By Julianne Pyron and Aubrey Rawles
Welcome to our map of Minnesota historical mills! What you see here is a map with the (in some cases approximate) locations of many of the flour and grist mills that were once vital to a thriving industry in Minnesota.
At the end of the 19th century, and leading into the first half of the 20th, Minnesota was the flour-milling capital of the world. Though the Twin Cities are best known for their mills, only twenty-four of the 307 mills standing in the 1890’s were within the Cities— the rest sprawled across the Minnesota countryside, developing in tandem with new settlements and clustered along the banks of rivers big and small. Of those remaining 283 mills, some of the most notable were in the Cannon River Vally, especially at Faribault, Northfield, and Dundas.
These mills were notable largely because they were some of the first to make the hard spring grain cultivated in Minnesota into a pure flour. Historically the final product of spring grain was too filled with wheat bran to be a prized commodity, but innovations by the La Croix brothers enabled the millers in the Cannon River Valley to produce pure, finely ground flour that took the industry by storm. As the La Croix brothers’ designs spread, a new demand for this fine flour grew, as did the need for spring wheat, which in turn spurred on farmers to meet the demand. On and on it went, until the flour industry became the cornerstone of Minnesota’s industrial economy.
You’ll notice that most of the grist mills in Minnesota sit on rivers, particularly the Mississippi River. This is mainly due to two reasons: first, most grist meels were water powered, meaning that they used a water wheel to drive the milling process. This use of natural power was cheaper than using coal or horsepower to run the mill. Second, a mill’s location on the river meant ease of transport for both materials and products. As mentioned above, Minnesota’s flour industry was quite lucrative; being located on a river meant that the mill could distribute its flour through major networks via the Mississippi.
In short, the Waterford Mill, as insignificant as its ruins may make it seem today, was once part of an industry that shaped the trajectory of development of an entire state. Its association with the success of the Cannon River Valley mills makes it an excellent case study of the workings of the flour industry in Minnesota at the end of the 19th century, yet it is easily accessible to those who wish to study it. Historical archaeologist James Deetz says that it is the “small things forgotten” which provide the clearest window into the past— and the Waterford Mill, one small cog in a giant industrial machine, is no exception.
Some famous historical mills in Minnesota. From left to right, Archibald Mill in Dundas, Mill Ruins Park in Minneapolis, and Ramsey Mill in Hastings.
Other pages of interest on the ARCN Website
For readers who would like to learn more about the relationship between mills and the towns in which they were built, the pages on the archaeology of cemeteries in the Cannon River Valley region provide insights into the impact of flour mills in their local communities.
If you are interested in the impact of the Waterford Mill in the present day, the Documentary Video: Oral Histories page contains interviews with several members of the class, who discuss their final projects and highlights of excavating at the Mill, as well as an interview with a Waterford resident.
For those who want to find out more about the timeline of the milling industry at the Waterford mill and in the Northfield area in general, the Documentary Timeline is an interactive resource with photographs and short historical accounts.
Finally, if you’d like to get a better sense of the space of the Waterford Mill itself, check out the Waterford Archaeological Site Map made by our group.
Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten : The Archaeology of Early American Life. 1st ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977.
Fossum, P.R. 1930. Early Milling in the cannon River Valley. Minnesota History 11(3): 271-282. Retrieved from http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/11/v11i03p271-282.pdf
Frame, R. (1978). MHS Collections: Mills Machines and Millers: Minnesota Sources for Flour-Milling Research. Minnesota History,46(4), 152-162. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20178575