Mansions, Castles, Cathedrals and Crack

Mill City Museum

Above are machines to take dust from the air in the mill

Minneapolis was the flour milling capital of the world from the mid 1800’s.  It was perfectly situated to get grain from all the open lands west, and power from a wide waterfall on the Mississippi.  Rail lines could then take the processed flour to destinations all along the east coast.

At one time, more than 20 stone flour mills got power from the falls.   The largest, the Washburn A Mill, exploded so violently in 1878 that it killed all the workers inside at the time, and leveled the west side of the river.  It broke windows all over town, and is said to have been heard 7 miles away!  It was rebuilt and opened 2 years later, as the largest and most sophisticated mill in the world.  At peak production, it ground enough flour to make 12 million loaves of bread per day. This was at a time when most mills were small, serving only the towns where they were located.

From their website:

In the industry’s early days in Minneapolis, almost all sales were of “family flour,” used in home baking and sold in 196-pound family barrels. It wasn’t until later that the barrels were replaced by 100-, 50-, and 25-pound cotton or jute sacks.

Home baking declined, however, as more people moved from farm to city. But as they did, the commercial baking industry grew. In 1900, only five percent of bread consumed was bakery-made. By the time the US entered World War I in 1917, bakeries were making 30 percent of the nations bread.

The tremendous capacity of all these mills raised some problems.  Early on, folks just went to the local grocer and asked for flour, and took whatever was offered.  Now with many mills producing so much flour, all from the same area’s wheat, all processed with the same falls’ power in similar mills, how do you distinguish your own product?  So marketing came to the flour business.  Companies raced to find new ways to sell their goods, with competitions, games, and new products.  Cake mixes and breakfast cereals were pushed.

One chef at Washburn dropped some wheat bran cereal on a griddle, and it fried into crisp flakes.  He tasted them and approved, but it took three years of research to make flakes that didn’t fall apart in a box.  A naming competition resulted in “Wheaties”, Which was probably was better than the original “Gold Medal Wheat Flakes”.  Wheaties started broadcasting local baseball games, and that proved so popular they were soon doing over ninety locations.  At one point, they had a competition for the best baseball announcer, which was won by a young man named Ronald Reagan.  His prize? A trip to Hollywood! Who knows where Wheaties can take you?!

Washburn merged with many others and became General Mills.  Betty Crocker was created to answer the ton of questions stemming from a competition that the advertising men didn’t feel qualified to answer.  She has become one of the best known female names in the world, even though she is fictitious.

Eventually, electricity replaced water power, so a location at the falls was not needed, and mills moved elsewhere.  The mighty General Mills plant closed in the 60’s and fell into ruin.  The Mill City Museum has been built to preserve some of the structures and tell of their history.

A museum guide demonstrated how explosive fine dust, like in a mill, can be.  He had a model mill, with a tower at one end.  He covered the open top of the tower with several paper towels, and used a frame to screw them down tightly.   He then put 1/2 teaspoon of corn starch in the mill, pumped air in to disperse it into the air, and touched off a spark.

The resulting explosion was really fun!  Flour dust is 30 times more explosive than gunpowder!

The view from the top of the museum was great.

A steam engine used to power farm equipment.


James J Hill House


James J Hill was called the “Empire Builder”.  He started as a shipping clerk for a company on the Mississippi River, and worked his way up into management.  Then he opened his own shipping company, eventually expanding into railroads.  He bought a failing railroad, and by wise and careful expansion, not only made it profitable, but eventually took the northern route all the way to the Pacific.  People loved and admired him, or hated and feared him.  It all depends on one’s point of view!

When he was in his 20’s he met a waitress in a hotel dining room, and fell in love.  He was not wealthy at the time, but had great ambition.  So he scraped money together, and sent his new fiancé away for three years to finishing school!  As bizarre as that sounds, it was probably a good move, because he eventually amassed a huge fortune, built this 36,000 square foot home, and owned 4 other homes in places like Jekyll Island and Paris. She had to manage the homes and domestic staff, like the 15 or so who took care of this house.

So on to the house…

The house had electric lights throughout, but since electricity was new technology, and could not be depended upon, the light fixtures had gas piped to them as well in case of power failures.

IMG_8126This is not the music room, it is the gallery.  Hill had it filled with his favorite paintings.  It was all the rage to have an organ in your house, so he had to have one… with over 1,000 pipes.  The irony is that neither Hill nor any of his family could play it, so it was only heard when organists were hired for parties or concerts.  The air for the pipes was supplied by bellows pumped by servants in the basement, when they got a signal from the gallery.

The Hill family lived here for about 30 years, raising 10 children.  Four of them were married in the house, several grew up and built houses in the neighborhood.



The head woodworker (over his team of 15) had a tradition of “signing” his work with a self portrait.  Here is his “selfie” in the wood carved entryway.



Cathedral of St Paul 

James Hill knew the bishop who was in charge of the cathedral construction just down the street from his mansion.  He politely requested that they limit the height of the cathedral so it wouldn’t spoil his view!  The bishop, of course, ignored him, and built anyway, so this is the view Hill ended up with.  Too bad…  But better than a storage unit!


The cathedral was finished in 1915.  It is imposing inside and out…




Turnblad Mansion / Swedish Castle


Swan Turnblad moved from Sweden to Minnesota in 1868.  He was a farmer and a printer.  He turned his typesetting prowess into the largest Swedish newspaper in the U.S., and built this mansion to show the folks back home how well he had done in the “new world”.  The house is incredibly beautiful, and has exquisite woodwork inside, maybe even nicer than the Hill house (Don’t tell Hill!)

I felt the house in general was warmer and more livable than the Hill house… but apparently the Swan and Christina Turnblad didn’t share my opinion.  They only lived here for about 7 years, preferring instead an apartment they had downtown.  Christina had been a hotel maid, was uncomfortable having servants, and employed only a married couple to help out around the place. They were “new money” in a neighborhood of “old money”, they were not well educated, and didn’t speak the language well.  They didn’t fit in, and were not well received in the area.

The house was designed for entertaining and had rooms for the many domestic staff expected.  But the Turnblads never entertained, and ate most of their meals, not in the magnificent dining room, but on a small table in the corner of the kitchen.

When Christina died, Swan and his daughter moved into an apartment building nearby.  In his will, Swan donated the house to a foundation to preserve Swedish history and culture in the area.  He also left an endowment to enable the upkeep of the house.  The ultimate irony is that the snotty neighbors’ houses are mostly all gone, and this “outsider’s” house is beautifully preserved.




We went to a special program for 2-5 year olds (We took grandson Peter so we could get in).  They had stories, a turkey hunt and crafts.  Then the whole castle was ours to explore, for an hour before it was open to the general public.



The castle was decorated for Christmas, with several rooms representing different Scandinavian traditions.  Many had tables set for Christmas dinner – one with fancy silverware which I  noticed was subtly stitched to the tablecloth.


Here is a “Christmas Tree” without the tree!  Just glass spheres floating in space.


On the eve of Svaty Mikulas Day, the Bishop (Svaty Mikulas), Angel (andel), and the Devil (cert) visit children.  The Bishop talks to each child, and the Angel rewards good children with a treat.  Meanwhile the chain-rattling Devil stands by to put naughty children in his sack and take them back to hell with him.  Not to worry though, the Angel stops the Devil and protects all the children.

The ballroom was huge, and featured a stage with special lighting, backstage entrances and rooms.  It was only used once, as a fundraiser during WWI!



I enjoyed this whimsical woodcarving of art, art enthusiast, and less enthusiastic.


Crack Cream Puffs

Ok, maybe the highlight of the week was helping Becky make these AMAZING Crack Cream Puffs! Supposedly they are named for the  Crispy Cracked Sugary topping.  But I know it’s because when you add creamy filling inside the crispy puff, it is crack like addictive!  Fabulous!





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