“The Ames Mill,” by Erin Frankson

Introduction

It was a sunny, spring day and I basked in the warmth of the sun’s rays as I walked along the Cannon River in Northfield.  I could smell the pizza baking in nearby restaurants, the breeze blowing off of the river, and the ground beginning to thaw.  Amidst all of these smells was a warm, starchy aroma that reminded me of potato pancakes cooking on a hot griddle.  While I had never been able to pinpoint the source of the smell before, I realized now that it came from the Ames Mill, a modest building tucked away on Water Street, just east of the Cannon River.  Overshadowed by the elaborate architecture on Division Street and the activity of the local Malt-O-Meal Plant, the Ames Mill is an unrecognized treasure that has greatly shaped the city of Northfield.  The mill, which was constructed in 1869, was once a bustling center of flour and grain production, turning out over 400 barrels of flour a day.[1]  It had an enormous impact on the area.  Not only did it attract wheat farmers to the region, but it fueled the economy and development of Northfield.  Over the years, the mill has changed ownership, adopted new technologies, and undergone remodeling.  But despite all of these changes, the mill has continued to function.  As agriculture diversified and mills in the Midwest closed, the Ames Mill remained open, producing high quality cereals and grains to be shipped to grocery stores and supermarkets across the country.  Today, the Ames Mill continues its legacy, producing hot wheat cereal for the Malt-O-Meal Corporation.  And while it may not be the most prominent building downtown, the mill continues to impact the people, economy, and community of Northfield, Minnesota.

Beginnings

In January of 1855, John Wesley North came to the area now known as “Northfield” looking to establish a mill.[2] North was a politician from New York who had moved to Minnesota with his wife in 1849.[3]  Impressed by the power and utility of the Cannon River, North purchased 320 acres of land along the river and immediately began constructing a dam and saw mill.[4]  The dam allowed North to produce energy for the saw mill, which in turn enabled him to produce lumber and construct a modest house for his wife and children.  After the saw mill was completed in December of that 1849, North focused his attention on constructing a flour mill on the west side of the Cannon River.[5]  This mill would later become known as “The Old Mill”.  In the spring of 1856, the mill was completed and North began processing wheat shortly thereafter.[6]  Because there were several farming families in the area, North had no problem finding a steady supply of wheat to grind at the mill.  However, transportation of the wheat both to the mill and to consumers proved to be a slow and arduous task.  Wheat from nearby farms had to be brought to the mill via carts and wagons, which were unreliable and often got stuck.  In addition, the lack of roads in the area made it difficult to transport the wheat to buyers.  Thus, although the mill had a steady supply of wheat, transportation inhibited production efficiency.

The mill industry was radically transformed in 1857 when the state of Minnesota chartered a railroad that would run through Northfield and connect St. Paul to the state of Iowa.[7]  Once completed, the railroad would allow the mill to keep pace with production and would enable flour to be transported easily and efficiently throughout the state.  As work on the railroad progressed, the area surrounding the mill, which had once been home to only a few families, quickly became a town.  In a letter written on April 5th, 1880, North reflects on the impact of the mill on the area:

I did not at first contemplate starting a town, much less a city; I only thought of a mill.  There was then no road running thru the place, but I got one laid out from Waterford, crossing the river just below the mills at Northfield.  I then thought of a post office, school house, blacksmith shop, store, townsite, and finally a railroad, and by energetic work got them all.  I never so much as thought I was making history, and so the work done is the only record of my acts.[8]

Thus, with the construction of the Old Mill in 1856, North had successfully established the town of Northfield.

A New Mill for Northfield

As news of the mill reached neighboring towns, settlers and farmers began to move into the area.  With more and more farmers producing wheat, the old mill could no longer keep up with the available supply.  Thus, in 1869, Jesse Ames decided to construct a second flour mill in Northfield.  Jesse Ames was a retired Civil War General who had purchased the Old Mill in Northfield in 1864.[9]  While he expanded the Old Mill in an effort to keep pace with the incoming supply of wheat, the mill ultimately struggled to process all of the flour that was brought to it.  As a result, in 1869, Jesse Ames constructed Northfield’s second flour mill: the Ames Mill.  The Ames Mill, which was located on the east side of the Cannon River, greatly expanded Northfield’s flour industry.  At the time of its completion, the mill employed 25 men and had the ability to turn out 150 barrels of flour in 24 hours.[10]  As the mill drew settlers to the area and the city of Northfield expanded, the mill expanded as well.  In 1875, a seventh run was installed in the mill, boosting production up to 175 barrels of flour per day.  And in 1879, 35 feet were added to the top of the mill, making the mill five stories tall.[11]  By 1885, Northfield had a booming flour industry.  During the 1880’s, the two mills in Northfield manufactured 600 barrels of flour per day and brought in two million dollars annually.[12]

Minnesota’s Mill Mania

Meanwhile, flour mills began to pop up all across the state of Minnesota.  As settlers soon discovered, the state’s fertile soil and numerous waterways provided the perfect environment for growing and processing wheat.[13]  The first flour mill in Minnesota had been constructed in 1823 at the Falls of St. Anthony.[14]  However, it wasn’t until the construction of railways in the mid 1800’s that the wheat industry boomed.  Along with the railroads came grain sacks and elevators, which exponentially increased flour mill efficiency and made it possible to ship large quantities of grain by river.[15]  From 1850 to 1870, annual wheat production in Minnesota went from 1,400 bushels to 19 million bushels.[16] And by the mid 19th century, almost every river and creek in the state had a flour mill constructed on it, thus earning the state the title of flour-milling capital of the world.[17]

New Technology

Despite overcoming limits to transportation and production, wheat farmers and millers in Minnesota had to face another obstacle: climate.  The Minnesota climate was unsuited for growing the winter wheat that was grown out East.  Early farmers who tried to farm winter wheat were forced to abandon their wheat crop due to winterkill, blight, rust, and insect attacks.[18]  Thus, farmers in the state turned to spring wheat, a harder and darker variety than the winter wheat grown in other parts of the country.[19]  When the spring wheat was milled, the tough outer coating on the grain shattered, causing the flour to become speckled with brown flecks.[20]  This speckling lowered the flour’s quality and deterred consumers from purchasing it.  In 1861, Alexander Faribault, founder of the nearby town that carries his name, hired Nicholas and Edmund La Croix to help him engineer a mill that could produce high quality flour.[21],[22]  The LaCroix brothers were natives of Montreal and had knowledge of the milling practices used in France.  They knew that in order to produce high quality flour, they would have to find a way to remove the brown flecks of bran that discolored the flour and lowered its value.  Originally, mills in the state had used the old grist-mill pattern from the East Coast known as “low grinding”, which utilized water poured over a wheel that turned a pair of large stones.[23]  However, the process pulverized the entire wheat kernel and failed to separate the bran from the flour.  In 1871, the LaCroix brothers invented the middlings purifier, which ground the gluten layer surrounding the wheat kernel into middlings.  These middlings were then sifted out of the flour using a series of sieves, thus producing pure, high quality flour.[24]  The middlings purifier was an immediate success and the technology made its way to mills across the state, including to the two mills in Northfield.  With the middlings purifier, millers were able to produce high quality flour from the native spring wheat that grew in the state.    As a result, mill efficiency increased from 25 to 90 percent and demand for the new, high quality flour skyrocketed.[25]  Because the Ames Mill was one of the first mills in the state to install the middlings purifier and produce “new process flour”, the mill became renowned for its superior flour quality.

Decline of the Flour Industry

The milling industry in Minnesota continued to expand up until 1916, whereby it reached its historical peak.[26]  As agriculture diversified, and farmers turned to corn and dairying, wheat lost its foothold in the Minnesotan economy and the flour milling industry experienced a dramatic decline.[27]  As demand decreased and prices fell, mills shut down and were abandoned.  Larger mills, which were able to afford new, cutting edge technology, soon out-competed smaller mills, which were unable to invest in the new technology.  In addition, the development of the milling industry in New York and Kansas shifted the demand for flour to new regions of the country and increased competition.  In 1897, the passage of the “milling-in-bond privilege” by Congress allowed millers to import wheat from Canada duty free.  This enabled millers in Buffalo and in other cities along the border to sell flour at a lower price.[28]  As a result, many millers in Minnesota were unable to compete with the mills on the border and their mills were forced to shut down.  Thus, while the 19th century had ushered in an era of mill construction and flour production, the 20th century ultimately saw the mill industry’s decline in the state of Minnesota.

The Ames Mill Anomaly

Despite the statewide decline of flour mills in the early 20th century, the Ames Mill continued to function.   Because the Ames Mill was one of the first mills in the state to utilize the middlings purifier, it gained a reputation for producing pure, high quality flour.  This reputation enabled the mill to retain demand while other mills closed.  Furthermore, product diversification in the 1930’s allowed the Ames Mill to maintain a large consumer base.  In 1937, John Campbell, founder of Malt-O-Meal, purchased the Ames Mill and used it to produce his own brand of hot breakfast cereal.[29]  The cereal, which combined malted and farina wheat, competed with the Cream of Wheat cereal sold by North Dakota millers.  Thus, while other mills focused solely on producing flour, the Ames Mill expanded production to include hot cereals and porridges.  Furthermore, the physical construction of the Ames Mill enabled the mill to survive the flour industry’s decline.  According to Dick Dahl, Malt-O-Meal production manager, the timber-frame construction of the Ames Mill allowed it to adapt to new machinery and technologies over the years.  The frame allowed walls to be easily moved within the mill, therefore enabling the restructuring of production processes when new equipment or technology arrived.[30] Ultimately, while other mills in the area shut down, the construction, technology, and diversification of the Ames Mill allowed it to remain open.

The Ames Mill LegacyDSCN4328-1

As I strolled across Bridge Square and past the Ames Mill, I reflected on the Ames Mill and its impact on the town of Northfield.  Ultimately, it was the Ames Mill, along with the Old Mill, that led to the founding and development of Northfield, Minnesota.  By processing wheat and producing flour, the two mills drew settlers to the area, encouraged wheat farming, and prompted innovations in technology and transportation.  While the Old Mill was torn down approximately a century ago, the Ames Mill still stands as a tribute to Northfield’s past.  Today, the Ames Mill continues to produce hot breakfast cereal for the Malt-O-Meal Corporation. And although many Northfield residents may not know the history behind the Ames Mill, they are reminded of its presence on a daily basis with the smell of hot wheat that drifts through the streets of Northfield, Minnesota.


[1] Carl Weicht, “Waterpower of River Led to Founding of Northfield,” The Northfield News (Northfield, MN), circa 1935, In Early Northfield History Scrapbook, ed. Emily Bierman.

[2] John W. North, “The Founding of Northfield,” The Northfield News (Northfield, MN), 1880, In Early Northfield History Scrapbook, ed. Emily Bierman.

[3] “The Founders of Northfield,” The Northfield News (Northfield, MN), circa early 1900’s, In Early Northfield History Scrapbook, ed. Emily Bierman.

[4] Carl Weicht, “Northfield History,” The Northfield News (Northfield, MN), 1930, In Do You Remember Scrapbook, ed. Emily Bierman.

[5] John W. North, “The Founding of Northfield.”

[6] “How Old Mill Was Built in ’55,” The Northfield News (Northfield, MN) 1916, In Early Northfield History Scrapbook, ed. Emily Bierman.

[7] “Northfield’s Railroads 1857-2010,” Save the Northfield Depot, accessed April 6, 2013,  http://www.northfielddepot.org/timeline/

[8] John W. North, “The Founding of Northfield.”

[9] “Last Civil War General Dead,” The Northfield News (Northfield, MN), April 1933, In Notable Events Scrapbook, ed. Emily Bierman.

[10] Carl Weicht, “Waterpower of River Led to Founding of Northfield.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991: 98.

[14] Minnesota: A State Guide, compiled by The Works Progress Administration of Minnesota, Boston: The Stratford Press, 1938: 92.

[15] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, New York, 108-113

[16] Dave Kenney, Hillary Wackman, and Nancy O’Brien Wagner, Northern Lights: The Stories of Minnesota’s Past, Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003: 159.

[17] Robert M. Frame III, “Mills, Machines, and Millers: Minnesota Sources for Flour-Milling Research,” In Minnesota History: A Quarterly Magazine 46, no. 4 (1978): 152.

[18] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, New York, 100.

[19] Minnesota: A State Guide, compiled by The Works Progress Administration of Minnesota: 93.

[20] Anne J. Aby, The North Star State: A Minnesota Reader, St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002: 191.

[21]Paul R. Fossum, “Early Milling in the Cannon River Valley,” In Minnesota History: A Quarterly Magazine 11, no. 3 (1930): 276.

[22] Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge and Stephen Jewett, History of Rice and Steele Counties, Minnesota, Chicago: H.C. Cooper, Jr., 1910: 433-434.

[23] Anne J. Aby, The North Star State: A Minnesota Reader, 191.

[24] Ibid, 191.

[25] Minnesota: A State Guide, compiled by The Works Progress Administration of Minnesota: 93.

[26] Ibid. 93.

[27] Carl Weicht, “Northfield History.”

[28] “A History of Saint Anthony Falls,” National Center for Earth Surface Dynamics, accessed April 6, 2013,  http://www.geo.umn.edu/courses/1001/1001_kirkby/SAFL/WEBSITEPAGES/Home.html

[29] Sam Barnes, “Mill in Northfield that made history still makes breakfast; After 134 years on the Cannon River, the Ames Mill is running strong,” The Northfield News (Northfield, MN), Dec. 17, 2003.

[30] Ibid.

 Works Cited

“A History of Saint Anthony Falls.” National Center for Earth Surface Dynamics.  Accessed April 6, 2013.  http://www.geo.umn.edu/courses/1001/1001_kirkby/SAFL/WEBSITEPAGES/Home.html

Aby, Anne J.  The North Star State: A Minnesota Reader.  St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.

Barnes, Sam. “Mill in Northfield that made history still makes breakfast; After 134 years on the Cannon River, the Ames Mill is running strong.” The Northfield News (Northfield, MN), Dec. 17, 2003.

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Curtiss-Wedge, Franklyn, and Stephen Jewett.  History of Rice and Steele Counties, Minnesota.  Chicago: H.C. Cooper, Jr., 1910.

Fossum, Paul R.  “Early Milling in the Cannon River Valley.” In Minnesota History: A Quarterly Magazine 11, no. 3 (1930): 271-292.

Frame, Robert M. III.  “Mills, Machines, and Millers: Minnesota Sources for Flour-Milling Research.”  In Minnesota History: A Quarterly Magazine 46, no. 4 (1978): 152-162.

“How Old Mill Was Built in ’55.”  The Northfield News (Northfield, MN), 1916.  In Early Northfield History Scrapbook.  Edited by Emily Bierman.

Kenney, Dave, Hillary Wackman, and Nancy O’Brien Wagner.  Northern Lights: The Stories of Minnesota’s Past.  St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003.

“Last Civil War General Dead.”  The Northfield News (Northfield, MN), April 1933.  In Notable Events Scrapbook.  Edited by Emily Bierman.

Minnesota: A State Guide.  Compiled by The Works Progress Administration of Minnesota.  Boston: The Stratford Press, 1938.

North, John W.  “The Founding of Northfield.”  The Northfield News (Northfield, MN), 1880.  In Early Northfield History Scrapbook.  Edited by Emily Bierman.

“Northfield’s Railroads 1857-2010.”  Save the Northfield Depot. Accessed April 6, 2013.  http://www.northfielddepot.org/timeline/

Shepard, Mary North.  “First Year of Northfield History Recounted by Founder’s Daughter.”  The Northfield News (Northfield, MN), circa early 1900’s.  In Early Northfield History Scrapbook.  Edited by Emily Bierman.

“The Founders of Northfield.”  The Northfield News (Northfield, MN), circa early 1900’s.  In Early Northfield History Scrapbook.  Edited by Emily Bierman.

Weicht, Carl.  “Northfield History.”  The Northfield News (Northfield, MN), 1930.  In Do You Remember Scrapbook.  Edited by Emily Bierman.

Weicht, Carl. “Waterpower of River Led to Founding of Northfield.” The Northfield News (Northfield, MN), circa 1935.  In Early Northfield History Scrapbook.  Edited by Emily Bierman.

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