The Gold Medal signs that salute our hometown
High above the Mississippi River, on what was once among the taller buildings in Minneapolis, sit two Gold Medal Flour signs that still tower above the area as a daily reminder of the 150-year history of General Mills.
Helping us proclaim the riverfront as the birthplace of our predecessor, the Washburn Mill Company, the signs were impressive from the moment they were installed.
Here’s how the Minneapolis Tribune described them after they were eased into place in January, 1910:
“Like a signal fire flashing from a mounting top its story to a distant army, or the ray sent out upon a trackless sea from the lighthouse on the shore, speaking to the ships as they pass and repass, there stands today in Minneapolis a sign which nightly tells to the thousands and thousands of people coming and going, not only our own citizens, but those who daily visit the great metropolis of the Northwest from all over the world, of one of the chief brands of the product which has made Minneapolis famous in all parts of the civilized globe.“
How’s that for historical hyperbole?
The two signs, made of porcelain and mounted on wood, were placed on Washburn-Crosby Elevator No. 1. The building, completed in 1908, was unique. It was one of the first grain silos in the U.S. built with continuous pour concrete slip-form construction.
“Since its new elevator towered over the Minneapolis mill district it probably just made sense for Washburn-Crosby to put a large advertisement for the company’s flagship flour brand on top,” says Naidl.
At 42 feet wide and 45 feet tall, the two Gold Medal signs were originally lit with almost 670 incandescent light bulbs, at 15 watts per globe. Each letter was 8 feet high.
Sometime between 1915-1920, the signs were joined by another, proclaiming “Eventually,” on top of a Washburn Crosby utility building facing downtown Minneapolis. It was a nod to the company’s “Eventually … why not now?” advertising slogan, first used in 1907.
As in, people will eventually try Gold Medal Flour and find out it’s the best, so why not try it now?
The Eventually sign was 66 feet wide and 30 feet high, with 625 lights. You can see that sign on top of the milling complex in this photo.
Of course, someone had to change bulbs on the three signs, nearly every day, even in the cold Minnesota winters.
A story in February 1, 1920 edition of The Eventually News (the Washburn-Crosby newsletter) says the job once belonged to John Selin, of the company’s Electrical Department:
“He cares for the flashers, circuits and lighting. Every few days he has to install new lights in one of the big signs as their life is short. While the work itself needs a skillful hand the climb alone would make the average man think twice before attempting it. Selin, however, looks on it all as part of the day’s work and thinks no more of mounting to those heights than you or I would of getting up on a step-ladder.”
At night, the story said, the Gold Medal and Eventually signs appeared to “have no attachment to anything on earth but are hung there in the sky … by sky hooks.”
The “Eventually” sign was up at least through the 1930s, after the ad campaign had run its course. Unfortunately, we don’t know what happened to it once it was dismantled.
Also of note, in the early-1920s the “Flour” part of the two Gold Medal signs became “Foods,” as Washburn-Crosby rebranded to reflect its addition of cereal (Wheaties) and other non-flour products.
But after “Flour” returned to the two signs by the early 1930s, that stayed in place through 1945, when the wooden structure was replaced by steel, and the bulbs in the letters were replaced by neon lights.
The last 50 years
General Mills closed the Washburn A Mill on the riverfront in 1965, and the signs went dark.
The historic riverfront area sat largely unused for several decades, until a fire destroyed much of the vacated mill in 1991. The Minnesota Historical Society purchased the property in 1998 from the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, and started making plans to turn the area into the Mill City Museum.
In 2000, the Minnesota Historical Society took down the two Gold Medal signs to refurbish them. They installed new neon tubing and rebuilt and stabilized the structure that holds the signs (the grain elevator also was repaired).
The signs were re-lit on November 15, 2000 and the Mill City Museum opened in 2003.
The Minnesota Historical Society owns and maintains the signs. The city of Minneapolis and General Mills contributed to the renovation and ongoing maintenance of the signs for several years.
The two Gold Medal Flour signs, once called by The Eventually News “the midnight suns of the world’s greatest milling district,” continue to remind all who look at them of a time when flour was king.
It’s common for visitors to the Minneapolis riverfront to take photos of the signs and post them to social media, or video (like this fantastic footage from a drone by Tyler Mason.)
We also feature the signs from time to time on our Instagram account.
“At some point the signs have transcended their original purpose for advertising and marketing, and became something more iconic, and a landmark of the skyline of Minneapolis,” says Naidl. “More importantly, the signs are a tangible connection to the city’s past, and a reminder of where it came from and that Minneapolis was once the flour-milling capitol of the world. “
Editor’s note: In 2016, General Mills is celebrating its 150th anniversary. This story is part of a year-long series on “A Taste of General Mills” to highlight the people, products and projects that have contributed to the company’s legacy.
The General Mills Archives provided information and images for this post, as well as the Minnesota Historical Society and Mill City Museum. The image at the top of the post, and drone footage, is used with the permission of Tyler Mason of AirVūz.
Discover more about our past on GeneralMills.com and GeneralMillsHistory.com. If you have a question about our history, or would like to donate an item to the company archives, send our Archives team an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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