Restoring a piece of milling history
First there was a fire, then a massive explosion caused by flour dust, felt miles away. 18 people in and around the Washburn “A” Mill in Minneapolis – part of one of the world’s largest flour mills – owned by the Washburn Crosby Co. (the precursor to General Mills), perished on this date in 1878.
It was a defining disaster, inspiring great grief throughout the city, the milling industry and even inspired melancholy songs.
But in a show of resilience, our company’s founder – Cadwallader Washburn – sought to have the mill rebuilt quickly. It was, just a year later, and a plaque was installed honoring the victims of the explosion.
But more than 130 years of extreme Minnesota temperatures and exhaust from passing cars took a toll on that marble memorial plaque. People who tried to read it strained to decipher the narrative that described the disaster and the names of those who died.
Officials from the Mill City Museum – the organization that rose from the ashes of the “A” Mill – knew they had to preserve this piece of history. In October 2012, the tablet was removed from the wall of the mill ruins.
A cement casting replica is now in its place above the mill’s main doorway.
Laura Salveson, director of the Mill City Museum, told us the goal was to have the tablet cleaned, refurbished and on display inside the museum, in time for the its 10th anniversary, last September.
“Our main objective was to get the plaque out of the weather,” says Salveson. “Then it took some time to figure out where and how to display it. We turned to the Minnesota Historical Society, which performed the conservation work.”
Now on display in the museum’s first-floor public lobby, the restored plaque is protected by a case and stands among other artifacts and exhibits from the Washburn “A” Mill. Throngs of people paid their respects during the anniversary events.
Salveson says it’s still difficult to read the plaque, which states:
This mill was erected in the year 1879 in the site of Washburn Mill “A” which was totally destroyed on the second day of May 1878 by fire, and a terrific explosion occasioned by the rapid combustion of flour dust. Not one stone was left upon another, and every person engaged in the mill instantly lost his life. The following are the names of the faithful and well tried employees who fell victims of that awful calamity. E.W. Burbank, Cyrus W. Ewing, E.H. Grundman, Henry Hicks, Chas. Henning, Patrick Judd, Chas. Kimball, Wm. Leslie, Fred A. Merrill, Edwd. E. Merrill, Walter Savage, Ole Shie, August Smith, Clark Wilbur.
“Labor wide as the earth, has its summit in heaven.”
The ending quote is attributed to Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle. The same phrase also is found on the Millers’ Monument, another memorial to the mill victims that’s at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
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