The Millers’ Monument
Standing nearly 40-feet high near the northwest corner of one of Minnesota’s most well-known cemeteries is a memorial to the 18 men who lost their lives in the 1878 explosion at the Washburn “A” mill along the banks of the Mississippi River – a tragedy that to this day has helped shape the culture at General Mills.
The Millers’ Monument in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis commemorates the victims of the Washburn “A” Mill explosion – triggered by flour dust – that was felt miles away.
Much has been written about the May 2, 1878, blast at the mill that at the time was one of the country’s largest flour mills in the U.S., owned by General Mills precursor the Washburn Crosby Co.
But few know about the Millers’ Monument that honors the victims – 14 of whom worked at the mill, three who worked at nearby mills, and a man who lived nearby.
That memorial – an obelisk made from granite – marks its 128th anniversary today, Oct. 18. It took seven years to raise the money to pay for the monument, which was erected in 1885.
The monument – as well as an orphanage we funded two years earlier – served as early steps on the General Mills’ mission of Nourishing Lives through community support, and to the company’s commitment to employee safety.
If not for the Minneapolis Head Millers’ Association, the monument likely never would have been made.
An ambitious fund-raising effort was launched in the summer of 1882 with the first of four annual summer picnics on the shores of Lake Minnetonka, one of Minnesota’s largest lakes. Those four picnics raised more than $1,300.
That amount, along with the more than $1,900 provided by the area’s flour mill owners, accounted for the bulk of the nearly $3,940 the association raised.
The millers’ association settled on local firm Sullivan and Faruham to design and build the monument for $3,500 – about $95,000 in today’s dollars.
With white granite quarried from Barre, Vt., the Sullivan and Faruham firm went to work. Into the design, crews cut emblems that symbolized those who lost their lives at the mill, and the importance of flour milling to Minneapolis.
Those emblems include a broken gear, representing the workers’ lives cut short; a millstone and a wheat roller, tools of the millers’ labors; and a sheaf of wheat.
The Millers’ Monument includes an 1843 quotation from Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle that reads in all capital letters, “Labor wide as the earth, hath its summit in heaven.”
Most importantly, the memorial includes the names of the 18 who died.
“The Millers’ Monument represents quite a memorial for a tragedy that took the lives of the 18 people buried right there,” says Ron Gjerde, president of Lakewood Cemetery, where diverse luminaries such as former U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey and entertainer Tiny Tim are buried.
On the day before the Sunday afternoon ceremony, the Minneapolis Tribune published in its Oct. 17, 1885 edition:
“The statue, which is 37 feet instead of 35 feet high, as per contract, was reported as now being in place, without a scratch to be seen, though the workmen experienced a great deal of trouble fixing it in place.”
The Minneapolis Head Millers’ Association made careful preparations for the ceremony, providing train and carriage transportation, and having a speakers’ platform built at the cemetery.
The group invited the public and all flour mill workers, and sent special invitations to the Minneapolis mayor, city council and officials, relatives of the victims, all of the city’s mill owners, and the press.
According to the Oct. 19, 1885, edition of the Minneapolis Tribune, a crowd “numbering several thousand” gathered for the ceremony.
The ceremony closed with a male vocal quartet singing “Remember Now Thy Creator,” followed by a benediction from a local reverend.
The Minneapolis Tribune then noted “…and the crowd slowly left the grounds, many taking a flower from the garlands about the monument as a memento of the notable event.”
Editor’s note: The General Mills Archives provided information and images for this post. You can learn more about our past on GeneralMills.com. Have a question about General Mills’ history? Send our Archives team an email.