Phelps Mill may be a symbol of old, but it’s very much alive
UNDERWOOD, Minn. — In the late 1800s, wheat was king in Minnesota. And in places like Otter Tail County , entrepreneurs were harnessing water power to build an agricultural dynasty.
The powerful flows of the Otter Tail River pressed into and turned a 7,000 pound turbine at what was then Maine Roller Mills, a site about 20 miles northeast of Fergus Falls , Minnesota.
As the wheel spun, during the height of wheat harvest, it was said that a line of 25-35 wagons loaded with sacks of wheat would line up outside the mill. That wheat would be poured out and ground up between rollers, creating various flours for hungry consumers.
William E. Thomas bought this land now known as Phelps Mill Park in the rolling hills of Maine Township in 1887, constructed a dam in 1888 and completed the mill building in 1889. The mill was named Phelps because that was the maiden name for Thomas’ wife. He, like many other entrepreneurs, wanted to see this become the largest flour producing area west of Minneapolis, according to the Otter Tail County Historical Society.
The mill was successful the first decade — so busy at times that Thomas built a “farmers roost” for farmers to sleep in while they waited for their wheat to be ground. Business slowly trickled off as steam, gasoline and electricity powered mills more efficiently made flour. The mill closed its doors in 1939.
Nearly 1,000 mills were operating throughout Minnesota in the late 1800s, but railroads made it cheaper to ship wheat to Minneapolis and St. Paul than to mill the wheat in the country. Rural mills became obsolete. So few remain as the dust filled wooden structures were often claimed by fire.
No longer an economic engine, the site remained a symbol of an old way of rural life. Otter Tail County bought the property in 1965 and it was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
Today, 134 years after it began operation, you can stand on the bank of that river and watch the water rushing out of that dam as it straddles the same historic building.
Otter Tail County Historical Society executive director Chris Schuelke asked a crowd of people in attendance for a reopening of the mill on Friday, June 2, to close their eyes and just listen. The sound of the water rushing over the dam and sweeping past the structure was the same sound workers and farmers at the mill would have heard all those years ago. It's a sound that's with you through all four floors of this mill now open for touring.
"Think about where we're at, the river, the historic setting — there just aren't many places quite like this, so we're fortunate to be here today," Schuelke said.
This place is almost frozen in time thanks to the efforts of people who long to see this rich agricultural history preserved.
One such group is the Friends of Phelps Mill. They've recently created and installed visual aids, such as a seven-minute video presentation; display panels on each floor explaining the process and machinery; and, a self-guided tour brochure. The group also provides guided tours of the mill during public events at the park and an ice cream social and band concert are held each year in August.
This place holds special value to one of the members of the Friends group. Gary Harrington is the grandson of Henry Hanson, who was one of those farmers who would make regular trips to Phelps Mill with a wagon full of wheat .
Harrington heard of farmers coming from as far away as Menahga , Minnesota (nearly 60 miles away), to have their wheat ground. Farmers were largely self sufficient at this time but bringing in wheat meant bringing home a pocket of cash.
Farmers had many problems getting to the mill and finding the fastest route across undeveloped stretches of land. Harrington recalls one instance where a team of horses fell through the ice on a lake making a trip to the mill.
"This was such an important mill and you know ... wheat is king or was king. You think about it today, there is so little wheat in the area, it's all beans and corn. But that was their livelihood."
Schuelke said what made this mill so important and popular was that Thomas was a fair businessman and cared deeply about the quailty of the flour they were processing.
"The quality of the product was such that this became a destination," Schuelke said.
An ongoing project of the group is the physical restoration of mill equipment. The goal being to preserve the historical integrity of the mill and to enhance the education of the visitors to the mill.
Thousands visit the site each year as Minnesotans and tourists return to the lakes area.
"People are out here constantly," Schuelke said. "The historic district here is pretty unchanged. The mill, the water rushing over the dam ..."
Harrington moved away from the area for many years, but moved back to his roots to care for and preserve Phelps Mill. He said work is being done to move this site beyond an important site in the county and state to national recognition.
"There is real hope that it could become a national historic site," Harrington said.
On Friday, June 2, a milestone moment was recognized as a significant restoration had taken place which once again allowed the public to tour the insides of this great facility. Otter Tail County received a Minnesota Historical Society grant for $140,000 and a State Capital grant for $275,000 to complete needed work for safe access to visitors.
Work involved in that restoration, according to Otter Tail County director of parks and trails Kevin Fellbaum, included replacement of the foundation, support beams, basement floor, and broken windows; repainting of the turbine support; tuck pointing; and ADA compliant access among other things.
The county is also working to preserve the nearby dam, general store and miller's house. The next project is to work on the general store, and the goal is to have it open during the summers again, Schuelke said.
A great time to visit the mill is during the annual Phelps Mill Festival. This event is held the second weekend in July at the park. The park is open to the public daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. from May 1 to Oct. 31. For more information email [email protected].