Historic Structures

Standard Mill, Minneapolis Minnesota

Date added: July 26, 2010 Categories: Minnesota Industrial Mill

The Standard Mill is closely associated with the history of Minneapolis' "West Side Milling District." Built in 1879, the Standard was one of several mills constructed during the rapid expansion of West Side flour milling in the 1870s. Designed by William Dixon Gray, a noted mill engineer, and built by the firm of Otis A. Pray, one of the most respected mill furnishers in Minneapolis, the Standard was immediately hailed as a model establishment. The flour produced by the Standard and other West Side mills established Minneapolis as the largest flour producer in the United States from 1880 to 1930. This time period was also marked by extensive technological refinement and consolidation, and the history of the Standard Mill reflects these general trends. A wave of mill closures swept the West Side Milling District after Minneapolis ceded first place in flour production to Buffalo in 1930. Although altered by later construction, the Standard is currently one of only four extant West Side flour mills, and is thus an important visible reminder of the area's history.

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 area's industrial development dates from 1856, when the land was acquired by the Minneapolis Mill Company. In 1856-1858, Minneapolis Mill cooperated with the St. Anthony Falls Water Power Company, which owned land on the opposite shore of the river, to build a dam above the falls.

Shaped like a giant "V" pointing upstream, the new dam guided the river into mill ponds on either shore. On the West Side, Minneapolis Mill built a power canal from the mill pond and along what is now 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.

Due to Minneapois 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 l860s, flour milling became the dominant industry in the 1870s. 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 and which discolored 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 "Hew Process" that seemed better suited to spring wheat. The most important elements of the New Process were "high grinding" and the "middlings purifier."

The Hew 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 during the 1870s. In this decade, they built seventeen new flour mills on the West Side. Even disaster could not stem the rising tide of mill construction. When the Washhurn "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 Moniter 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 visible symbols of the flour industry's hegemony in 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. However, as national demand for New Process flour rose, 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 Washbum "A Mill" had a projected daily capacity of 3,000 barrels, making it the largest flour mill in the country. 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 Unititiate--3,000 Barrels of Flour in Twenty-Four Hours."

In terms of mill construction, the years from 1878 to 1880 were among the most dramatic in the history of the West Side. In these years, the six flour mills destroyed by the 1878 explosion were completely rebuilt and substantially improved. In 1878, plans were also announced for two new mills which promised to be among the largest and best furnished in the city.

One of the new mills was built by Ebenezer V. White and Dorilus Morrison, who had recently formed a partnership as E. V. White and Company. The name changed to D. Morrison and Company when White left the firm in 1883. According to the Northwestern Miller, White was "one of the leading mill men in Minnesota . . . ," He eventually became president of the Minneapolis Millers Association and the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce. Morrison moved to Minnesota from Maine in 1854. Active in Minneapolis business and politics, he became the city's first mayor and was a founder of the Minneapolis Mill Company. He initially made his fortune in sawmilling, but entered the flour industry in the 1870s.

White and Morrison planned to build their mill at the corner of South First Street and Sixth Avenue South (now Portland Avenue). They awarded the contracts for constructing and furnishing the mill in December, 1878.

White and Morrison's choice of contractors revealed their commitment to build a "model" flouring plant. Otis Arkwright Pray, who was to erect the mill, was one of the most prominent millwrights in Minneapolis; and the Edward P. Allis Company of Milwaukee, which was to design and furnish the mill, was well respected for the excellent work of its chief engineer, William Dixon Gray.