Historic Structures

History part 2 Crown Roller Mill, Minneapolis Minnesota

The Crown Roller Mill, however, was a notable exception. Not only did the mill employ rollers, but it adopted the gradual reduction process as well. When the Crown began operation in 1880, the Northwestern Miller stated: "The mill, as constructed, ... is worked on the gradual reduction or high grinding system, improved and perfected as far as American ingenuity has yet been able to go." As one historian has observed, the Crown Roller Mill was one of the few "Minneapolis plants which thoroughly demonstrated the superiority of graduated steel rollers over old-fashioned buhr stones."

Construction of the Crown Roller Mill began on April 14, 1879, when workers set the cornerstone. By October, the contractor had largely completed the exterior, and work began to furnish the mill. On May 21, 1880, the Northwesten Miller announced that half of the mill had been fitted and was producing 1,000 barrels of flour a day. In addition to the mansard roof, unusual detailing included an ornate stone date and name plaque centered in the west facade, and decorative brick segmental window arches that were further enhanced by stones at the spring points and key. Other details on the Crown Mill were more typical. As in other West Side brick flour mills, fenestration was located within panels created by raised brick pilaster strips. The pilasters were joined at the top by a brick band, and arches over each pilaster suggested column capitals.

The south end of the mill was equipped as an elevator to store grain. The elevator's location was marked on the south facade by the lack of fenestration. To reduce the risk of fire, the elevator was partitioned from the rest of the mill by a brick firewall which rose above the roof and, according to the Northwestern Miller, "through which there is only one opening into the mill. The passageway through the elevator on the first floor is arched over with brick, so that there is no communication with the elevator except through small [iron] doors on either side [of the passageway] . . . ." The elevator stored grain in 30 circular iron bins, each measuring 7 1/2 feet in diameter and 66 feet in depth. The Northwestern Miller estimated the elevator's capacity at 98,000 bushels.

The remainder of the mill was chiefly devoted to flouring and dust control operations. At the time of the 1880 article, grinding operations were located on the first, second, and third floors, as well as the basement. Although rollers were chiefly employed, millstones were located in the basement and on the first floor. The main roller milling operation was located on the second floor, and consisted primarily of "Gray's double corrugated" and "Downton's smooth four roller mills." Middlings separation equipment, bolting chests, and reels were distributed throughout the mill from the third to the sixth floors. "Bean Dust Collectors" were located on each floor, and filtered the purifier exhaust to remove explosive flour dust.

Waterpower supplied the motive force for all machinery in the mill. A brick headrace conveyed water to a 30 x 30-foot stone forebay located under the southeast corner of the basement. The forebay emptied into two circular, brick-lined wheel pits, each twelve feet in diameter. At the time of the Northwestern Miller article, only one wheel pit had been furnished. It contained a vertical, 48-inch, 400-horsepower, "New American" turbine, which operated under a 32-foot head and was manufactured by Stout, Mills and Temple of Dayton, Ohio. Bevel gears connected the turbine shaft to the main drive shaft in the basement. The main shaft, in turn, transmitted power to line shafts on the first, second and fourth floors of the mill by means of belts and pulleys. A vertical shaft, bevel-geared to the fourth floor line shaft, transmitted power to the fifth and sixth stories. According to the northwestern Miller, a separate vertical shaft ran off the main drive to power "all of the cleaning machinery" in the mill. The Crown Mill's grain elevator drew power from the main drive by means of a friction clutch, "by which the elevator machinery can be stopped and started without interfering with the workings of the mill."

The owners of the Crown Mill went to great lengths to limit the danger of fire. In addition to the dust control equipment and heavy firewall separating the mill and elevator, the owners installed firehoses and placed fire extinguishers, water barrels and buckets on each floor. Christian Brothers and Company also installed a system of speaking tubes and "signal wires" to allow communication throughout the mill. Other amenities included gas lighting, and a brick boiler house attached to the east side of the plant to provide steam heat.

By 1881, the daily capacity of the Crown Mill had risen to 2,000 barrels. Although the mill matched or exceeded the expectations of its planners in terms of its furnishing, beauty and capacity, it did not prove to be the "biggest of all." By 1881, several other "mammoth" mills had begun operation at the falls, including the completely rebuilt Washburn A Mill, and the Pillsbury A Mill. In 1880, these massive flouring plants elevated Minneapolis to the exalted position of largest flour producer in the country, a status it maintained for the next fifty years. As the Minneapolis Tribune observed, "During the year 1880 the mills of Minneapolis manufactured more flour than any other city in America and the capacity for the year just entered upon is double that of any city in the country, to which the three largest mills on the continent--the Pillsbury A, Washburn A, and Crown Roller--contribute."

Over the next decade, Christian Brothers and Company made extensive improvements to the Crown Mill. Among these changes, the owners installed new purifying and bolting equipment, and gradually increased the number of rollers. In 1880, the mill operated 58 roller mills. This number rose to 65 by 1882, and 75 by 1885. Due to these modifications, daily capacity rose from 1,000 barrels in 1880, to 2,500 by 1890. To provide power for increased production, Christian Brothers and Company installed two 54 inch New American turbines in 1885.

Unfortunately, severe water shortages throughout the 1880s seriously hampered operations at the Crown and other West Side mills. In 1885, Christian Brothers and Company purchased a 300-horsepower steam engine to provide supplemental power. Mounted in the basement, the engine was manufactured by the Wright Steam Engine Works of Newburgh, New York. To provide the necessary steam, the owners enlarged the boiler house and installed an extra boiler.

The new engine immediately proved its worth, for low water continued to be a serious problem in 1886. At the end of the year, the Northwestern Miller observed: "The Crown Roller finds its engine a very useful article at the present time, being able by its possession to get out a very respectable amount of flour. Mr. Christian says that he won't be caught another year with low water without a second engine, and then water power can 'go to thunder.' True to his word, Christian installed a second Wright engine in 1889, and enlarged the boiler house in 1888 and 1890. The owners also substantially improved the mill's fire safety in 1890 and 1891, constructing a new dust house, installing automatic sprinklers, and replacing gas lighting with electricity.

Christian Brothers and Company's improvements to the Crown Mill reflected a general trend in the West Side Milling District. The period 1880 to 1930 was marked by widespread efforts to increase efficiency on all levels of the flour industry. It was, as the editor of the Northwestern Miller observed at the time, "an era of consolidation." In architectural and technological terms, owners extensively improved existing mills to increase production rather than undertake new construction. Mill interiors became dense jungles of machinery, while exteriors were flanked by auxiliary structures, such as engine rooms, boiler houses, warehouses, packaging facilities, train sheds and grain elevators. A writer expressed this trend in 1885, when he wrote: "As in former seasons Minneapolis . . . has shown a considerable gain in milling capacity. Aside from the completion of the Pillsbury B, no new mills have been added . . ., but there are a number of instances where the mills have had their capacity augmented several hundred barrels by the addition of machinery."

The trend toward consolidation was most apparent in terms of mill ownership. In 1882, two firms controlled approximately 51 percent of the daily production capacity of Minneapolis mills, while the remaining production was divided more or less evenly between sixteen different firms. By 1890, four large corporations controlled 87 percent of the city's milling capacity; and by 1900, three corporations managed 97 percent of the total flour production.

Just as with the changes in milling technology, the Crown Mill was at the center of the changes occurring in mill ownership. Under the leadership of John Martin, a Minneapolis lumberman turned miller, a single corporation acquired the Crown and five other West Side mills in 1891 to form the northwestern Consolidated Milling Company. Northwestern Consolidated eventually operated nine flour mills and several elevators in Minneapolis. In a statement published shortly after its formation, the company explained that combining the operations of the Crown and other mills allowed it to produce flour with greater economy in an increasingly competitive market:
It is conceded by close students of the commercial and industrial interests of this country that the tendency of the times is toward consolidation of the same, and the intense competition which has brought about the present era of small profits has forced those who would successfully undertake the manufacture of flour to avail themselves of great economies in cost of production, purchasing of supplies, handling and disposal of product, etc., which can only be secured by the most extensive establishments.

The new owners continued to increase the capacity of the Crown Mill, renamed the "Consolidated A Mill," by modifying equipment, installing more roller mills, and updating the waterpower turbines. By 1912, daily capacity had reached 3,500 barrels.

Improvements also continued in the mill's steam plant, most notably, a brick boiler-house addition in 1908. Equipped with a 175-foot-high reinforced-concrete smokestack, the boiler house fronted 90 feet on South First Street, extending back along the mill's east elevation for 140 feet. It contained two main sections. The northwest half served as an engine room and coal storage area, while the section to the southeast housed the boilers. The company installed a new steam turbine in 1916.

Northwestern Consolidated also made several changes in an attempt to centralize operations. In 1908, it constructed the "A Elevator" at the corner of South First Street and Fifth Avenue South, Just south of the Crown Roller Mill, to supply grain to all of its West Side mills. Shortly afterwards, the owners built a conveyor from the sixth floor of the Crown to the A Elevator. Eventually, they converted half of the Crown's internal elevator to warehouse space, reducing the mill's grain storage capacity to 35,000 bushels.

Operations were further integrated when Northwestern Consolidated converted the Crown's boiler house to serve as a central generating plant in 1910. The Northwestern Miller reported: "The Northwestern Consolidated Milling Co., Minneapolis, is making important improvements to the power plants in the C, D, E and F mills. The steam auxiliary plants at these mills are being replaced with electric motors, which are to be driven by the steam turbine at the central power plant at the A mill [Crown Roller Mill]."

This string of improvements appears to have ended in the 1920s. At that time, significant changes in wheat quality, freight rate structure and tariff policy combined to seriously reduce the demand for Minneapolis-produced spring wheat flour. Faced with a dwindling market, Northwestern Consolidated began to cut back production and close many of its West Side mills. By 1929, the Crown Mill was one of only two in Northwestern Consolidated plants in operation. During this same time period, the other great Minneapolis flour corporations, such Pillsbury and General Mills, also began to close their area mills and shift operations to other cities, such as Buffalo and Kansas City. Due to these closures, Minneapolis finally ceded first place in flour production to Buffalo in 1930.

In 1932, Northwestern Consolidated became a division of Standard Milling Company of Delaware. Northwestern Consolidated had actually operated as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Standard Milling since 1902. The latest reorganization was undertaken to consolidate operations and halt the its company's declining market share.

In an attempt to reduce expenses. Standard decided to electrify the Crown Mill's operations in 1933. At that time, the company still held waterpower leases for the six mill sites once controlled by Northwestern Consolidated. Since it only operated the Crown and one other West Side mill. Standard believed it would be more economical to sell the leases and electrify its properties than continue to pay for unused water.

In 1941, Standard Milling Company conducted a study to determine which of its properties to close. Although the report noted the "relative efficiency" of the Crown Mill, it also faulted the structure's nineteenth-century design: "Its daily capacity of 8,000 cwts. [100-pound units] is contained in one unit and . . . [has no facilities for] bulk flour storage .... [This] single unit arrangement of machinery provides no flexibility in milling operations, and the layout of the mill is poor for the economical storage, handling and shipping of the finished product." The Crown Mill remained in operation, but its days were numbered. In 1944, Standard made its last major alteration when it replaced the Crown's mansard roof with a one-story brick addition.

In 1953, Standard Milling estimated that the Crown was operating at a yearly loss of $202,000. Faced with mounting deficits, the company decided to stop production at the Crown Roller Mill on June 30, 1953.

Standard Milling apparently used the Crown Mill as a warehouse until it sold the building in the late 1950s. Until the mid-1970s, the Crown was used for warehouse and light industrial purposes. In 1971, the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office of the Minnesota Historical Society recognized the mill's historical significance by naming it a contributing property in the St. Anthony Falls Historic District. By that time, due to the widespread abandonment of the West Side Milling District, the Crown was one of only four flour mills still standing which dated to the district's heyday as the flouring capital of the United States.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, several developers proposed to renovate the Crown Roller Mill for use as luxury apartments. These plans received a serious setback on the night of October 21, 1983, when a fire completely gutted the building and left only the exterior walls standing. Owing to the structure's instability, the Minneapolis City Council initially decided to demolish the mill. However, under pressure from area preservationists and faced with high demolition costs, the Council eventually agreed to shore-up the structure.

In 1981, the Hayber Development Group of Minneapolis acquired the Crown and several other properties in the West Side Milling District as part of the so-called "Block 10" redevelopment project. In light of the structure's historical significance, the developer. City Council, and SHPO entered into a Memorandum of Agreement stipulating that the Crown Roller Mill be recorded according to "Level II Standards" of the Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Buildings Survey of the National Park Service.

In October 1985, large-format photographs were taken to document the condition of the mill prior to reconstruction. The developers then removed debris from the mill's interior. Renovation work began in 1987. Using new brick to match the original, collapsed portions of the exterior walls were rebuilt, and a new standing-seam, copper-clad mansard roof with pedimented, gable dormers was constructed. Other changes included new window openings in the south facade, installation of new metal sashes in existing window openings, and the creation of a new primary entrance in the west facade. During remodeling, the mill's 1914 turbines were discovered intact in their wheel pits. One turbine was removed so that the wheel pit and tailrace could be used as a storm sewer. The other turbine was preserved in its wheel pit. The Crown Mill and its 1908 boiler house are currently used as office space.