Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Touring an historic mill in Morristown June 4, 2013

I WISH MY MEMORIES of the old feed mill were imprinted upon the pages of a book. Indelible ink. Words recorded so that I would always remember. The smell. The sound. The sights. The everything encompassing this agricultural business in my southwestern Minnesota prairie town.

I recall so little—the wooden steps leading to the feed mill; the ground feed residue lingering in the air and on surfaces; the ever-deafening grinding noise of machinery chomping grain; handsome operator Wally Anderson with his shock of white hair who lived in a well-kept corner house several blocks north; and the summer a ventriloquist sat in front of Vesta’s feed mill with a dummy perched on his knee.

The Morristown Feed Mill in Morristown, Minnesota.

The Morristown Feed Mill in Morristown, Minnesota.

Those faint wisps of recollection filtered through my thoughts on Saturday as I meandered through an historic 1860 grist mill along the banks of the Cannon River in Morristown. Once a year this rural southeastern Minnesota community opens the mill for tours and grinds wheat and corn.

A replica waterwheel built in 1997 by Theodore E. Sawle.

A replica waterwheel built in 1997 by Theodore E. Sawle.

I won’t even pretend to understand all I viewed and photographed at this mill once powered by a waterwheel, later by electricity.

A volunteer grinds wheat into flour in the old grist mill. Each time the waterwheel turns, it spins the millstone 17 times in the process of crushing grain between stones. The volunteer's wife bakes Communion bread for the local Methodist church.

A volunteer grinds wheat into flour in the old grist mill. Each time the waterwheel turns, it spins the millstone 17.5 times in the process of crushing grain between stones. The volunteer’s wife bakes Communion bread for the local Methodist church.

Initially, the mill opened in 1855 as a sawmill. But, within years, the business was replaced by Hershey Grist Mill, a mill for grinding grain into flour and livestock feed. On the afternoon I toured, a volunteer was grinding wheat into flour with the waterwheel powering the grinder. I had intended to buy a bag of the $2 wheat flour, but forgot in the midst of my photographic focus.

Guidelines for pig feed.

Guidelines for pig feed posted on a mixer.

The Morristown Historical Society today cares for the facility which closed in the 1970s as the Morristown Feed Mill, purveyor of livestock feed. For those like me, who grew up on a farm but have long ago left the land, such endeavors to preserve the rural past are deeply appreciated.

The conveyor belt powered by the waterwheel. This operates the grinder.

The waterwheel turns these pulleys and belts which operate the grinder.

While I walked the old wooden floor of the feed mill, descended stairs into the cluttered utility room where a dangerous conveyor belt cycled and afterward climbed stairs to the second floor, I reconnected with my rural roots.

The old feed mill is stocked with lots of vintage grinding equipment.

The old feed mill is stocked with lots of vintage mill equipment.

And it may not have been in the way you most likely would expect. For me, the experience was mostly about the dust—knowing I needed to protect my camera from the fine grain dust which permeates a place like this, layers on the skin, hovers in the air, filters into memories.

Inside the feed mill, where a volunteer stamps cloth bags with Morristown Feed Mill.

Inside the feed mill, a volunteer stamps cloth bags with Morristown Feed Mill. Behind the sign are two mixers.

An old fanning mill cleans the grain for planting.

An old fanning mill cleans the grain for planting.

When I heard mention of mice, I was a little nervous about going into the utility room.

When I heard mention of mice, I was a little nervous about going into the utility room.

The Cannon River dam right next to the mill.

The Cannon River dam right next to the mill.

FYI: As a side note, the mill sheltered several refugees from the U.S. – Dakota Conflict of 1862.  Check back for more mill photos.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling