DOWN BY THE OLD FRUEN MILL - page 1 - by Sharon Parker
Photo by Dave Stack, Oct 2015
Following is page 1 of 2 of an article published in the Minneapolis Observer Quarterly
-- Spring 2010 edition
DOWN BY THE OLD FRUEN MILL
-- By: Sharon Parker
The graffiti on these walls mask stories of ingenuity and enterprise
On Glenwood and Thomas avenues in North Minneapolis, next to Theodore Wirth Park, hugging the banks of Bassett's Creek, adjacent to the Glenwood-Inglewood bottling plant, stands a sturdy but haggard old mill bearing a ConAgra sign. Really a hodgepodge of structures erected at different times from the 1870s to the 1950s, the site became the subject of some speculation earlier this year, as nearby residents wanted to know whether it would ever be torn down or renovated. In its present state, the building is not only an eyesore, but a hazard. Despite the "no trespassing" signs and other attempts to secure the property, it has proven irresistible to urban explorers. One fell to his death there in 2006.
---- Known as Fruen Mill, the structure was slated to become luxury condos by Frich Development, offering stunning views of the Minneapolis Skyline and Theodore Wirth Park. But in order for potential residents to reach the building from nearby city streets, they would need to cross two sets of railroad tracks operated by two different railroads, and those tracks became stumbling blocks that have so far thwarted the project.
---- The Canadian Pacific Railroad was willing to grant the necessary easement, but the Burlington Northern was not. Frich came up with a rather elaborate scheme to get around the problem, with a cloverleaf at Glenwood Avenue and a bridge over Bassett's Creek--a proposal that would have cut into park board land. The park board was considering the idea in a memo dated January 26, 2006, with concomitant improvements to the creekbank and trails, when the property changed hands, and soon thereafter fell behind on its taxes. It was sold again in late 2009, and we can only wish the best of luck to new owners Lippert and Associates LLP in their negotiations with the folks at Burlington Northern.
---- But our interest lies not so much in speculating on the prospects of developers as in funding the stories behind old buildings and place names, and in that regard, the Fruen Mill is rich indeed.
---- A Machinist by trade, Englishman William H. Fruen immigrated to Boston in 1865 and made his way to Minneapolis five years later. He not only built and operated the mill that is still known by his name, but also founded the Glenwood-Inglewood spring water company in 1884, which remained in the Fruen family until 1990.
---- When Fruen arrived in Minneapolis, the milling industry was just taking off along the Mississippi riverfront, and Fruen set up a repair shop to put his enterprising machinist skills to good use. There he repaired and also built machinery for the mills.
---- In 1874 Fruen erected a small factory near his home on Bassett's Creek to manufacture screws. It was powered by a dam he built on the creek, using machinery that he devised. The stream still tumbles over a remnant of the old dam, which was reconstructed by a WPA project in the 1930s. But the effects of the Panic of 1873 were reaching the Midwest by this time, and Fruen's would-be partners were broke, so he had a tough time raising the funds to get his enterprise off the ground. Despite a lack of capital, he did manage to churn out 8,000 gross of screws annually. Then the price of screws plummeted from 90 cents per gross to 19 cents. When the American Screw Company came calling, Fruen sold them his business and his manufacturing equipment, and agreed to a non-compete clause that proscribed his engaging in any screw-making enterprises thereafter.
---- But he didn't give up the building by the creek, nor did he let the former screw plant stay idle for long. An inventive man, Fruen developed a water-wheel governor, an elaborate device to regulate the speed of the wheels that powered the mills--and his own plant, which he converted from making screws to making the new machinery. Known as the Fruen water-wheel governor, it sold to local mills as well as to operations in England, Japan, and Argentina.
---- Then disaster struck the Minneapolis milling industry: On May 2, 1878, the Washburn A Mill exploded, killing 18 workers and decimating the surrounding area. Site of the present Mill City Museum, the A Mill at the time was the largest flour mill in the country. A third of the city's milling capacity was destroyed in the accident as were many other surrounding businesses and homes, including lumberyards, a machine shop, a railroad roundhouse, and other types of mills and storage buildings. The wreckage smoldered for a month.
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(go to next image to read page 2)
Fruen MillConAgra MillBassett's CreekBassett Creek