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

 

26 Responses to “Touring an historic mill in Morristown”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    Chris and I love to go look at old mills. There is one in Greenville, OH where we lived for 4 years called Bear’s Mill http://bearsmill.com) that we loved to go to. A couple years ago when we were back living in Ohio for 7 months we took a trip back to see it and I took tons of pictures, too! Great history in these old places. Thanks for the tour.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      This was my first tour of a water-powered mill. If I hadn’t been quite so worried about the dust and my camera, I likely would have enjoyed my visit more. Still, I meandered inside for quite some time, occasionally tucking my camera under my sweater.

      • Beth Ann Says:

        You are ever the protective “mother” be it children or cameras!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Never thought of it from the perspective. But true. I need to take my camera in for a cleaning again. But that means giving it up for a week, and that is tough for me.

  2. treadlemusic Says:

    There is a grist mill still in operation in a little settlement not far from Houston…Sheldon. Scheck’s Mill originated (along with a saw mill) in the mid/late 1800’s. Mr. Ed Krugmire still opens it on occasion/by tele. arrangements. It is so interesting and the dust/wood smells are intoxicating! Your post allowed me to enter in to a long-ago era. Thank you! Hugs…..

  3. What a Great Experience – love your captures, especially of the process and the Cannon River! Happy Tuesday:)

  4. As always, wonderful photos. Have you been to the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis? I took my colleague from Every Day Poets there when she and her husband visited us last September.

    I love what you said about the way the dust filters into memories. You are unmistakeably a poet.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      No, I have never been to the Mill City Museum. But I bet I would enjoy it. Honestly, I don’t get into the city often, only on occasion to visit the daughter. I tend not to like the traffic or busyness of the metro.

      Thank you for your observation that I am unmistakably a poet. It still surprises me to hear that, to realize that I truly am a poet. Why do I still feel that way after successfully publishing quite a bit of poetry?

      Kathleen, from one poet to another, I simply want to tell you how much I always appreciate your thoughtful and insightful comments.

  5. Jackie Says:

    I just Love old mills, I saw one like this somewhere, but do you think I can remember where, it had the water wheel too, I should ask my dad, I bet it’s down south of here somewhere. Loved the photo’s…the big plank wooden floors remind me of my grandma’s barn 🙂

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Are we sisters, Jackie? You and I share a commonality of appreciation for so many things from barns to gravel roads to exploring cemeteries, and now old mills. You are a sister of the heart, for sure.

  6. Marilyn Says:

    Miller is the 7th most common surname in the USA. I’m not a Miller by nee or now, but the process, the historical connection to my miller ancestors is deeply interesting. My great, great grandfather was the miller for two years at a well-known mill in my home county. Apparently he considered it a stop-gap period in his life, didn’t like it much, but it provided for his young family. After the mill he bacame a farmer for the rest of his life.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Your story causes me to wonder how many of us have millers in our past. Thank you for sharing this info, Marilyn.

  7. beth Says:

    happy 4th to you and yours, Audrey


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