Mill City Museum examines flour power

A new museum in Minneapolis is all about flour and power, potential and resilience, reputation and ruins.

The Mill City Museum, 704 S. Second St., on the banks of the Mississippi River downtown, has been open less than two months. It is a candid, airy and fascinating testimonial to what used to be the world’s largest flour mill and the world’s biggest flour production city.

The story of the Washburn A Mill, which became General Mills in 1928, is told by average mill workers. Their voices are heard while visitors ride an eight-story freight elevator, which stops periodically to show various stages of flour production.

We learn that, until 1930, Minneapolis produced more flour than any city in the world. Washburn A opened in 1880 and closed abruptly in 1965, with many workers hearing the news from the television instead of their boss.

We listen to women who worked the line during wartime, until “the men came home from service to take the jobs away from us,” and how heavy flour bags were transported by hand into railroad cars – 175 railcars of wheat processed per day.

We hear how sweat and flour dust routinely formed a “goop” that had to be scraped from the arms of mill workers. Some made $25 per week for the labor and considered themselves lucky.

Explosions devastated Washburn A twice while it was a working mill. The third time the building went up in flames, in 1991, it was housing the homeless and a few other people.

The museum has been built within and around the mill ruins, some of which stand as a courtyard memorial to the turbulent but proud past. In its heyday, 26 flour mills operated on the Minneapolis riverfront. Now only Pillsbury A Mill remains, and it reportedly will close soon.

What made Minneapolis such a hub for flour production, and why isn’t it that way anymore? That’s a part of the story, too, as are the food products which became known worldwide because of General Mills and Pillsbury.

A replica test kitchen is part of this museum, and it smells great because of the brownies and breads that are baked (and sampled) throughout the day.

The Flour Tower freight elevator ride ends at a rooftop observation deck that, on a clear day, offers tremendous views of the river, nearby St. Anthony Falls and urban riverfront development.

At ground level, multiple generations of families can watch and identify with 1940-90s product radio and TV advertising for Malt-O-Meal, Wheaties and Bisquick. Betty Crocker’s transformation in appearance is documented. So is the difference between hard spring wheat that is raw and tempered.

Vintage product packaging, equipment, ads and attitudes are grouped for comparison. In the Water Lab, kids can wear waterproof aprons or get wet while learning how the river has been used to move logs and other commodities.

Particularly impressive, overall, is the kind of crowd this museum attracts. Children to retirees can be amused and intrigued here. Farmers, factory workers, white-collared execs and people who cook will naturally migrate to different exhibit components.

For more about the museum, call (888) 727-8386 or go to A nifty gift shop and café are in the complex, too. It’s a great way to spend a part of a weekend, particularly if you’re going to the Twin Cities for the Nov. 8 Badger-Gopher football game.

If you missed the 2003 Taste of Home Expo in Milwaukee, keep in mind that the cooking magazine’s publisher has a great visitor center, test kitchen and outlet store in Greendale, a Milwaukee suburb. Among the other Reiman Publications titles are “Country Woman” and “Light & Tasty.”

For more, go to or call (414) 423-3080. Admission is free. Thanks go to Rosemary Bowe of Chippewa Falls for mentioning this tour option.

Most recipes in the Reiman magazines are tested three times before publication, and visitors sometimes can participate in the taste-testing process. If your timing is bad and you’re hungry, head across the street to the Heinemann’s Taste of Home Restaurant. There are seven Heinemann’s restaurants; they are my favorite breakfast places in Milwaukee.

“Roads Traveled” recently gave away tickets to the annual Taste of Home Expo. The recipients were Linda Seelhammer, West Salem; Steve Arenz, Stoddard; Ila and Frank Manning, Waukesha; Colette Countryman, Waukesha; and Barb Holbrook, Eau Claire.

It was great to hear from everybody who took the time to share their advice about where to shop for cooking accessories or unusual kinds of food. Besides Williams-Sonoma and Marshall Fields stores, Pampered Chef parties and farmers markets, we were directed in these ways:

Sendiks of Brookfield is our favorite shop for unusual food, and now featuring German food,” writes the Mannings. (Go to or 262-781-8200 for more.)

“A great place for meat is Nueske’s in Wittenberg,” writes Marie Braatz, Thorp. (Go to or call 715-720-1153.)

Last, a woman simply identified as Marianne wrote that she lived in Madison for 30 years and “never outgrew my love for shopping at Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street. They have such interesting gadgets and lots of gourmet cooking items. They also give wonderful cooking classes, and I learned a lot from those as well.”

I’ll add a thumb’s up to that, and also will recommend The Vanilla Bean on Odana Road in Madison. It is a baker’s dream, particularly when planning a party. Merchandise is eclectic and extensive: party favors and birthday candles to tiny candy molds and giant cookie cutters.

If these descriptions make you think of other great food places, please drop a line, and we’ll share them with others.