Tools & Technology

The Fourth Wall

Minneapolis’s Washburn A Mill, once the largest flour producer in the world, exploded twice: first in 1878 and again in 1928. The Washburn A—or rather, what’s left of it—has entered its third life as the Mill City Museum.

By Anne Fredrickson | June 12, 2012

Mill City Museum
704 South 2nd Street
Minneapolis, MN 55401

Minneapolis’s Washburn A Mill, once the largest flour producer in the world, has exploded twice: first in 1878 and again in 1928. Strangely enough, the mill’s two disasters also bookended the peak decades of the city’s flour industry; between 1880 and 1930 Minneapolis was known as the “Mill City,” housing no less than two dozen flour mills on the banks of the Mississippi. Flour made up the majority of the city’s industrial output, and at their peak the mills created a labor draw that saw urban population increase tenfold. Few of the buildings remain today, though their names—Pillsbury, Gold Medal, Malt-O-Meal—are familiar to any cereal lover. And the Washburn A—or rather, what’s left of it—has entered its third life as the Mill City Museum, a site uniquely suited to explore the history of an industry and its geography.

The Fourth Wall

Mill City Museum

Above a dam on the Mississippi River, the Mill City Museum (center) is housed in the remains of a historic 19th-century flour mill.

Mark Fredrickson

The mill’s two blasts, the first of which killed 18 workers, were fueled by flour dust, the inevitable, volatile by-product of the milling process. Characteristic of Mill City’s light touch, they also prompt its cheeky billing as “the most explosive museum in the world.” Ironically, it was a massive fire, 30 years after the mill closed, that actually brought down the Washburn A. But bricks and mortar are hardy stuff, and about a third of the mill’s 19th-century walls remain. The city had considered razing the building after the fire, but its ruins, now stabilized, are often a first stop for museum visitors. And regardless of cause, seeing sky where ceiling ought to be brings the mill’s tragedies a little closer; accounts of the 1878 blast tell of steel roof beams and other structural debris deposited as far as two miles away. These stories, posted in period newspaper reproductions around the foundation, contrast with the families snapping photos at what was once a major industrial disaster.

This is not to say Mill City lacks sensitivity. Many of its displays tend toward the personal—journals, photographs, and letters of mill workers; family recipes and stories; interviews with those who worked at the mill before its close in 1965. The permanent exhibit makes it possible to follow both the stories of Washburn employees, who processed, bagged, and transported enough flour to bake 12 million loaves of bread, and the technological and commercial advances that made that number possible. Display clusters in the main gallery invite visitors to plot their own course through the exhibit with a mix of personal artifacts, documentaries, photographs, interviews, games, period machinery, and a time line of advertisements. Simple label headings (“This is a middlings purifier”; “This is a dust collector”) followed by more detailed explanations allow the viewer to control the flow of information—an advantage given the surprising amount packed into the museum’s 12,000 square feet.

Those wary of overload—or too young to approach it—can appreciate Mill City’s playful aesthetics; the Warhol-esque design centers around a giant, iconic replica of a Bisquick box. A waterway challenge, where contestants direct the path of logs traveling on a miniature Mississippi, demonstrates the difficulties of navigating St. Anthony’s Falls, the power source for the mill district. A baking lab, site of the warm, homey smells that permeate the building, has demonstrations on the hour, while amateur or pro cooks can copy out any recipe from the lab’s shelves on Mill City recipe cards. And in the engine room turned theater, local celebrity Kevin Kling’s Minneapolis in 19 Minutes Flat manically summarizes a large swath of city history.

Mill City’s true showpiece, however, is probably the Flour Tower, a freight elevator that takes visitors both to the museum’s eighth-story observation deck and through the Washburn’s last working decades. A nice example of educational multimedia, each floor opens on a different set, narrated by recorded interviews with former workers and peopled by disarmingly lifelike video figures. Naturally, there is a story of fire and explosion—complete with sound, aftershock, and darkness. The doors then open to panoramic views of the Mississippi, St. Anthony’s Falls, and the Washburn A ruins.

Though well expressed, the dangers of mill work can seem stuck in the past at Mill City. There are few mentions of other, recent dust-related explosions, which could help visitors connect the mill’s history with a larger picture of labor and policy issues. And while the museum is not in the business of advocacy (nor should it be), through its collections savvy viewers may start to wonder about the people who make things today and where their towns are, now that the “Mill City” exists only in memory.