The Doughboy Goes Gluten-Free
The ‘L’ whistles, you might care to know, when the wind rushes between those glass, neon-filled tubes between Northeast and Downtown—a serenade for the second catwalk from the top.
Mill City Mascot: Out of Work
Over there, the Mississippi rolls through a dam system where the out-of-town gawkers mingle with coffee and exercise addicts over the Stone Arch Bridge—maybe they’re coming from the Mill City Museum—I wonder if this isn’t a museum too. If it isn’t, I don’t know what is.
Welcome to PILLSBURY.
Pillsbury, the ‘Doughboy’ company, as some know it, was the powder-white lung of Minneapolis, back when its legendary stretch of the Mississippi river was the money-pumping heart of the Midwest. ‘White lung’ is also the disease that mill workers who breathe too much flour dust get—there’s some trivia for an interpretive plaque.
For Pillsbury to be abandoned in Minneapolis is like the Eifel Tower of Paris to be off-limits; for the Gateway Arch to be rusting from the inside out; for the Empire State Building to be boarded-up and passed by hundreds—unnoticing. This is Mill City, and this is the Mill of Mill City, and the people pass on, between classrooms and the bars, not even looking up to ask why these three square blocks on the river are the way they are.
Of course, there aren’t any signs directing the touristy throngs through the limestone arches of this antique. Instead of the Segue-taming fanny-packers, three types of people visit Pillsbury in its present state: 1.) Investors (developers love ‘em); 2.) Scrappers (they’re running amok); 3.) Historians (“Hi.”).
In case you don’t feel invited by any of the above terminologies, read on to make a first good step toward that third, privileged community…
Like a Poke in the Gut—Ho! Ho! Ho!
Word had come; Pillsbury—or at least chunks of it—was going to get a makeover from a wrecking ball.
As a kid I had walked around the outside of the buildings for hours surveying the giant inset ‘A’, the rusty train dock, the long alley between the concrete elevator and the mills. The pink sign on top was the cute girl in class who I knew would never dance with a nerd like me. But I nonetheless fantasized that I would get a chance to impress her, and I knew with places like Pillsbury there was always a way.
I still do not know what other spectators of the abandoned wish on. Not stars; if you can see them you are too far from the city. Instead, I settled for a surprisingly robust bubble rolling out of the Pillsbury Canal under the ‘A’ Mill one night instead, drifting from where the mill turbines still rust. If you just pictured a bathtub bubble with a little rainbow and the reflection of a little furry kitten, forget it. This was a Mississippi bubble. It was yellow, scum-filled, and probably stank like dead fish if I were close enough to check—but it worked.
The next night, the neon ‘L’ was singing my favorite song.
Exploring Saint Anthony’s Attic
Back then everything was still as it was when the workers went home. I remember rows of grain mills with narrow aisles in between, lacking only the belts and bushels to begin grinding those kernels smaller and smaller. White paint on white pine panels lifted to reveal that what grains remained, rotted. I would later figure out that this was what was known as the South ‘A’ Mill, a circa-1916 partner-in-crime to the original ‘A’ mill next door.
Contrasting with their color and texture were the cranks on the various screw-drive controls jutting into the aisles, once white but now cracked with rust like the bases of the mills. The bases of the machines were cast iron, to transfer vibrations from the mill into the floor so the forces wouldn’t shake the bolts from their holds.
Every once in a while I noticed, while walking through, a small orange lock-out tag from the mill’s last days was wound on a thread around one of the screw drives like a bad joke hangs in the air in bad company.
Through a seemingly ancient brick-lined doorway I found myself in the old mill, the 1881 ‘A’ Mill, and beheld something I had waited a long time to see—the spot where the first Humphrey Manlift was installed. “It’s called a Belt-O-Vator,” its friends will insist. On the top floor is one motor with its match in the basement. Between the two is a tight steel and rubber belt with foot and handholds attached to it next to a rope, which connects to a switch for the motor. It remains a popular system for factory works to move vertically in factories.
In the old days there was a beautiful spiral staircase here, but it was taken out and the floors were expanded to fill the gaps. Aesthetic is always the slave to profit when it comes to its industrial applications.
When people ask me what I do, sometimes I answer that I climb all over history, and it sure felt like that was the case when I found an out of the way ladder that brought me first to an elevator equipment room, then to the roof of the ‘A’ mills. For the first time in my life I got the chance to share the view of the Stone Arch Bridge and Mississippi River with a Mill City water tower.
It occurred to me. “Somewhere across that river there’s some kid on the observation deck who’s just finished a walkabout in the family-friendly milling museum, feeling caged by its safety railings.” When was the last time you used those grade school plastic-sheathed safety scissors? That’s the difference between guerilla history and watching an interpretive film.
Sitting on the Pillsbury water tower at midnight, watching the bars drain as you, like the building, sit still and let the world change. After all, it’s been a busy century, and nobody’s left to call you lazy.
Why not take a break to enjoy the view, savor the story.
1855-1909: The Rise of The Doughboy
Charles A. Pillsbury came to Minnesota from a family that knew how to turn around failing businesses. In New Hampshire they bought and turned around a struggling hardware company, so it should not be surprising that, when Charles bought a small failed flour mill in 1855, it was soon up and running, turning about 200 barrels of flour out daily. He did not know too much about milling before that point but by the time he bought a second, larger mill in 1870 he had taught himself the business, and was convinced superior milling was a consequence of superior equipment.
When he contracted the architect LeRoy Buffington to design the ‘A’ Mill, he knew it would be the world’s most advanced factory of its type.
Interestingly, this was the first flour mill in Minneapolis to even have an architect design it—and there were a lot of mills along the river, even by that point. At the point in the Mississippi river where Pillsbury lies there is a small waterfall, the St. Anthony Falls. Because of the change in river height, if one were to build an underground tunnel linking the higher and lower portions of the river, they would be able to harness the force of the water rushing through… enough power to run a giant factory.
Pillsbury did not ignore this natural power in his designs.
On July 15, 1880, contractors began to set the foundation for the ‘A’ Mill, and by that October it was ready for a roof. Underneath, a power canal lined with six-foot-thick concrete walls was being finished to provide the mill with power. Connecting the canal to the mill were twin Victor water wheels, whose power turned a leather belt that actually turned the drive shafts above.
This belt was 150 feet long, four feet wide, and took 250 cattle hides to craft. With both wheels engaged the force of the river averaged 2,800 horsepower, so only one wheel was needed for the whole flour mill, while the other ran the elevator and machine shop. When the river was low, a steam engine was used to drive the machinery instead.
Electricity was a minor component in the building; early maps show that the ‘A’ was outfitted with a grand total of 8 incandescent lamps.
The factory founder was not even sure that the savings of having river power would save him from the competition from steam-powered mills. As a long time Duluth, Minn. resident, I was intrigued by his words in this quote regarding Minneapolis’ northern challengers. At the time Duluth could get coal much cheaper than Minneapolis, and had strong distribution line to the ocean via ships.
“In three years, with a continuance of the present regime, Duluth will have a milling capacity greater than Minneapolis to-day. The mills of Minneapolis have made the wheat market here. This market will go to the dogs, too, and every elevator in the city as well.” Chas. Pillsbury, 1892.
Obviously, Pillsbury’s fears were never realized. Although Duluth had a number of rolling mills (which I may write about someday) they never neared the capacity of Mill City. Instead, Duluth and Superior became a major grain terminal, shipping grain south to be milled rather than milling it there. In short, the A Mill was unstoppable.
Production officially started on July 5, 1881, and immediately its machinery was turning out about 4,000 barrels daily, 20 times the capacity of Charles’ first mill. When production leveled off in 1905, the daily average was closer to 18,000 barrels daily.
At the end of the decade, after being partly bought out by its rivals across the river, the newly-reorganized Pillsbury Flour Mills Co began intense construction on its complex, beginning with a tile-clad grain elevator in 1910. It was considered monolithic even in its day, soaring 190 feet above its loading tracks, containing 25 grain bins, and boasting a capacity of 400,000 bushels.
The choice of hollow terra-cotta tile as a primary building material places it in a narrow window between elevators built from wood (like Globe) and concrete bins (like Santa Fe). The tiles are more lightweight and fireproof than regular bricks, making them ideal to hold the quasi-explosive grains that were the cause of so many fires and explosions elsewhere in the city.
1912-1932: The Growing Years
‘A’ got its first big retrofit in 1912—almost every floor was completely reequipped. If you hopped on the manlift and rode from the first floor upwards, you would see: (First Floor) 256 rolling mills, 18 stone mills, 8 cacklers, (Second Floor) 8 brush machines, 8 cacklers, (Third Floor) 10 separators, 8 scourers, (Fourth Floor) 10 separators, 8 scourers, (Fifth Floor) 2 separators, (Sixth Floor) 180 purifiers. In the attic, beyond the reach of the lift, sat the dust collectors.
The good thing about the retrofit was increased safety and efficiency. Unfortunately the machines vibrated so intensely that the very walls of the mill were beginning to cave—the north wall of the ‘A’ Mill was listing 22 inches out of line! To fix this, the north wall was braced by a set big concrete buttresses and the south wall was tightened inside by steel cables. Inside the vibrations of the milling machines was shaking joists and pillars out of place. Consequently, the wooden pillars were gradually replaced with steel.
The economic impact of the mill was global; by around 1910, flour was the country’s second major export—unmilled grain was its third. In the country, Pillsbury’s operation was by far the largest of its kind, shipping 60 carloads every 24 hours across the country and world.
About 500 men worked for $14 a week at the plant, which Charles intentionally separated from the West Bank mills (Washburn and the others) to strengthen the East Bank’s working class neighborhoods. Social politics at the time dictated that the best workers worked in company towns, and this was as close as one could get to that effect in the middle of a major city.
The next major building after the tile elevator was the nine-story “South A-Mill” which I can say, with whatever authority I may have, a terrible name. It is an ugly, almost featureless dark stone building set behind a warehouse between the ‘real’ A-Mill and the Tile Elevator. It did, however, turn out a lot of flour. Its construction started in 1916 and its usefulness as a flour mill surpassed that of its neighbor by half a generation. By the time it was running, it was taking on grain from a new concrete elevator behind the complex, started in 1914 and expanding in 1916.
This is the end of major construction on Pillsbury. What follows is a story of tweaks, retrofits, and pressure as the competition learns from the Pillsbury’s methodology and improves on the technology and processes he pioneered.
1916-2003: The Uncertain Years
Old ‘A’ was showing its age by the 1930s, inspiring the company to dismantle its equipment and retrofit it for special use. This happened in two waves, first in 1932, and then in 1937. The new purpose of the 1881 building would be to work special orders, milling coarser grain than more modern machines might allow, and making less demanded products like oak flakes and cake flour.
By the 1950s electricity was so inexpensive that it was increasingly unprofitable to use the power canal, so the complex got a special electric refit. The water wheels had not been replaced since 1920, and it is my understanding that most of the cost was maintenance related.
Pillsbury was again at the top of the world market in 1970, producing more flour than any other company on the globe. The Minneapolis factory was making about 14,000 barrels daily, almost totally in the South A Mill. By mid-decade the original mill was retired for good.
Closure and Changes: Pillsbury Goes Gluten-Free
In 2003, General Mills bought all of Pillsbury’s assets in a $10 million move, announcing soon after that the Minneapolis flour milling operations would cease. After the workers went home the fate of the mill was very uncertain for a time.
A few years after my research trip I drove past and saw contractors moving the wood and steel mills out of the South A Mill, piling them nearby the Tile Elevator in the rain. Condos were the plan, but the housing bubble crashed those plans. The developer defaulted and the mill sat, now mostly empty, waiting for the economy to rebound.
Which it has, mostly.