Washburn’s Legacy in Hennepin County

2018.0520.145

Image from HHM Collections

This tin is filled with recipes that call for Gold Medal Flour. Today, Gold Medal is the most popular brand in the market and is produced by General Mills. That company traces its roots to the Washburn-Crosby Company which was formed in 1877 and whose logo can be seen on this tin. However, even before that company existed, Cadwallader C. Washburn built a flour mill on Mississippi River next to St. Anthony Falls which established his legacy in this county. 

Hennepin County residents are familiar with the name Washburn. It is the name of a high school, appears on street signs, and even accounts for the first call letter of the local WCCO radio and television stations (named after Washburn Crosby Co.’s initials). The story of the man behind the name, is less well known. For instance, most people may not realize that Washburn never even lived in the Twin Cities. Yet given the role he played in developing Minneapolis into the flour milling capital of the world, Washburn deserves to be recognized as one of the great innovators of Hennepin County.  

Arguably one of the most enterprising individuals in milling boom of the late nineteenth century, Washburn made many decisions that would lead to the lasting success of his company and ensured that his name would become a legacy. After serving as a U.S. Congressman and Governor in our neighboring state of Wisconsin, and even serving in the Civil War and rising the rank of major general, Washburn set his sights on milling in Minneapolis. One of the first to recognize the potential for the industry, Washburn built his first mill in 1866. This mill innovated the way flour was produced by utilizing a new middlings purifier. This allowed them to produce a flour made from a type of wheat that had better baking properties than the wheat used by competitors. In fact, Washburn’s flour was so superior, it even won awards, hence the name Gold Medal. 

In 1874, Washburn built his second mill, called the Washburn A Mill. At the time it was the largest flour mill in the world. Unfortunately, that mill was the sight of a devastating explosion in 1878 that killed eighteen employees. When he heard of it, Washburn immediately left his home in Wisconsin for Minneapolis. When he arrived, he established a fund for the families of the men that died. He also announced plans to rebuild the mill and gave construction jobs to the employees who lost their job due to the destruction of the mill. Washburn also wanted to make sure that nothing like that ever happened again at one of his mills. When constructing the new A Mill, he worked with engineers and installed a safety exhaust system. This system greatly reduced the possibility of explosion and was the first of its kind to be permanently installed in a mill.  

Washburn was permanently affected by the loss of lives at his mill, as well as the lives affected by those deaths. When he passed away in 1882, he bequeathed money to fund the construction of an orphanage in Minneapolis called the Washburn Memorial Orphan Asylum. The orphanage would close in 1924 and the institution evolved to serve the same mission. Today it is known as the Washburn Center for Children and it serves the community by providing mental health care for children, another part of the legacy left in Hennepin County by Washburn. 

 

Written by Alyssa Thiede 

Huesing, Sarah. General Mills: 75 Years of Innovation, Invention, Food & Fun. Edited by Tom Forsythe and Anne Brownfield. Brown. Minneapolis: General Mills, 2003. 

Meier, Peg. “They Built This City,” Star Tribune, September 7, 2003. Star Tribune Archive. 

Nathanson, Iric. “Washburn A Mill Explosion, 1878.” MNopoedia, Minnesota Historical Society. http://www.mnopedia.org/event/washburn-mill-explosion-1878 

Washburn Center. “A History of Strengthening Children.” Washburn.org. https://washburn.org/about-us/history/ 

 

This publication was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee.

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