Historic Structures

Crown Roller Mill, Minneapolis Minnesota

Date added: July 27, 2010 Categories: Minnesota Industrial Mill Second Empire

Completed in I88O, the Crown Roller Mill is historically significant for its unusual architectural detailing and close association with Minneapolis' "West Side Milling District." As one of the largest and best equipped of the West Side mills, the Crown Roller Mill helped establish Minneapolis as the flouring capital of the United States. Befitting its importance, the Crown possesses a full mansard roof, segmental-arched windows, and other architectural details which mark it as the "architectural gem" of the West Side, where most flour mills were plain, utilitarian structures. Currently, the Crown is one of only four flour mills still standing on the West Side, and is thus an important artifact of the area's past.

The West Side Milling District lies on the west bank of the Mississippi River, adjacent to the Falls of St. Anthony. It is bounded by the river, Fourth Avenue South, South Second Street, and Eighth Avenue South. The Minneapolis Mill Company acquired the land in 1856 to gain riparian title to half the waterpower of the falls. The other half of the waterpower belonged to the St. Anthony Falls Water Power Company, which owned land on the opposite shore of the river.

In 1856-1858, the two companies cooperated in building a dam above the falls to make the Mississippi's power available for manufacturing purposes. Shaped like a giant "V" pointing upstream, the new dam guided the river into mill ponds along either shore. On the West Side, Minneapolis Mill built a power canal from the mill pond to mill seats along South First Street. When completed in 1865, the canal was approximately 900 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 14 feet deep. Minneapolis Mill sold sites along the canal to manufacturers and leased the waterpower.

Attracted "by Minneapolis Mill's improvements, a wide variety of industries settled in the West Side Milling District during the 1860s. By 1871, the area contained 25 waterpowered establishments. These consisted of ten flour mills, seven sawmills, two woolen mills, a cotton mill, a paper mill, an iron works, a sash mill, a planing mill, and a railroad machine shop. The district also contained several steam powered plants, including metal shops, woodworking establishments, and a small custom gristmill. Despite the industrial diversity of the 1860s, flour milling became the West Side's dominant industry in the 187OS. This industrial specialization was largely due to technological improvements which, almost overnight, made Minneapolis flour the most profitable product in the industry.

During the 1860s, Minneapolis millers relied on standard flouring techniques developed in Eastern flouring centers. Accordingly, millstones were set close together and run at high speeds to produce as much meal as possible from a single grinding. The meal was then sifted, or "bolted," through cloth to remove impurities. Although "low grinding" made an acceptable flour from winter wheat, the staple cereal of Eastern mills, it did not produce favorable results from spring wheat, which was grown in Minnesota. There were two problems. First, spring wheat had a more brittle husk, or bran, than winter wheat. In winter wheat, the bran separated under the millstones into large flakes that were easily removed during bolting. In spring wheat, however, the bran shattered into fine particles that were difficult to remove, discoloring the flour. Secondly, although spring wheat had a much higher gluten content than winter wheat, its glutenous layer was also much harder--too hard, in fact, to be reduced in a single grinding. Instead of pulverizing spring wheat gluten, low grinding methods merely granulated it into "middlings," which were sifted out of the flour during bolting. Speckled with bran and lacking in gluten, spring wheat flour was no match on the market for the winter wheat product.

To improve the quality of their flour, Minneapolis millers began experimenting in the late 1860s with a "New Process" that seemed better suited to spring wheat. The most important elements of the New Process were "high grinding" and the "middlings purifier."

The New Process was first successfully used on a large-scale in 1870, at Cadwallader C. Washburn's West Side "B Mill." New Process flour immediately proved popular, commanding a significantly higher price than winter wheat flour produced by "low grinding." By 1875, New Process spring wheat flour was worth up to $2.25 more per barrel than the traditional winter wheat product. To keep pace with soaring demand, Minneapolis millers dramatically expanded their production facilities. From 1870 to 1880, seventeen new flour mills were built on the West Side. Even disaster could not stem the rising tide of mill construction. When the Washburn "A Mill" exploded and leveled five other West Side mills in 1878, all six were rebuilt and operating within two years.

Concurrent with this increase in flour milling was a decrease in other types of industrial activity on the West Side. This decline resulted partly from general economic conditions and partly from the conscious policy of the Minneapolis Mill Company. Convinced that sawmilling operations wasted waterpower, the Minneapolis Mill Company, between 1876 and 1880, purchased most of the sawmills on the West Side and, within a decade, phased them out of production. Other businesses, such as the Monitor Plow Works in 1875, and the Union Iron Works in 1879, left the district of their own accord to find more room for expansion. Still other firms, such as the Minneapolis Woolen Mill in 1875, and the Minneapolis Cotton Manufacturing Company in 1881, simply succumbed to the competitive pressures of an increasingly national market. By 1880, flour milling had become the main industry of the West Side District.

The West Side mills were a visible symbol of the flour industry's dominance over the West Side District. These new structures were among the largest of their kind ever built, and marked a new chapter in flour mill design. In the 1860s, a daily output of 500 barrels was considered extraordinary for a flour mill. However, as national demand for New Process flour swelled, West Side mills grew steadily larger. By the early 1880s, daily outputs of 600 to 800 barrels were considered typical. After being rebuilt in 1880, the Washburn A Mill had a projected dally capacity of 3,000 barrels, making it the largest flour mill in the world. The building did not hold the title long, however, for it was surpassed in both size and capacity by the Pillsbury "A Mill," built across the Mississippi from the West Side District in 1881.

The West Side mills also ushered in an era of greater complexity in mill design and operation. Until the New Process, milling had not changed substantially since the innovations of Oliver Evans in the late eighteenth century. The entire flour mill was typically run by a single millwright, who oversaw everything from maintenance to production. With the introduction of new machines and increased capacity, however, the solitary miller was replaced by a host of laborers, each performing specialized functions.

The unique character of the West Side flour mills was not lost on the citizens of Minneapolis. The unprecedented scale of the mills became symbols of the city's industriousness, and the mills focal points of pride. New mill construction was watched with avid interest, being routinely reported in the press like so many home-team victories. When the Washbum A Mill was rebuilt in 1880, for example, the United States Miller boldly headlined the event: "MINNEAPOLIS' GLORY. The Largest and Finest Flouring Mill in the World. A Detailed Description of the Magnificent Washbum 'A' Mill. Its Daily Capacity Calculated to Astonish the Uninitiate--3,000 Barrels of Flour in Twenty-Four Hours."

By the early 1880s, the West Side contained approximately two dozen flour mills. According to the Northwestern Miller, "more than one" of these mills, in terms of "size, capacity and perfection of equipment has been the wonder of . . . visitors . . . ." Yet one mill commanded special attention: "Of this cluster of mills, the 'Crown Roller' ... is the most conspicuous and is the first to claim the attention of the incoming stranger." In part, the Crown Roller Mill drew notice for its prominent siting on the highest ground in the district. Added to this, the Crown was outstanding for its architectural detailing, size, furnishing and capacity.

Charles Morgan Hardenbergh was the driving force behind the construction of the Crown Mill. Originally from New Jersey, Hardenhergh moved to Minneapolis and established an iron works in 1862. His enterprise was originally located on the east side of the river, but he moved to the West Side Milling District in 1865. Named the Minnesota Iron Works, the new foundry was at the corner of South First Street and Fifth Avenue South.

The Minnesota Iron Works was unusual in two respects. First, it was the only iron works in the West Side District that owned and utilized waterpower rights. Second, it was the largest company of its kind in Minneapolis. Neither consideration, however, was a strong enough inducement to keep Hardenbergh in the iron business. As flour milling profits soared in the 1870s, Hardenbergh decided to follow the trend and turn miller. In 1878, Hardenbergh announced his intention to build a massive flour mill on the site of his iron works.

Hardenbergh did not attempt to enter the flour industry on his own. Instead, he joined the prominent Minneapolis milling firm of Christian Brothers and Company, of which the principal members were John A. and Llewellyn Christian and Charles Everett French. Christian Brothers and Company engaged William F. Gunn, a Minneapolis mill furnisher formerly of Gunn, Cross and Company, to prepare plans for the as-yet unnamed mill. Even before the plans were completed, however, work began on the foundations. In February, 1879, the Northwestern Miller reported that "work has been commenced on the excavation for C. M. Hardenbergh's new flouring mill." And in March it again alerted the public to the fact that "work has been commenced on the excavation for the foundation . . . , and Billy Gunn is hard at work on the plans."

With plans partially prepared and the foundation excavated, Hardenbergh and the Christians secured a contractor by mid-March to erect the building. Although the exact details were still uncertain, the mill was expected to be quite substantial. In March, the St. Paul Pioneer Press headlined that the mill was to be "THE BIGGEST OF ALL," with a daily capacity of 2,000 barrels. On March 21, the Northwestern Miller reported the structure's general dimensions and features:
The building for the Hardenburgh [sic] and Christian mill, the plans for which are now being made by W. F. Gunn, will occupy a ground space of 124 X 145 feet, and will, when completed, be larger than any mill now on the falls. From the basement floor to the bottom of the tail race the distance will be 48 feet; the basement 16 feet high, and the 1st, 2d, 3d, 4th and 5th floors will be 16, 14, 14, 15, and 20 feet respectively; the height of the 6th story or attic is not yet determined upon and will depend upon the style of the roof which covers the structure. The first floor will be about three feet nine inches above the level of the side track on the west side of the mill, and the height of the mill from the eaves to the ground will be in the neighborhood of ninety feet .... The ground space of 124 x 145 feet includes room for a fireproof storage warehouse with a capacity of 90,000 bushels of wheat. The building is to be of light colored brick with red brick trimmings and window sills of Ohio stone.

The roof Issue was shortly resolved, for on March 28, the Northwestern Miller stated that "the Hardenburgh [sic] mill will have a French roof of iron." The incorporation of a mansard, or "French", roof was significant, for it revealed Hardenhergh's commitment to erecting an imposing and "model" mill. As architectural historian Donald R. Torhet has pointed out, the mansard roof first appeared in Minneapolis in 1864 and "for almost twenty years thereafter . . . was the pre-eminent stylish motif, alone sufficient to mark any building as fashionable . . . ." By contrast, most Minneapolis mills were plain, utilitarian structures. Architectural detailing consisted primarily of simple pilaster strips, arched window openings, and cornices, usually confined to a single, primary facade. For the most part, mill designers relied on the sheer size of their structures for visual impact. Breaking with this trend, Hardenbergh's mill was to combine mass, siting and architectural styling for maximum visual effect.

Further proof of the mill's progressive design came in August, 1879, when its name was first unveiled: The Crown Roller Mill. The appellation was important, for it signaled that rollers were to be employed rather than traditional millstones. Up until that time, roller mills were not widely used in American milling. Although the new technology was a potential improvement over millstones, which were expensive to manufacture and difficult to maintain, early roller mills were plagued by technical problems which limited their appeal.

The situation began to change in 1878, when William Dixon Gray, formerly a Minneapolis mill engineer, redesigned and improved the roller mill marketed by the Edward P. Allis Company of Milwaukee. Gray convinced Cadwallader C. Washburn to Install the new machine in the "Experimental C Mill," which was being built in the wake of the 1878 explosion. In addition to installing the roller mills. Gray conceived of an entirely new system for producing flour. Termed the "gradual reduction process," Gray's new system differed from the "New Process" in that it subjected the middlings to a much more elaborate and automatic series of grindings and purifications. The net result was faster production of a mach larger quantity of high-quality flour.

Gray completed his design of the Washburn Experimental C Mill in January, 1879, making it the first modern, automatic, all-roller, gradual reduction flouring plant. Unfortunately, most Minneapolis millers ignored Washburn and Gray's innovation. When the six mills leveled in the 1878 explosion were rebuilt, all were fitted for the outdated New Process system.