Gold Medal Flour, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Winter 2003, C41 negative print film, the building is now the Mill City Museum, all photos © 2003-2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
I’m pulled to write about the ordinary, the two mile chunk of land surrounding the Mill City Museum in a place once deemed “The Flour Milling Capital of the World” – Minneapolis. The riverbank near the “A” building of the old Washburn flour milling complex, under the Gold Medal Flour sign, has called to me since I moved to Minneapolis in 1984.
I was young. And lost. I had no job. I was searching. I used to take long drives by the urban snake of the Mississippi to clear my head. On those pilgrimages, I fell in love with West River Road, particularly the land closest to Saint Anthony Falls. Saint Anthony was originally the only falls on the upper length of the Mississippi River. And Spirit Island, sacred landmark to the Dakota, used to rise from the water to the west.
Legend has it that Dakota women would go to Spirit Island to give birth. But, at some point, industry, and a series of misrepresented treaty negotiations, got the upper hand, and the island was bulldozed away. I will never step foot on her. But ghosts of the old mill buildings rise like sentinels on my early evening motorcycle rides through the dense river odors and splatted mosquitoes of the humid Midwest summers.
In July of 2003, I had just started to date Liz. The first time she rode on the back of my Honda Rebel, she had on knee length jean shorts, a tank top with plummeting cleavage, and white Doc Martens. It was humid and hot; the tail pipe sizzled when we motorcycled to the Mill City Museum opening.
The Minnesota Historical Society sponsored the event. The place was packed. We listened to a band she loved named Iffy and danced under an open air tent in the heat. By the time we made it into the museum, we were sweaty, and it was 15 minutes until closing. But it didn’t matter. I loved being there.
The original structure was designed by Austrian engineer William de la Barre and built in 1880. The Washburn A building is the predecessor to what would become the father to Betty Crocker’s wide-mouthed kitchen, General Mills. At its heyday, enough flour was generated from that building to produce 12 million loaves of bread a day. There was a volatile grain dust blast in 1882. And another fire in 1991 gutted the building.
After many incarnations, the building still stands. And the Mill City Museum won the 2005 Honor Award for Outstanding Architecture by the firm Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle. It’s easy to see why. The design encompasses both inside and out, leaves some of the enormous milling machines intact along the interior brick walls, and keeps the rough hewn rusticness alive. Minneapolis gummed its pink lipped baby teeth on Gold Medal flour, and seeing the city’s industrial roots is thrilling. It’s an eerie Matrix-like combo of old and new.
I was a few months away from moving in with Liz in July of 2006. The Guthrie Theater opened its new building by the river, complete with what a friend of mine calls “Jean Nouvel’s electrifying blue steel phallus” – an urban 4th floor cantilever that comes to a screeching midair halt, right next store to the museum.
Liz used to work for the Guthrie before its divorce from the Walker Art Center. She graciously bought tickets for me and her Mom to see F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby. We ate at a trendy restaurant cattycorner to Jean Nouvel’s “endless bridge” and people watched enter condos that seem to multiply like flies near the museum.
Even the elegant old Whitney Hotel closed and is being converted into million dollar sky dwellings. I used to drive by the North Star Blanket building across the street with the vine covered walls and wish I could afford to purchase a unit. Ten years ago my therapist told me to buy a condo when the West River Road concept was in its infancy. The Twin Cities warehouse-converted-to-artist-studio craze had just begun.
I never did buy. And now, here I am, living in a first ring suburb, but happy as a clam. I love the peace and quiet. And I don’t miss the crime. It’s perfect for a writer. But I do love to visit my beloved river haunts. I take the parkway drive whenever I go into the city.
Stone Arch Bridge, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Winter 2003, C41 negative print film, photo © 2003-2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
And at least once a week, I drive by the Mill City Museum, the Stone Arch Bridge built by James J. Hill, local railroad tycoon, and Bohemian Flats where I sat in the winter of 2005 in the middle of a snowstorm and watched a bearded man with a black beanie cap fly a yellow kite.
Bohemian Flats used to be a shanty town of immigrants; some of the local elite called them squatters. The immigrant population changed from year to year as out-of-towners migrated to the city to work in the mills and lumber yards.
As the ethnicity of the immigrants changed, so did the names used for the Flats: Little Bohemia, Little Ireland, Connemara Patch, the Cabbage Patch, Little Lithuania, or the Danish Flats (the first couple to establish residence there was Danish). But Bohemian Flats is the one that stuck. I always liked the word “bohemian” for its artistic connotations. But the name Bohemian Flats is rooted in the Czech population that once settled there.
Bohemian Flats was driven to extinction in 1932 by eminent domain laws and a few porcelain skinned Northerners who may have had a hidden agenda. But this isn’t a political piece. (Is it?)
The two mile river corridor nestled close to downtown and curving by the Mill City Museum (that I lovingly call the Gold Medal building) is my little oasis in the city storm. In 1870, the population of Minneapolis was 13,000. By 1890, it had grown to 165,000 led by a powder keg of flour dust and the power of Saint Anthony Falls.
Estimates are that in 1900, only five percent of bread consumed was bakery-made. But by the time the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, bakeries were making 30 percent of the nation’s bread. Breaking bread became the great American past time.
In 2005, the population of Minneapolis/St. Paul was 647,000. I’m just a little doughboy dot, a blip over the falls of Minneapolis history. The lime and sandstone tiers on the two mile mill corridor by the Mississippi are magical in a snowstorm – and my Natural Wonder.
They say there were 79 steps down to Bohemian Flats, a place few dared to roam in the late 1800’s (except those seeking cheap housing or the free dead wood that floated down the river in spring). I can only imagine what it must have been like to survive a turn of the century Northern winter. But preservation of the history of places like Bohemian Flats, Mill City, the Stone Arch Bridge, Spirit Island, and Saint Anthony Falls makes it easier for me to time travel.
Ironically, what I sought in 1984 when I moved from the jagged tops of Big Sky Country to a bustling Midwestern metropolis, was peace and solitude. I found it in my drive-by views of the ghost town mills near sacred islands on the Mississippi, and brownstone buildings in constant battle with the elements.
I watched the Mississippi from a sidewalk cafe last summer. The old mills are alive with 21st century faces. Joggers, bikers, motorcyclists, Guthrie seekers, history buffs, the rich who inhabit the condos, and homeless vagrants who sometimes pass and sleep by the river.
-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, November 28th, 2007
-an essay about 5 Minneapolis Landmarks: the Mill City Museum, Bohemian Flats, the Stone Arch Bridge, Spirit Island, St. Anthony Falls, that started as a Writing Practice
-related to Topic post, WRITING TOPIC – NATURAL WONDERS