Mill City Museum

Gold Medal Flour sign

The tagline for the museum is “The Most Explosive Museum in the World” – and it’s a museum about flour milling. This might not make sense unless you know that flour is 70 times more explosive than gunpowder, making it extremely combustible and a pretty dangerous thing to have a factory full of. Now, in full disclosure, I should say that I didn’t really know this until I visited the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, a museum built on the site of one of the oldest flour mills in America.

The old mill was once know as the Washburn A Mill and opened in 1874  in a city known for its flour million. It was producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million pounds of flour per day at its peak during the 1870s. In 1878, however, a spark set off a massive explosion, destrying the factory, destroying two neighboring factories, killing 18 workers and setting a huge fire in the city. The mill was rebuilt into the largest flour mill in the world in 1880 and Washburn merged with a man named John Crosby to turn the mill into General Mills (yes, the founding of the huge brand we all know today). It remained the largest mill in the world until The Pillsbury A Mill opened across the river in 1881.

The mill was closed in 1965 and, in the 1990s, was turned into the Mill City Museum, which features some great presentations on the history of milling and how that industry was the primary reason that the city of Minneapolis is as big as it is now, as well as a lot of history of General Mills, Betty Crocker and Pillsbury (which General Mills acquired a few years ago).  There are some great exhibits showing the flour milling process, as well as things like various packaging for products that the mill put out over the years.

Perhaps the most interesting sight is the explosive flour demo. For the experiment, just a small amount of flour is placed inside a secure metal chamber, air is pumped inside to encourage the flour to fill the air as fine dust particles. A spark is introduced to the chamber and – BOOM! – the roof blows off in a little ball of fire. Many things are combustible when reduced to a fine powder and a spark is introduced, but it’s funny to think of something as commonplace as flour having this same property.

General Mills is still headquartered in Minneapolis, but all that really remains from the original factorys are some foundation stones and a couple of fantastic signs for Gold Medal Flour and Pillsbury’s Best Flour – both of which are still available today – that light up the skyline over the river.

Pillsbury Flour sign

14 comments

  1. Wow. I grew up in Minnesota and frequently go back for summers and holidays and I must admit that I’ve never been to the Mill City Museum. Now I’m thinking I should definitely make it a stop next time I am back.

  2. Kelly, don’t feel bad, I live in the Minneapolis area and I still haven’t made it there. I suppose it’s like all the New Yorker’s that have never been to the top of the Empire State building.

  3. This is facinating. My respect for flour has increased and I will be careful not to get mad at it when a recipe fails. :)

  4. If you are going to the museum, don’t forget to go to the observation deck for a great view of the falls and the Stone Arch Bridge. There is also a film, Minneapolis in 19 minutes flat, that shouldn’t be missed!!

  5. Oh, this is so cool!!!!!

  6. Who knew that flour was like gunpowder? Pretty cool museum!

  7. Is this time period right? “It remained the largest mill in the world until The Pillsbury A Mill opened across the river in 1881.” That was only one year after the other mill was built. ;-)

  8. Louise – Yup, it wasn’t the largest mill in the world for long! Milling was a very competitive industry in that area at that time. I imagine that there was a little bit of personal investment in who had the largest mill in town.

  9. My husband and I lived down the street from the Mill City Museum for 2.5 years (and just moved last week!). We didn’t manage to go until about 6 weeks ago and thought it was a great museum!

  10. This would be a very interesting process to see first-hand. If I’m in the area I’ll have to check it out.

  11. I like the style of that old mill building. I haven’t seen a building with such a unique structure before.

  12. Wow- these are places I love to visit. I’ll def need to check this out next time I am in Minneapolis.

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