Historic Phelps Mill: Fergus Falls, MN
Preserving Minnesota's Historic Mill Heritage: Among Minnesota’s unique historic sites, a once-bustling mill in Western Minnesota harkens back to the state’s early milling history. Today, Phelps Mill in Otter Tail County, MN allows visitors to step back in time to the turn of the century when wheat was king and Minnesota was shaped by its abundance of flour. Mill tours, an annual summer festival, and a stop for an ice cream treat highlight a visit to Phelps Mill.
More than 1,000 Minnesota Mills
Minneapolis may have the nickname, “Mill City,” but at one time Minnesota had more than 1,000 mills operating throughout the state. In the late 1800s, wheat was king, and in the southeast region of the state, the city of Red Wing became the world’s largest primary wheat market. But in the northwest, the Red River (now called the Ottertail River) drew entrepreneurs who would establish water-powered mills.
One such entrepreneur was William Thomas. In 1887, he owned a feed and flour business in Fergus Falls. With the desire to help make the region the largest milling region west of Minneapolis, Thomas sold his business and purchased land along the Red River.
It took him until 1889 to complete the dam and mill. He spent $5,000 to purchase top-end equipment, including the 7,000 pound water wheel. And he finally opened the mill in December 1889, naming it “Maine Roller Mills.”
In its early days, the mill produced up to 60-75 barrels of flour per day, under the brand names Gold Foil Patent, Silver Leaf Fancy and Bakers Choice. The mill was a major success, and at times there would be as many as 25 wagons lined up outside the mill to deliver wheat. By 1895, Thomas decided to expand, with an addition to the mill with the capacity to grind buckwheat and rye.
Thomas’ success helped grow the village of Maine, and a general store opened across the street from the mill. To avoid confusion with another town named Maine further north, Thomas changed the village’s name to Phelps – his wife’s maiden name. A restaurant, blacksmith, cheese factory and repair shop also opened in the area.
But like many towns, the area saw significant impact from the arrival of the railroad. By the turn of the century, it became cheaper to ship wheat to the Twin Cities, where it could be processes at steam, gasoline or electricity power mills that operated more efficiently than a water-powered mill could.
The mill was sold twice before it was closed in 1939. The general store across the street is remains, and has been continuously operating for more than 100 years.
Preserving Phelps Mill
More than 20 years after the mill closed for good, a local resident led a campaign to preserve the site. And in 1965, Otter Tail County purchased the mill and adjoining land for use as a county park. The mill, general store and a miller’s house were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. In 1993, Friends of Phelps Mill was formed to upkeep the site.
Each July, the Phelps Mill Festival commemorates the mill and its significance the area’s history with live music, the area’s largest arts and crafts fair, food and children’s activities.
If you go:
Plan a visit during the Phelps Mill Festival, the second weekend in July. The festival features the region’s largest art fair, as well as live music and children’s entertainment.
After touring the mill, don’t miss a stop to the general store across the street – which has been continuously operating since it opened about 100 years ago.
From Fergus Falls, take Hwy 210 to Cty 35. Continue to follow Cty 35 and turn right on 230 Street, which will become 310 Avenue and take you to the mill. The mill is about 15 miles from Fergus Falls
While you’re there:
Plan a Weekend Away at Ottertail Lake. Check in to Thumper Pond Resort and enjoy championship golf, a spa, dining and an indoor waterpark just off of Ottertail Lake. Or stay nearby in Fergus Falls and enjoy dining and theatre downtown.
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