Thursday, August 13, 2015

Urban Bike: Mill City

Much of the early wealth of Minneapolis came from grain. This grain legacy translates into locally headquartered companies like Cargill and General Mills.

Cargill, the largest privately held company in the country, manages 25% of US grain exports. General Mills manages ubiquitous brands like Betty Crocker and Pillsbury.

The first flour mill in what is now Minneapolis was built in 1823 to serve Fort Snelling. From the 1880's through the 1920's, Minneapolis earned the nickname "Mill City" because its mills were the most productive in the world.

I spent a day on my bicycle finding significant examples from these productive times.

Railroads provide a common thread for flour mills and cycling. Some of my trails follow railroad rights of way. All the facilities I visited are built next to railroads.

The first two grain elevators are next to the Cedar Lake LRT Regional Trail, not too far from our home.

1. Peavey–Haglin Experimental Concrete Grain Elevator
1899: The first concrete grain elevator in North America, possibly the world
I've cycled past this grain elevator many times thinking it was a chimney for the Nordic Ware cookware factory.

This elevator changed the world of grain elevators. Built as a prototype, it proved it was practical to build grain elevators using concrete. It was only filled once with grain, and the experiment was declared a success.

Soon after that, concrete grain elevators popped up all over the region. Some of these are still in productive use.

I pedal east for a few minutes along the Cedar Lake Trail to some former concrete grain silos. 

2. Calhoun Isles Condominiums
1915 and 1928 Cereal Grading Company silos converted to condominiums in 1982
These condominiums incorporate two silos. The silos are clad with urethane insulation then stucco. Windows are flat, rather than curved, and interior walls are exposed concrete.

The end result seems bland, but it does strengthen a sense of place, a connection with the past.

Back on my bicycle, I head...
...East on Cedar Lake LRT Regional Trail 
...North on Kenilworth Trail 
...East on Cedar LakeTrail
...Northwest on Bassett Creek Trail
 I wheel my bicycle along a disintegrating path beside Bassett Creek. I stop at a waterfall that explains the location of the next mill.

3. Fruen Mill 
Circa 1894: Abandoned mill, dangerous dereliction, poised for development

I backtrack to the cycle path to get an alternate view.

I've puzzled over how to assign a single build year to a structure as fluid as a grain elevator. The Peavey Haglin was easy: it was built, used once, then abandoned. By contrast, the Fruen is a conglomeration of structures upon structures. As needs changed, as better technologies became available, structures were tacked on or altered.

As with other mills on my route, urban explorers have died or been injured here. Recently developers bought the Fruen to convert it to "office, brewery, and restaurant space."

I then head...
...Northwest on Bassett Creek Trail to Theodore Wirth Park
...North on Grand Rounds Trail
Finally I cycle a few blocks on quiet streets to my next mill.

4. General Mills Soo Mill
A working mill
I have to include one working mill in this post, and this is it. There are still many working mills around the Twin Cities, but I chose this one because the location nicely lengthened the ride.

I've now learned mills are works in process. I see evidence of many additions over the years, including steel silos alongside concrete silos.

I hear a working mill. The electric motors, the extractors working round-the-clock to keep the dust below explosive limits.

While a working mill may dominate the landscape, the mill operators seem to want it to be invisible. There are no signs, no declaration this is owned by General Mills, no information of any kind. I found no information on General Mills' public Web sites.

BNSF trains serve this mill. The BNSF Web site tells me General Mills operates this facility, it's called the Soo Line elevator, and it processes barley and oats.

Back on my bicycle...
...I head back to the Grand Rounds Trail
...I take North 2nd Street on a dedicated bike lane south towards downtown Minneapolis
...Close to Downtown I cut over to ride an off-road path beside the Mississippi until I reach the historic milling district
As I cycle south, I see elevators real, and imagined. The skyline of Minneapolis looks like a series of grain elevators.

5. Mill City Museum
Museum opened in 2003 in the ruined shell of Washburn A Mill (built 1880)
For forty years this was the world's largest flour mill. Mill City Museum rises out of the ruins.

This area was the center of milling in Minneapolis. Other notable mills in the area include the Ceresota, now a mixed-use building, and the Pillsbury A, now artists' lofts.

I stare at expressionist images of the Mill City Museum in the mirrored panels of the neighboring Guthrie Theater. A dent in the mirror provides trippy re-imaginations of the structure.

A modern freight elevator takes me to the top of the mill. I'm treated to dangling, converging dust removal ducts. I look down on the Mississippi and St. Anthony Falls, the mill's first power source.

Back downstairs, I head...
...South on Grand Rounds Trail for a few blocks

....East on Dinkytown Greenway across the Mississippi and through the University of Minnesota

6. Electric Steel Elevator
Built 1901: Pioneering steel-binned grain elevator, now abandoned
Electric Steel Elevator, August 2015.
The Electric Steel is one of several grain elevators on the edge of the University of Minnesota. Some mills are still operating, others are abandoned.

Electric Steel must have seemed very modern when it opened. It was powered by electricity rather than water or steam, and the bins were made of steel rather than wood. By 1901 the electric motor was a proven technology for turning mill equipment: electric motors were successfully used in a mill as early as 1888.

The university has just purchased the Electric Steel, but it is blocked from going ahead with its plan to tear the elevator down.

I make my way to the final facility on my tour...
...I retrace my Dinkytown Greenway route, back across the Mississippi
...For a few blocks, I take designated bike lanes on city streets
...I then head south on the Hiawatha Bike Trail

7. Farmers Union Grain Association Elevator M
1930: The last Farmers Union elevator still standing in Minneapolis, now abandoned
The Farmers Union built this elevator to avoid other operators' high fees. Today Elevator M is regarded as historically significant, and there are attempts to protect it from demolition.

I try to pick out details of the mural on the silos, faded by the years since the mural's dedication in 1992.

There are still several elevators in this area, some working, some abandoned. They were built to take advantage of one of the very first railroads in Minnesota (built in the 1860's).

A new apartment building replaces one of the elevators. Panels on the side of the building interpret the history of grain elevators in the area.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the remaining elevators in the coming years. A light rail line just across the street makes a strong argument for higher population density. Changes of zoning from industrial to residential are inevitable.

Note: On this ride I stayed focused on a few illustrative examples. To keep the ride within bounds, I excluded Northeast ("Nordeast") Minneapolis where there are several grain elevators. On a different cycle ride I took the photo at the top of this post at the Greater Midwest LEGO Train Club in their lovely space in a former World War II bombsight factory in northeast Minneapolis..  

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