The Minnesota Nice Mill
“Wow. I can’t believe it’s still here… And it looks pretty much the same too,” I said, pulling around the side of the small town Pamida, the older patrons staring me down as best they could. Stranger, their faces broadcasted.
But I continued, ignoring them. Yeah, that was there before, but the fence wasn’t. I really hope the mills are still in there—I mean, you don’t really see them anywhere. Hell, even Pillsbury’s been gutted, and I think the ones in here are older.
Nestled beside three concrete silos, their rebar showing through the concrete and rusting vignettes, a stout stone-and-brick thing said ‘Montana Mills’ on one side, ‘Red River Milling Company’ on the other. A two-faced mill—a Minnesota-Nice Mill—in downtown Fergus Falls.
It looks much the same as a 1919 photograph of the area taken after an F-5 tornado in which the mill buildings, just four years old then, stood almost alone above the wreckage. The town’s changed a little in the last century since this was built, but it’s certainly grown around the Red River Mill.
Fergus began as an agricultural community; the earth was rich around Otter Tail River, which churned the dirt into perfect farmland for soybean and corn farmers. As the town grew it attracted capital for two industries; mental health services at the Fergus Falls State Hospital (also on this site) and flour milling at Phelps Mill and Red River Milling Company.
Phelps is now a tourist attraction run by the local historical society, Red River is gutted, abandoned and always, it seems, dodging demolition.
Red River Milling Company, a Moorhead firm, sold the mill and elevator to Montana Flour Mills Company sometime in the 1950s. At the time, Fergus Falls’ mill turned out flour and feed using the power of the Otter Tail River, at times round-the-clock, depending on demand. Work was spread-out among the 25 to 30 full-time workers, two of which were ‘sweepers’ who were charged with literally sweeping-up accumulating grain dust to avoid grain fires and dust explosions.
Ever since man ground wheat there have been fires and explosions.
This is how so many mill districts, including Minneapolis’, were leveled in the early 1900s. As flour mills consolidated hydro (turbine in water connected to belts that ran mills, like Red River Milling) and hydroelectric power (turbine in water connected to generator that ran motors that ran mills), the risk of grain dust skyrocketed. With the right dust-air mixture, the combination could explode with the force of a bomb, bringing down not just one building, but an entire block of mills in the ensuing chain reaction. Grain fires even touched Montana Flour Mills Company, though thankfully not at their Fergus Falls branch; their Missoula, Montana plant burned to the ground in 1949.
With some luck (and a lot of sweeping), the Fergus Falls mill survived to be purchased by the mega-corporation ConAgra in ’69. ConAgra abandoned the mill sometime in the late 1980s, eventually offering to sell it to the city for 1 dollar in 1987—the offer was refused.
Since then, it’s been bouncing between developers, surviving something more destructive than a tornado: obsolescence.
Time has definitely changed the inside of the mill. Now, passersby can see the remnants of the wooden machinery rotting behind the brick and concrete walls that sheltered the pieces so long. Even the hallways, now well traveled by local bored teenagers, are showing the strain under the coats of spray painted nicknames.
Yet I look over my friends’ photographs of the mill years before my visits and the lines of machines that I missed, and that puts my experiences on a timeline. Red River Mill has spent almost a century anchored to the shore of Otter Tail River in little Fergus Falls, and for that it deserves some respect from industrial historians, in spite of its two-facedness.
Oh, and if you were wondering, its mills are gone now; smashed by local kids it seems. The shell remains.