A brief history of Washburn A Mill

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About a year ago I attended a wedding at the Mill City Museum and have been interested about its history ever since. For those of you not familiar, the Mill City Museum is housed in the former Washburn A Mill building (some call it the “Gold Medal Flour” building because of the sign that reads as such atop its grain elevator). This building has a very interesting history that ends with the site primarily consisting of ruins as it does today. When I went to this wedding last fall, I asked my father why the building was in ruins – he told me that there was a fire. Well, there was definitely a fire – three of them to be exact, one of which was an explosion that resulted in the death of 18 of the Mill’s employees.

The Wasburn A Mill was built in 1874 as the home of a flour mill company that would eventually become General Mills. The Mill, designed by William de la Barre, was powered by the near St. Anthony Falls. When it was built it was the largest flower mill in the world. On a spring day in May just 4 years after the Mill opened a explosion reduced it to rubble. The explosion was caused by flour dust igniting and the resulting fire desimated the downtown Minneapolis area.

A photo of the Mill after the 1878 explosion

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The devastating explosion prompted many changes in the regulations of operating milling factories. The Mill was rebuilt and re-opened in 1880 as one of the most “technologically advanced” flour mills in the world. The Mill would see another fire, though of less sevarity in 1928. It closed its doors in 1965 and went vacant for many years. In 1991 the, then empty, Washburn A Mill would suffer from yet another fire, this fire would end up partially destroying parts of the structure and eventually result in the “ruins” that make up the Mill City Museum today.

A photo of the Mill during its fire in 1991

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If you have not visited the Mill City Museum yet, I encourage you to do so! It is a very well done museum that gives you an interactive experience with this historical site. The architects of Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, LTD. had a difficult task in front of them when they won the bid for the design of this Museum. They had to find a way to incorporate in the ruins of the former Mill and at the same time make it accesible to the every day visitor. In my humble opinion (ha), the did a fabulous job.

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Mysteries of the Wasburn A Mill


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