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The Swany White Flour Mill

Creator: 
Freeport Mill.

The Swany White Flour Mill,1977. Photograph by Frame, Robert Murray III.

Before burning to the ground in 2011, the Swany White Flour Mill was the last remaining 19th century mill in use in Minnesota. Located in Freeport, the mill produced white flour, mixes, and other grain products for more than a century. It was a local landmark and was a frequent stop for people interested in the history of milling and bread baking.

When it was built, the mill was one of a number of small mills throughout Minnesota where local farmers could sell their wheat close to home rather than having to ship it to large mills located in Minneapolis. At the mill, they could outright sell their grain or trade raw wheat for ground flour for their own family's use. The builder of the Swany Mill, Anton Hoeschen, did not intend to run the mill himself. Instead, he saw it as an investment in the community and hoped that he would find a buyer who wanted to be a miller. After several ownership changes in its first few years, the mill was bought by Hubert and Peter Thelen in 1903, who ran the mill together. They chose the name Swany White for their brand of white flour to suggest that their product was as white as a swan.

In 1913, the brothers remodeled the mill, adding a basement and more manufacturing space. The changes made the mill more efficient, and it was able to produce twice as much flour as it had before. After Peter Thelen's retirement in 1953, his son Walter took over the mill. In 1966, he replaced the steam-driven engine, that the mill had had since it was built, with an electric motor.

While other small mills were not able to remain profitable during an era of increased consolidation and a downturn in Minnesota wheat production, Walter Thelen came up with a way to keep the mill profitable by producing a slightly different product. During the 1970s, he persuaded organic growers to produce organic flour, and he made arrangements with specialty bakers in the area. His strategy worked, and Swany White Flour was sold in cooperatives and natural foods stores in Minnesota. He also sold flour as far away as the East Coast.

In 1980, the mill was placed on the national register of historic places, but it remained a working mill. In 1998, Walter's son Gary took over the family business when he bought it from his father. By that time, the Swany White Flour Mill had become a Minnesota landmark. When photographer Richard Olsenius spent time in Freeport looking for places that had inspired Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, he photographed Gary Thelen and his mill. Members of local bread clubs would also visit to see how a century-old mill worked.

On December 27, 2011, the Swany White Flour Mill burned to the ground. Luckily, no one was injured in the blaze, which completely consumed the building. Though he initially claimed that he would not rebuild the mill, Thelen changed his mind, and a new Swany White mill opened in 2012.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Lindblad, Owen. "Family Mills." Escape to the Minnesota Good Times 6, no. 4 (August, 1986), 34–35.

Thielen, Lois. Freeport: 100 Years of Family, Faith, and Fortune. [Minnesota]: self-published, 1992.

Related Images

Freeport Mill.
Freeport Mill.
Aerial view, Elevator, Freeport
Aerial view, Elevator, Freeport

Turning Point

On December 27, 2011, the Swany White Flour Mill, the last working nineteenth-century mill in Minnesota, burns to the ground. It is completely destroyed in the fire.

Chronology

1897

The mill is built by Anton Hoeschen

1903

Hubert and Peter Thelen buy the mill.

1912

The mill is remodeled, with an added basement and third story, and production increased.

1953

Walter Thelen, son of Peter Thelen, takes over the running of the mill.

1966

An electric motor is added to replace the steam-powered engine that had turned the grinder.

1980

The mill is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

1998

Gary Thelen purchased the mill from his father Walter.

2011

Due to a fire, the mill burns to the ground.

2012

A new Swany White facility opens for business.