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The peak of the Minneapolis flour-milling industry coincided with World War I

Milling peaked in 1916 when mills near St. Anthony Falls produced 18.5 million barrels of flour — over 20 percent of the nation’s output. 

West Side Milling District, Minneapolis, ca. 1920. Photograph by Hibbard Studio.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The Minneapolis flour-milling industry peaked during World War I when twenty-five flour mills employing 2,000 to 2,500 workers played a leading role in the campaign to win the war with food. Minneapolis-produced flour helped to feed America, more than four million of its service personnel, and its allies.

In 1880, Minneapolis surpassed St. Louis as the nation’s leading flour-milling center. Production increased from two million barrels in 1880 to 15.4 million barrels in 1910. Minneapolis became “the Flour-Milling Capital of the World.”

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Milling peaked in 1916 when mills near St. Anthony Falls produced 18.5 million barrels of flour—over 20 percent of the nation’s output. Three firms controlled 90 percent of the daily milling capacity. They were the Washburn-Crosby Company (eight mills and 37,300 barrels), the Pillsbury Company (six mills and 29,300 barrels), and the Northwestern Consolidated Milling Company (six mills and 15,960 barrels). The Pillsbury “A” Mill—the world’s largest mill—boasted a daily capacity of 12,000 barrels. More than fifty grain elevators storing nearly fifty million bushels of grain supplied the mills.

When war erupted in 1914, Germany’s invasion of Belgium and the British blockade created an aid crisis. People in the occupied territories desperately needed supplies, especially food. With the approval of the warring nations, Herbert Hoover organized the private Commission for Relief in Belgium.

Minneapolis millers were among the first to respond. William C. Edgar, editor of the Northwestern Miller, organized the Millers Belgian Relief Movement in November. In January 1915, a ship delivered 283,120 forty-nine-pound sacks of flour and other supplies to Rotterdam. Minneapolis millers and industries provided nearly 25 percent of the cargo.

Fueled by record wheat harvests in 1914 and 1915, local mills operated near full capacity. Between 1914 and 1919, they produced an average of 17.3 million barrels of flour a year. Buffalo, Minneapolis’ nearest competitor, averaged 6.3 million barrels a year.

When the United States entered the war in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson urged all Americans to become “citizen soldiers” supplying food for our armies and our Allies. “Food will win the war” became the rallying cry. In his April 28, 1917, Message to the People of Minnesota, Governor J. A. A. Burnquist declared that it was up to Americans to avert a global famine. He urged Minnesotans to uphold “their patriotic duty…to maintain the greatest possible yield of foodstuffs from Minnesota for the world.”

A poor wheat crop in 1916 (636 million bushels compared to 1.1 billion bushels in 1915), a disastrous harvest in Argentina, and predictions of a poor 1917 American harvest resulted in steep price increases for wheat and flour. Panicked buyers hoarded supplies, and a bread riot broke out in New York City. Many American millers favored government intervention to stabilize the situation. President Wilson created the Food Administration, led by Herbert Hoover, to stimulate food production and encourage food conservation.

Hoover named Washburn-Crosby executive James Ford Bell to head the Milling Division of the Food Administration. The Food Administration implemented rules designed to stretch the supply of wheat. Millers were required to register with the government, operate under price controls, and mill whole wheat flour instead of refined flour. They were also required to mill “substitute flours” for use in Victory Breads —breads containing at least 20 percent non-wheat flour.

Between April 1917 and June 1919, the US sent 6.2 million metric tons of flour to Europe. Because the Minneapolis mills and grain elevators were critical to the war effort, military units protected the milling district from potential sabotage by pro-German agents. In April 1917, arson was suspected in fires that destroyed two local grain elevators.

In 1921, Minneapolis flour production slipped below seventeen million barrels. It steadily declined thereafter. By 1930, Buffalo, which benefited from closer proximity to eastern and foreign markets and favorable rail shipping rates, became the nation’s leading flour milling center.

Although no longer the leading center of flour production, Minneapolis remained the headquarters of the nation’s two leading flour millers: Pillsbury and General Mills (the successor to Washburn-Crosby Company). Their capital investment powered Buffalo’s rise. In 1927, Washburn-Crosby (which built its first mill in Buffalo in 1904) and Pillsbury accounted for 52 and 26 percent, respectively, of Buffalo’s flour capacity.

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