As the familiar scent of freshly-baked cookies wafts across the campus of St. Olaf College, Professor of Physics Bob Jacobel cautions his students, “Whenever you smell cookies, it will probably rain in the next two or three days.” His students nod and, sure enough, forty-eight hours later, rain is upon the campus. The cookie smell, a frequently-espoused fun fact of the college, comes from the Malt-O-Meal factory just about half a mile south of St. Olaf. The large plant distributes everything from Marshmallow Mateys to Frosted Mini Spooners, but Malt-O-Meal was a Northfield presence long before cereal-filled semi trucks rolled down Highway 19. Malt-O-Meal got its start at the old Ames Mill, located on the West side of the Cannon River in downtown Northfield. The plant still operates today, but it was used even before the Malt-O-Meal days. This paper will explore the history of the Ames Mill in the context of the boom of the Minneapolis flour-milling industry, changes in national consumption patterns, and the ecology and land use patterns of the Northfield area itself.
The Ames Mill was constructed in 1856, just after the founding of Northfield. This first mill was owned by John North himself (the founder of Northfield), and it used water power to grind flour. The Northfield area was already agricultural and had rich soil that facilitated the cultivation of wheat. Wheat production increased throughout the Midwest in the mid- to late-1800’s, as did flour milling. A flour mill in Northfield, just forty miles south of the booming Minneapolis mills, was a logical endeavor for businessman John North.
North’s mill was constructed on the east side of the Cannon River on the site that is now Bridge Square. It is possible that the mill was built on the east side because most of the first Northfield farms were located on this side of the river. Northfield’s ecology is unique because a glacial lobe stopped at the Cannon River, creating differing topographies on the East and West sides of the river. The West side of the river is known as the “Big Woods,” an ecosystem comprised mainly of deciduous forests. The east side, on the other hand, is a prairie ecosystem, which is much easier to clear for farming than the Big Woods. By the mid- to late-1800’s, however, both sides of the river were used for cultivation.
In 1865, North sold his mill to Jesse Ames. Ames was a retired sailor whose son lived in Minnesota; he likely bought the mill as a business endeavor. The mill remained on the east side of the Cannon until 1869, when a new, larger mill was built on the west bank. This mill also utilized the hydropower of the Cannon to power its increasingly productive processes. The size of the mill was increased to meet demand and the building was moved in order to be closer to the railroad tracks. The railroad had arrived in Northfield in 1865, facilitating the transport of commodities and people between the growing town and the larger urban center of Minneapolis. The arrival of the railroad also contributed to the increase in demand for flour. In 1880, a railroad spur was built to connect the main rails directly to the Ames Mill, allowing flour to be transported directly onto railroad cars.
The small town of Northfield provided innovations in wheat production that Minneapolis had yet to develop – in 1869, the mill produced “new process flour,” an ultra-clean white flour. The Ames Mill new process was so high in quality that it was awarded the “highest marking” of any flour at an 1876 flour competition in Philadelphia. The development of high-end flour was just one of many innovations in the years to come. Between 1869 and 1879, the mill increased its productivity from 125 barrels of flour per twenty-four hour period to 400 barrels of flour per twenty-four hour period. In 1879 the mill switched to a steam engine because the hydropower of the Cannon could not meet energy needs. This increase in demand illustrates a nation-wide change in consumption patterns. Citizens consumed more, and systems developed that facilitated this consumption.
Two examples of this consumption change are the boom of the Minneapolis milling industry and the dissemination of product catalogues – for example, those issued by Sears and Roebuck. In the 1860’s, primary wheat milling centers shifted to Minnesota because of the state’s cooler climate, which provided different growing conditions that allowed for the production of white flour. This flour was valued by the wealthy and was widely considered to be sign of affluence. The Pillsbury and Washburn Mills in Minneapolis were particularly influential in increasing white flour production, and they were able to compete with Chicago prices by establishing a shipping route through Duluth. In the 1898 issue of the Sears-Roebuck Catalogue, one may find Pillsbury and Washburn flour for purchase along with many, many other items. The Catalogue contains over nine hundred pages of ready-to-order goods, and consumers could order everything from pocket watches to pianos via this handy book.  Both the growth of the statewide milling industry and changes in consumer culture give evidence for the continued success of the high-quality flour-producing Northfield mill.
Although the success of the Ames Mill was heavily influenced by land use in the Northfield area, it was also affected by the natural cycles of the Cannon River. Northfield has long experienced the effects of flooding along the Cannon. At several points in time this extreme weather event affected the Ames Mill. In 1903, the mill was unable to start because of high water levels. A newspaper report stated that, “the animals [cattle] had at times forded the river at the site of the old mill. When they attempted to do so this week, the swift current carried them over the dam and they drowned”. The placement of the mill close to the river reflects national trends in dam building and river control methods. In the early 1900’s (and before), the United States expressed values of human dominance over nature and lack of ecologically-sound urban planning (by, for example, building the city of Chicago on a marsh, which would lead to building problems that still exist today). One may conjecture that the Ames Mill was also victim to these natural cycles; however, it has been largely unaffected by floods and water damage – reasons for this will be discussed in the later section of this paper that addresses the mill in the context of ownership by Malt-O-Meal.
In 1917, Campbell’s Cereal Company bought the Ames Mill. This transaction again shows the success of flour milling throughout the Midwest and that many relied on this industry both for work and for its products. Campbell’s transitioned the mill from a flour production center to a more specifically industrialized production center. Campbell sought to develop a hot cereal that would outsell farina and cream of wheat, and the story goes that a friend suggested the Campbell add malt to his cereal, and “Malt-O-Meal was born”.
In 1927, Malt-O-Meal officially moved into the Ames Mill after its production facility in Owatonna burned down. The mill
operated smoothly and continued to produce hot cereals; in 1961 Malt-O-Meal began to produce its chocolate hot cereal at the Ames Mill and still does so today. Sometime after 1900, the steam engine was removed when electricity was routed into the building, reducing its dependence on the Cannon River for energy.
Malt-O-Meal still produces its hot cereal in the Ames Mill facility and has done work to maintain the historic nature of the mill. The company has also done studies on water levels on the Cannon that update or revise flood level estimates, considering that the mill is quite vulnerable to sporadic increases in water levels and Northfield itself has no river level monitoring system. One such incident occurred in 1965 when the “Great Floods” shut down the mill for almost a week.  It is likely that Malt-O-Meal increased flood prevention measures or technology within the mill because in 2010, when flood levels were only a foot short of record height, the mill did not experience as much damage as other west bank businesses – four inches of water collected in the basement, but no major setbacks were noted. 
One might wonder how an industrial building constructed in 1865 still manages to function effectively today. The Ames Mill is an example of a place that has evolved with the times – its technology and purposes changed throughout the years in response to national trends in industry, manufacturing, and consumption. Although its first purpose may seem far different from its function today, one may still draw parallels. It started as an exporter of a valuable Northfield resource, bringing money into the growing town and encouraging farming. Today, it still processes a local commodity and connects the Northfield economy to an even larger circle of consumers. The mill continues to be vulnerable to the powerful effects of flooding, but its technological adaptations have largely allowed it to mitigate any serious damage. So the next time you take a whiff of that familiar cookie scent, think of the story that brought the smell to this area in the first place.
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