The Impulsive Traveler: Minneapolis, beyond Mary Tyler Moore


A canal runs through Mill Ruins Park in Minneapolis. It's part of the remains of a canal system that powered the city's flour mills. (Alexandra Pecci/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
October 7, 2011

The big beefy guy didn’t really look like the jewelry-making type, but there he was, surrounded by beautiful baubles, stringing delicate purple beads onto a necklace.

Somewhere else, I might have just walked on by, but the intimate setting and handmade wares at Minneapolis’s Midtown Global Market encourage chatting. So I learned that Brad Herring — “Just like the fish,” he said — gave jewelry-making a shot after two heart attacks made him rethink his high-pressure job.

“I went to a farmer’s market and saw people making their own jewelry,” he told me. “I thought, ‘Hey, I can do that.’”

The last time I visited my sister-in-law in Minnesota, I did the two things that everyone apparently does in Minneapolis. I pretended to toss my hat into the air next to the Mary Tyler Moore statue downtown and shopped until my feet hurt at the Mall of America. This time, traveling with my husband and young daughter, I wanted to see the city a little differently. With only two days to explore, we decided to check out Midtown Global Market, as well as Mill Ruins Park and the Mill City Museum.

The stalls of specialty groceries, international arts and crafts and prepared food seemed to be laid out randomly inside the eclectic market. My husband, Brian, and I spent a little too much time circling around the same few rows trying to find the “wall of cookies” he said he’d spotted earlier in the day.


But getting lost there was more fun than frustrating. Around one corner I found Holy Land, a Middle Eastern grocery and deli, where I asked the general manager for help finding orange blossom water. She thought for a second, then motioned for me to follow her past rows of hookahs and packages of goat kidneys before pulling a bottle of the clear, pungent distillate down from its place next to a huge sack of basmati rice.

Around another corner I bought an $8 cow horn bracelet from Simba Craftware, which sells handmade goods such as statues, masks, banana leaf earrings and beaded sandals from 23 different African countries.

I grabbed a cornhusk-wrapped pork tamale for lunch at La Loma before indulging in a chocolate and caramel cupcake from Salty Tart, a bakery whose chef, Michelle Gayer, was a 2010 James Beard Foundation Awards nominee. My daughter, Chloe, munched a pastry from the Scandinavian food and gift shop Cafe Finspang as we checked out toy dragons at Hmong Handicrafts and homemade soaps at Rituals. Three hours later, we called it a day, although it felt as though there was a lot left to explore — and eat.

The international flavor of Midtown Global Market may represent where Minneapolis is going, but Mill Ruins Park and the nearby Mill City Museum provide an essential look at where it has been. Urban ruins seem natural in places like Rome but come as something of a surprise here in the United States, where historic buildings are so often turned into trendy lofts or office space without hesitation. Even Midtown Global Market is housed in the historic Midtown Exchange building.

Mill Ruins Park, with its half-walls of crumbling brick and rusted twists of metal sticking out of the ground, is the excavated remains of the canal system that harnessed St. Anthony Falls to power Minneapolis’s flour mills in the 1800s and early 1900s. Although Minneapolis was the flour-milling capital of the world for a time, changing technology made waterpower obsolete, and the city’s dominance in the industry declined. By the mid-20th century, the mills were closing, the canals were filled in, and many of the once-powerful mills sat abandoned, providing shelter to the city’s homeless, who are thought to have been responsible for the 1991 fire that nearly destroyed the Washburn A Mill, which had closed in 1965.

Instead of razing that building, which was once the world’s largest flour mill and part of a company that eventually became General Mills, the Minneapolis Community Development Agency stabilized the ruins in the late 1990s. In 2003, the Minnesota Historical Society opened the Mill City Museum in the remainder of the building, which is still crowned with its old Gold Medal Flour sign.

Inside, we hurried past the museum’s baking lab and exhibits about hydroelectric power and General Mills marketing (hello, Betty Crocker) to meet our tour group for an eight-story, multimedia ride up the Flour Tower elevator.

“Most people who are a little claustrophobic are absolutely fine with it,” our apron-wearing guide, Nicki, assured one nervous visitor as the lights dimmed and the heavy industrial elevator doors rumbled shut behind her. We sat on wide steps as the huge elevator traveled up and down the tower, the doors opening at different floors to reveal — with re-created factory scenes, sound effects and voice-overs from former mill workers — what it was like to work inside the mill.

“You respect it,” one worker remembered, “because if you don’t respect it, it will chew you up and spit you out. It will.”

That’s because work in the mills could be dangerous with all that flour dust, which is more explosive than gunpowder under the right conditions. In 1878, those right conditions caused an explosion that not only killed 18 people, but also destroyed the mill and many of the buildings around it. The whole area had to be rebuilt.

The elevator deposited us on the eighth floor, where we checked out some of the mill’s surviving machinery before heading up to the ninth-floor observation deck. Atop the deck, I leaned over the railing to look down into the gutted mill ruins below. Beyond the mill walls, a fantastic panoramic view of the Mississippi River, Stone Arch Bridge and St. Anthony Falls stretched out before us. It gave me a whole new perspective on the city. It was Minneapolis as I’d never seen it before, which was exactly what I’d hoped to find.

Pecci is a freelance writer in Plaistow, N.H.

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