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Around the World in 180 Days: Milling in Minneapolis

Sam Leslie

“There are no historical facts; there is only evidence.” 

– Roy Wake, “History as a Separate Discipline”


This essay is part of a longer series “Around the World in 180 Days,” focused on centering human voices in scholarly work. My goal, in the words of Edward Said, is to be “the migrant or traveler” to the discipline that is history. Welcome to the first article in the series (other than the introduction essay). 


Iron sharpens iron. The sudden and violent banging of rocks creates heat. On May 2, 1878 in the heart of Minneapolis, two dry milestones crunched against each other and sparks traveled. In the Washburn “A” Mill dry air, filled with flour dust, the sparks met their match, and the mill ignited, killing 18 workers and simultaneously devastating the surrounding area. The Minneapolis Star Tribune wistfully declared, “Minneapolis has met with a calamity the rudeness and horror of which it is difficult for the mind to comprehend.” Minneapolis, home to the once largest flour in the United States at the time and rising leader of the milling industry, had lost its beacon. The once “the pride and best of our flourishing city, was leveled.” 


The mill’s owner Cadwallader C. Washburn—known to be a “great innovator” of Minneapolis—reacted swiftly to the crisis as he provided aid to the families of dead and displaced workers, as well as created the Washburn Memorial Orphan Asylum for orphans. He also brought in experts in the field to find safer practices, ordered the rebuilding of the mills, and advanced the mills’ technology. His distinction as a great innovator was well-earned. By the 1880s, Minneapolis was the milling capital of the United States. Everything continued to progress.


However, it would be quite imprudent to stop the story here. The traveler would not be satisfied with one event; they would want to know the full and continuous history. And so, from a settled seemingly linear trajectory, there appeared a discontinuity. On Christmas Eve in 1884, a New York Times headline read “THE LEADER OF THE FLOUR TRUST.” A. A. Freemen, the irrelevant man leading this new movement contested the Minneapolis prices as he encouraged the formation of a flour trust to lower prices; however, his passion was fleeting as grain men noticed, “[him] having, in his elevators on the Hastings and Dakota Road, paid relatively higher for wheat than even Minneapolis prices.” This man, though unimportant, introduces the first suggestion of a trust. Six years later, a suggestion becomes a statement. In 1889, an English syndicate, with agreement from milling heads, bought two-thirds of Minneapolis’ milling capacity and companies worth at that time $10,000,000. While Minneapolis heads still controlled their companies, outsider interest ruled the booming industry. By 1990, four large companies commanded 97% of the milling industry. This plays in stark contrast to 1876, when there were 17 companies. However, such consolidation promoted distrust in this new flour trust. 


Though it may seem that workers would deplore the Milling Industry from exploding dust to new trusts, they held their position and industry in high esteem. However, the trend of consolidation beckoned greed and distrust. On November 10, 1893, the Northwestern Miller wrote: “It is rumored that in certain sections the millowners are contemplating a united movement to cut down the wages of operatives…such action is exceedingly ill-advised.” Mill owners considered cutting, and had cut, both skilled and unskilled workers. On the topic of skilled millers, the Northwestern noted, “One of the reasons why our flour has conquered the world’s markets, wherever it has been admitted, is that more brains go into a barrel of American flour than into any other. To the intelligence and sagacity of the operative miller, to a large degree, we are indebted for our success as millers.” This is unequivocally true. Milling was a difficult art that required the enthusiastic participation of millers. Previous mill owners, like Mr. Crosby, then mill-owner of Washburn-Crosby, rejected any consideration of cutting wages as they believed in paying their men what they are worth. However, what was old did not serve the new mill owners, and, unfortunately, the movement once rejected by the innovative mill owners and millers in unity, split those who were once allies as mill owners decided to cut wages in 1893. While millers—with the help of the Knights of Labor— attempted to boycott and strike against Washburn-Crosby flour and other mills, the attempts failed. These new mill owners birthed a new standard against history.  


Over the following years, workers reorganized as they believed that Minneapolis mills deserved to be best in the milling industry and reform. Such an agenda guaranteed workers an 8-hour week in 1902. However, shortly after in 1903, a strike against a newly-formed group of business owners against workers’ rights called the Minneapolis Citizens Alliance failed miserably. With failure came the extinction of worker organization as by 1916 there existed no trade organization in the mills at all. Decades later, the milling industry died out, and iron stopped sharpening iron.


An industry once rooted in the traditional pursuit of growth, innovation, and good labor evolved into a conflict between those who were once allies. Though it began with high hopes for all, the journey of the Minneapolis milling industry developed into an enterprise where too few could prosper. And, history does not agree with the few. 

 
  1.  R. Wake, "History as a Separate Discipline: The Case," Teaching History 1, no. 3 (1970): 1, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43251891.

  2. Edward W. Said, "The Potentate and the Traveler, by Edward W. Said (1994)," Rolf Potts, last modified September 24, 2020, accessed October 29, 2023, https://rolfpotts.com/the-potentate-and-the-traveler/.

  3.  Minneapolis Star Tribune, "Recalling a miller's fateful decision to work late at the Washburn A Mill," Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), May 3, 1878, accessed November 20, 2023, https://www.startribune.com/mr-grundman-s-fateful-decision-to-work-late-at-the-washburn-a-mill/420158593/.

  4. New York Times, December 24, 1888, 1, accessed November 20, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/1888/12/24/archives/the-leader-of-the-flour-trust.html.

  5. New York, 1.

  6. "Getting a Grip on the Mills," New York Times, 3, accessed November 20, 2023, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1889/07/16/106210416.html?pageNumber=3.

  7. "Wheat Farms, Flour Mills, and Railroads: A Web of Interdependence (Teaching with Historic Places)," National Park Service, accessed November 20, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/articles/wheat-farms-flour-mills-and-railroads-a-web-of-interdependence-teaching-with-historic-places.htm#:~:text=Tremendous%20consolidation%20took%20place%20within,the%20flour%20made%20in%20Minnesota

  8.  The Northwestern Miller (Minneapolis, MN), November 10, 1893, 1, accessed November 20, 2023, https://archive.org/details/sim_northwestern-miller_1893-11-10_36_19/mode/2up?view=theater.

  9. The Northwestern, 1.

  10. This topic deserves a distinctly different paper to accurately and justly cover the groups’ nefarious activities. 





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