Flour Power at a Minneapolis Mill

Sunday, September 4, 2005

Hey, kids! What can we make with flour today? Bread? Cookies? A really awesome explosion?

At the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, you might get to do all of that as you explore what once was the biggest flour mill in the world, where 175 railroad cars of wheat were milled each day into enough flour to make 12 million loaves of bread.

Of course, the old Washburn A Mill hasn't done much milling since 1965, and certainly not since 1991, when a fire thought to have been set by homeless occupants nearly destroyed the then-abandoned building. The Minnesota Historical Society acquired the ruins and in 2003 transformed them into a place that is interesting, fun and subversively educational.

In one lab, apron-clad kids splash their hands in water as they build a model Mill City and learn the basics of hydraulic power. Nearby St. Anthony Falls, the only significant waterfall on the entire Mississippi, powered the A Mill -- the scalpers, the wheat washers, the cockle cylinders, the flour sifters.

Meanwhile another group of youngsters works in a kitchen lab, baking treats for themselves while learning food chemistry. They make cookies and bread; sometimes they help grind wheat. The many children's activities offset a considerable collection of baby boomer-targeted nostalgia and displays of milling company marketing campaigns: General Mills's Gold Medal Flour asked homemakers, "Eventually, why not now?" to which Pillsbury tartly responded, "Because Pillsbury's Best." (Pillsbury and General Mills were once intense rivals, but they merged in 2002.) Cereal-advertising memorabilia make for particularly compelling exhibits. For many, they were the first ads we can remember aimed specifically at us.

Twice -- in 1878 and 1928 -- the mill was rocked by explosions. (The earlier one leveled the entire building and broke windows in St. Paul, some eight miles away.) Flour dust can be as explosive as gunpowder, if you mix enough of it with air, seal the chamber and provide a spark. And, as you watch, a guide does just that, producing a soul-satisfying kaboom!

After that, groups of 30 are seated in a small section of bleachers. Then, bleachers and all, they soar. The small auditorium is actually a large freight elevator, which takes the crowd up into the old wheat house, where grain once was separated from weed seed and creepy crawlies. Eight of its floors now hold multimedia exhibits that integrate video sequences with flour milling equipment that whirs, spins and vibrates. One machine's belt breaks, slapping at the air with possible lethal consequences. But the visitors are safe, never having to leave their seats as they move up from one presentation to another.

On other floors, workers come to life via rear projection and load 100-pound flour sacks onto rail cars. One mill veteran complains of the dust, grousing that it would combine with sweat and he'd have to comb his arm hair "to get the goo-balls out." Goo-balls were annoying, but there was a real health hazard in "miller's cough," which resulted from breathing in air so thick that one often could not see a lightbulb 10 feet away.

At the top of the ride, visitors exit the elevator and many of them step out onto a platform for a panoramic view of the falls. The old Pillsbury Mill stands quietly on the opposite side of the river in what used to be the separate city of St. Anthony. River traffic is light today, and the old milling district, for years a skid row, is being turned into parks and condos. Later this year, Minneapolis's Guthrie Theatre will reopen in big new quarters next to the museum.

Bet their seats can't go eight floors into the air, though.

-- Jerry V. Haines

Mill City Museum, 704 S. Second St., Minneapolis, 612-341-7555,http://www.millcitymuseum.org. Admission $8.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company