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Swany Mill was last 19th century flour mill in use in Minnesota

Before burning to the ground in 2011, the Swany White Flour Mill was the last remaining 19th century mill in use in Minnesota.

The Swany White Flour Mill in 1977
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Before burning to the ground in 2011, the Swany White Flour Mill was the last remaining 19th century mill in use in Minnesota. Located in Freeport, the mill produced white flour, mixes, and other grain products for more than a century. It was a local landmark and was a frequent stop for people interested in the history of milling and bread baking.

When it was built, the mill was one of a number of small mills throughout Minnesota where local farmers could sell their wheat close to home rather than having to ship it to large mills located in Minneapolis. At the mill, they could outright sell their grain or trade raw wheat for ground flour for their own family’s use. The builder of the Swany Mill, Anton Hoeschen, did not intend to run the mill himself. Instead, he saw it as an investment in the community and hoped that he would find a buyer who wanted to be a miller. After several ownership changes in its first few years, the mill was bought by Hubert and Peter Thelen in 1903, who ran the mill together. They chose the name Swany White for their brand of white flour to suggest that their product was as white as a swan.

In 1913, the brothers remodeled the mill, adding a basement and more manufacturing space. The changes made the mill more efficient, and it was able to produce twice as much flour as it had before. After Peter Thelen’s retirement in 1953, his son Walter took over the mill. In 1966, he replaced the steam-driven engine, that the mill had had since it was built, with an electric motor.

While other small mills were not able to remain profitable during an era of increased consolidation and a downturn in Minnesota wheat production, Walter Thelen came up with a way to keep the mill profitable by producing a slightly different product. During the 1970s, he persuaded organic growers to produce organic flour, and he made arrangements with specialty bakers in area. His strategy worked, and Swany White Flour was sold in cooperatives and natural foods stores in Minnesota. He also sold flour as far away as the East Coast.

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In 1980, the mill was placed on the national register of historic places, but it remained a working mill. In 1998, Walter’s son Gary took over the family business when he bought it from his father. By that time, the Swany White Flour Mill had become a Minnesota landmark. When photographer Richard Olsenius spent time in Freeport looking for places that had inspired Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, he photographed Gary Thelen and his mill. Members of local bread clubs would also visit to see how a century-old mill worked.

On December 27, 2011, the Swany White Flour Mill burned to the ground. Luckily, no one was injured in the blaze, which completely consumed the building. Though he initially claimed that he would not rebuild the mill, Thelen changed his mind, and a new Swany Flour Mill is scheduled to open in 2012.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.