and J.R. Stewart, the owner of Banner grain and namesake of Banner’s ‘Stewart’ Elevator, precursor to Marquette Elevator merged their companies.
It should be noted that two years prior Marquette Grain bought Banner B, the ‘Stewart Elevator’, so Stewart did not bring his self-titled elevator into the mix.
Kurth bought the property sometime between 1930 and 1938, and operated there until 1986 when ADM bought the elevators. Soon after, the kilns, malting drums, and powerhouse—all dating back to the early 1900s—were demolished. These were all nestled into the “U” of elevators that still exist today.
Recently, a trucking company has purchased and improved the property. Unfortunately they are not maintaining (much less utilizing) the elevators themselves, so the skyways connecting various cupolas are falling into disrepair. They have done much to improve the dump shed, which they have made into a truck storage building, and are parking trailers where the malting facilities used to be, between the silos.
Electric Steel Elevator
The Electric Steel Corporation was organized in February 1901 to serve the Electric Malting operation that became Kurth Malting. It began with 12 steel tanks, each with a capacity of 100,000 bushels, and was built by the American Bridge Company.
The Van-Dusen Harrington Co. planned and oversaw the construction and operation for its first few years. Right away the elevator began breaking records—it proved it could load 86 grain cars in just under 13 hours. Besides its futuristic exterior (giant steel buildings like this were exotic at the time) the elevator’s insides were cutting edge as well, keeping with the company’s values.
“Ever since the elder Van Dusen substituted the cup and belt process for the shovel and muscle in 1858, the company has used every mechanical device and improvement known to the trade,” reads an advertisement of the opening of the elevator.
Later that year, Russel Miller Co bought rights to use the elevator for $500,000. After Russell Miller closed, Peavey bought the elevator, and it is still in operation today, though it receives little traffic by my observations.
It has grown a lot since those first 12 tanks—it even features a 1938 concrete addition that holds 250,000 bushels, breaking the steel bin paradigm. The 1916 administration building on 25th Ave SE still reads “Electric Steel Elevator” though its doors are stenciled “Peavey” in red.
Like Electric Steel, this elevator is still active. It lies across the SEMI rail yard from Electric Steel, near where Froedert used to stand. It was built in two sections, one in 1907 and the other in 1926—the older section is farthest from the offices.
In fact, I would have to say the offices are the most interesting part of the whole complex, visually speaking. Although I have not found the records to confirm my suspicion, they appear to date to the 1926 expansion. There is a coal room in one corner—a two deep wells and two boilers in another, and a dust house.
If you work at Calumet and are reading this, I seriously want a peek inside your office (glass at guerillahistorian dot net).
The elevator that eats people, well, at least two people. Its engineering notoriety is that it was the first elevator constructed using the continuous pour method, which did not go exactly as planned. The workers went on strike when the silos were nearly finished, stopping the flow of concrete. As a result, there is a seam near the top of the silos still visible today.
The concrete sections were actually an expansion of an extant wooden elevator complex that supplied the various milling operations on the Mississippi.
It was abandoned in 2003, and half of the silos were demolished in 2007.
To most, it is probably best known as the elevator that University of Minnesota students climb for a great view of downtown. In 2006 one such student fell to her death while navigating the upper floors in the dark. There was a similar death recorded in 1937—just one year after the elevator opened—when a 74 year old night watchman perished after falling down a manlift.
The city has built low-income housing on the property and plans exist (at least) to build 20 condos into the elevator’s tower.
Known fondly to explorers as “Pig Nut” after a bit of graffiti in its annex (“This is the Pig’s Nuts!”).
This elevator, like many others, was built in sections. The concrete bins were poured in 1926 and connected to the massive ADM-Delmar #3, now demolished. The cleaning house (tower) followed in 1938. A grain dryer was added in 1948—this is the purpose of the steel venting seen on the west side of the building.
In 2011 the elevator’s iconic (and treacherous) skyway was removed, separating the workhouse from the elevator annex. Other than the skyway, notable features included a thriving homeless community in the ground-level conveyer house, now demolished, and open-top silos in the 1926 section.
For those elevators lost to the wrecking ball in the last 100 years.
(Even more) ADM Elevators
As mentioned briefly, there are many ADM elevators that used to fill the voids in SEMI we see today. Most monstrous being ADM-Delmar #3, which was built throughout the 1920s (1925, 1928, 1929). It topped-out at 180 feet and had about 80 bins by my quick count. It also included a huge cleaning house.
It is strange the way these names and brands disappear over the years—Occidental Flour used to be found everywhere.
I can scarcely walk into an antique store without finding their advertising pieces (“Costs More—Worth it” and “It’s No Accident—It’s Occident”). As mentioned in my explanation of Kurth/Electric Malting, Russell Miller had a big interest in the area, including two flour mills.
These mills were not as big as Pillsbury’s, but they proved very efficient. It was fed by the Electric Steel elevator by a 85’ steel skyway. Other than its mills (simply “A” and “B”), their complex included a Laboratory, Experimental Bakery, Machine Shop, Offices, an Engine Room, Carpentry Shop, and a big warehouse.
Construction took place in two big waves, one around 1910 and a second a decade later, corresponding with the build dates of the two mills: A in 1908 and B in 1919.
Minneapolis residents may recall Scooterville and the artist lofts there—these were built into the shell of the 1919 bill and 1925 warehouse. These two buildings survived until early 2008.
Stewart Elevator (Banner Grain Co., Marquette Elevator)
Banner Grain built and ran this elevator under the moniker ‘Stewart Elevator’, the first name of its president. Most of the complex dates to the 1920s, though some sections were added in the 1930s, such as a central workhouse, and the 1940s, such as the northern annex.
Unlike other elevators companies here (except ADM to a lesser extent), Banner utilized a bulk grain warehouse in addition to its bins—essentially a giant reinforced building meant to store one giant pile of grain. It was demolished in 2007.
Froedert Grain & Malting
The latest casualty. A later arrival to the malting industry in the area, years after Electric/Pioneer Malting, the company expanded their footprint from their elevator, built in 1927 and expanded in 1929 and 1949, when they bought the former Van Dusen elevator, the Interstate (b.1889-96).
Visitors to Red Wing, Minn. will see another abandoned Froedert Malting elevator.
Spencer, Kellogg & Sons
Spencer, Kellogg & Sons ran a large linseed oil mill just south of the Occidental Flour Mills, contributing to the 2nd biggest industry in Minneapolis. Additionally they operated a few big elevators in the area to store the linseeds before processing.
Like ADM’s mill, this consisted of various tank rooms and press rooms—none of which survive today.
Van Dusen-Harrington Co.
The demolished original. In addition to planning and, for a time, operating the Electric Steel Elevator, Van Dusen operated his own terminal elevators in the area, the most famous of which are the Interstate and the St. Anthony.
The Interstate was a two-elevator complex: #1 was built in 1889 and #2 in 1896, each at about 90 feet and mostly of wood. St. Anthony used three interconnected elevators made of tile and concrete, built in 1885, 1892, and 1901. There was also a grain dryer and big fire pump house nearby.
In the place of the Interstate now stands the University of Minnesota football field and where the St. Anthony complex used to stand there is a recycling company and container yard.
Merchant’s Elevator Co (Continental)
Another recent loss. This elevator stood just south of Marquette Elevator and was originally known as Merchant’s Elevator. In the late 1940s it was bought by Continental, and had that name until it was demolished in 2007 to make room for a University of Minnesota expansion.
It was built between 1907 and 1912.
Go For a Walk
I have been wandering around the elevators since 2005, when it was decidedly less safe than today. Because the property inside is a mash of public and private and there are few proper signs indicating the former, Mill Hell is still fair game to walk around legally. Police patrol the area often, making sure the curious and the bored do not get over zealous, but they generally do not mind when people stroll through.
I recommend it.
This is not a complete review of the elevators in this area, but to my knowledge the most complete and up to date online. There are some factories I did not include because of the focus on elevators, but I hope to add sections someday on those as well.