Flour Milling in Washington -- A Brief History

  • By Norman Reed
  • Posted 7/11/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9474
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There have been nearly 160 flour mills in the state of Washington. In 1870 there were 22,573 in the United States. Why were there so many mills, and where did they all go? Why should we be interested? Norman Reed, a retired manufacturing executive from Kent, enjoys traveling around Washington and researching its historical, industrial, and agricultural roots. He is a collector of ephemeral artifacts from our state's industries, and having grown up in Eastern Washington, he takes a particular interest in the wheat and flour industries. The essay explores the history of this region's flour mills and demonstrates how flour milling was intimately entwined with the growth and development of the state of Washington. This essay was first published in Columbia magazine, Vol. 22 No. 4 (Winter 2008-2009) and is reprinted here with permission. 

A Very Short Primer on Flour Mills and Milling

Milling Methods

During most of the nineteenth century flour millers utilized stone grinders. Two round, flat stones, usually imported from France, did the job. The bottom stone was stationary and the top stone was the “runner” that turned. The grain was fed down into a hole in the middle of the top stone and the flour exited, radially, out from between the stones. These mills were simple in concept and worked for centuries. Though not the best for wheat flour, they worked well on corn and buckwheat and are still in use today for specialty flours.

In the mid 1850s roller mills were adapted for flour milling in Switzerland and Hungary. The first roller mill of commercial importance in the U.S. was put into use in Minneapolis in 1878. The roller mill, along with an air-classifier called a “purifier,” produced a more uniform flour at less cost, and they worked better on the harder, high-gluten spring wheats used for bread flour. Roller milling also made possible the construction of larger, more efficient mills, hastening the abandonment of community mills and stone grinding.

What is a grist?

A grist is defined as the amount of grain brought by a farmer to the mill in a single wagon that would be milled as a batch in trade for a portion of the finished product. As the miller’s portion grew or as markets developed beyond the local farmers, millers packed their portions in barrels weighing 196 pounds. The size of 196 pounds was a carry-over of the British weight system, and is the equivalent of 14 English stone. By the late 1800s sewing machines had been invented and sacks were found to be cheaper for packaging than barrels. The common sack size was a “halve,” weighing 98 pounds. After 1900 smaller sacks began to appear for home use. In the 1950s bulk flour became the norm for bakery use, since these large-volume users wanted truck or rail car loads, and most had pneumatic conveyers to handle the flour.

Wheat and Our First Mills

For over 10,000 years wheat has been a staple of mankind’s diet. In fact its cultivation on permanent plots was the basis of our modern civilization. Throughout most of history, and until recent times, families had to harvest and thresh their own grain, produce their own flour, bake their own breads and cakes, and prepare their own breakfast cereals. Women continued to bake their own bread right into the first half of the twentieth century, though the production of flour was taken over by the many mills. Today, everything is all done for us; we simply pick up fully prepared foods at the store.

Wheat will grow at most elevations, with minimum moisture, and can be harvested at different times of the year. Consequently it was carried by explorers and pioneers as they moved westward and settled our Northwestern territories. The early trappers moved down from Canada into the Colville area. The North West Company grew wheat at Fort Colville and built the first flour mill in Oregon Territory, at Marcus Flats near Kettle Falls, in 1816. The Hudson’s Bay Company built a mill on Mill Plain just east of what is now Vancouver in 1828. It is believed these two mills were powered by animal power.

The Early Days in Western Washington

As settlers began to appear, the growing of grains and their milling was of great necessity. The pioneers craved flour-mill flour because homemade, mortar-and-pestle flour was not well suited for bread, but rather gruel, pancakes and hard biscuits. The next few mills were built in present-day Oregon, with the first one at Champoeg in 1835, then Salem, then Polk County, then McMinnville. A tub mill was installed at the Marcus Whitman Mission in 1838. In 1839 Fort Vancouver went 5 miles north to Mill Creek, where they could get water power, and built their second mill .

During the early 1840s hardy travelers pushed up the Columbia and Cowlitz rivers from Vancouver and established small settlements all the way to New Market (now Tumwater). Colonel Michael Simmons built the first American-owned Western Washington mill there in 1846. Simmons had found a most unique and productive area. The Deschutes River dropped rapidly into Puget Sound at what is now Budd Inlet, providing much water power for many industries, and it was  close to the prairies for agriculture and the salt water for commerce. This ideal setting was the starting point for Western Washington. Within 20 years there were three flour mills (Crosby, Ward & Hays, & Gelbach), six saw and /or woodworking mills (including sash & door, furniture and wooden pipe), and a tannery. Miller Clanrick Crosby, who had bought the Simmons flour and saw mills, brought in his nephew Nathaniel Crosby III to operate a general store. Nathaniel was crooner Bing Crosby’s grandfather. In 1895 Leopold Schmidt bought out the tannery so its site could be his new brewery. Today the area is a magnificent park showcasing the fine stretch of river. The brewery grew to world class and is still there but is not in operation today. Today the brewery and the Nathaniel Crosby home are just a few remaining signs of the industrial past.

Thomas M. Chambers left New Market, crossed the Nisqually River, and built a mill on Chambers Creek, the outlet of Lake Steilacoom, in 1847. The Chambers mill would grow and stay in operation for many years. Today its namesake area is being developed into the newest neighborhood of Tacoma, with a world-class golf course and parks.

At Warbassport at Cowlitz Landing, just a mile downriver from present day Toledo, E. D. Warbass established a sawmill and grist mill in 1852. In 1857 the A. L. Davis sawmill in Claquato, just west of Chehalis, added a run of stones for grinding flour. Thomas Waterbury was the prize-winning miller there. At least 17 more mills soon followed in Clark, Lewis, and Pierce counties, as many farmers became established in the territory. Most of these grist mills were small, rural, and short lived as they did not have the great wheat crops that were coming in Eastern Washington.

As the cities on Puget Sound grew the populations needed flour and cereals. Railroad and river travel had improved to bring the grain to the city. The first city mill was the Yesler sawmill/flour mill in 1864. It was common for mills to harness their power source for multiple uses. An 1880 photo of the waterfront in downtown Seattle shows the Woodard Mill on Columbia Street. Watson and Olds Flour Company was established at 2310 East D Street in Tacoma at about this time. An 1885 directory lists the Seattle Flour Mill in Seattle’s Ravenna district.

Milling Moves East

There have been nearly a hundred flour mills in Eastern Washington. Florence Sherfey has written the book Eastern Washington’s Vanished Gristmills and the Men Who Ran Them, and she lists 79 gristmills by 1900. At first the mill was a necessity for the neighboring farmers, as it had been throughout the country. Every farm community needed a mill within horse-and-wagon distance so that the annual crop could be milled into flour. As mentioned, it all started at Colville and eight mills were running in Stevens County in the years between 1816 and 1889.

As the settlers arrived over the Oregon Trail and became acquainted with the soil they discovered that Eastern Washington was extraordinarily suited to growing wheat. Wheat grew everywhere -- on the round tops of hills, on the benches, on the plateaus and foothills. No irrigation was necessary, and the rich soil required no fertilizing. Yields per acre were much better than back east in the prairie states, and crop failures were unknown, although drought sometimes did reduce yields.

In addition to the settlers' subsistence needs, the many trappers, missionaries, soldiers, and miners regularly provided a market for flour. Walla Walla soon became the center of the flour- milling industry -- it was located close to the major transportation rivers, so machinery could be brought in from Portland and customers could be supplied in all directions. The area had abundant water power available from the Touchet River and Walla Walla River. At one time there were seven gristmills operating on a 30-mile span of the Touchet River. All in all 11 mills operated there in the 1800s, beginning in 1859 with the Pioneer mill on Yellowhawk Creek, which was run by Almos H. Reynolds.

The earliest railroads were established for the grain and flour trade. Eastern Washington’s wheat was already being exported out of Portland and to areas as far away as Liverpool, England. To expedite this trade, Dorsey Baker envisioned and completed the state’s first railroad line to connect Walla Walla with Wallula, where it could hook up with the Columbia riverboats. This Walla Walla and Columbia River Railroad opened in 1875 and had wooden rails.

The Palouse region in Southeastern Washington was even better at wheat growing and soon became known as the greatest wheat-farming region in the world. Mills sprung up wherever there was a water power source, and 28 mills were running in the late 1890s. W. O. Breeding built the first gristmill in Palouse town in 1875. At its inception, a group that had gathered to view its complicated mill workings stayed for a dance in the warehouse room.

Milling and Naming

Writing of the human, technical, and economic interest of the many mills that operated before 1900 in Eastern Washington is far beyond the scope of this article. (The Sherfey book does a superb job of every detail.) One most interesting subject, however, is the relationship between millers and the founding and naming of towns.

When a town was founded, and sometimes even before one was founded, the first industrial business was generally a sawmill. The second was usually a grist mill. Since a grist mill was so important to the success of a town, millers were in great demand. Sylvester Wait was such a miller. He came west from Vermont possessing a sound training in the flour-milling trade. He had always found work and opportunity and in 1863 founded a mill on the Touchet River.

Wait was an honest and popular man, and he became county commissioner in 1867. The townsmen soon voted to name the town Waitsburg. With demand for flour still growing, Wait then helped Jessie Day start a mill downstream, and that town became Dayton. Pomeroy is named after a miller, as are Dartford, Elberton, Post Falls, and Meyer’s Falls. Ellensburg is named after Ellen, wife of John Shoudy, who was the miller at the Tjossem mill. A namesake already mentioned was at the Chambers Bay area of Tacoma.

John Houser was the successful operator of Meyer’s mill in Colville. James Glover, the father of Spokane, was promoting the city  in 1877, and he offered Houser a site on his 160 acres bordering the river to the south, and all of the water-power rights, for just $600 if he would come and build a gristmill. Houser noted that Spokane area farmland was not too good, so he went instead to Pataha City and built his mill, which still stands today.

Spokane came late to the party, not being developed until 1878, but its superb source of water power and the coming of the railroads had it catching up rapidly. At this time milling was being modernized from millstones to roller mills. The roller mill, coupled with new purifier and bolting systems, made flour that was far superior. The excellent source of power from the Spokane River, a growing population, and easy access to rail transportation ushered in the era of big city mills that would spell the demise of the rural gristmills. By 1889 the Echo Mill, C & C Mill, Spokane Flour Mill, and the Centennial Mills were the leaders in this “big is better” movement.

The Apex of the Industry

Between 1880 and 1893 the Pacific Northwest experienced a rate of growth seldom equaled in any section of the United States. Tacoma's and Spokane’s growth were even more impressive. This growth was, in great part, the result of the development of the railroads and their aggressive advertising. The flour-milling industry reached its heyday at this time. Spokane was said to rank as the seventh largest milling center in the nation by 1900, ranking just behind such locations as Niagara Falls, Grand Rapids, and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The trade with the Orient and the growing Western Washington population encouraged larger and more modern flour mills to be established in the Puget Sound cities. First in Seattle was the Novelty Mills, out towards West Seattle. Centennial built its mill on the waterfront just south of the current sports domes, opening in 1898. By 1906 that stretch of waterfront was home to three mills: the Hammond Milling Company, Albers Cereal Mills, and Centennial. The Fisher Flouring Mills opened on Harbor Island in 1911. Seattle now had seven mills, as the Chas. Lilly Company produced flour as well as seeds, feeds, and fertilizer, and City Mills was just north of downtown. Tacoma had the Puget Sound Flouring Mills, the Tacoma Grain Company, Watson & Olds, Albers Milling Company, and the Cascade Cereal Mills. Everett had the Everett Flour Mill producing its "Best Everett" brand. Bellingham had a big mill on South Hill next to the water, where the three-masted schooners could easily load up.

The grain trade was huge as well. Tacoma had a mile-long grain warehouse on the waterfront, handling wheat. Railroad trains stopped on the shore side and the great ocean-going schooners tied up at the water side for loading. Large quantities of Washington’s wheat also shipped out of Portland and Astoria. Combined, the grain and flour trade was our state’s major industry. The dominance of lumber, airplanes, and software was yet to come.

Where Did They All Go?

In 2005 there were only two operating flour mills left in Washington, two in Oregon, and one in Idaho. The two in Washington are both Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) owned, one in Spokane and one in Cheney. The consolidation began in the late 1800s when the new mills in Spokane, Seattle, and Tacoma were made possible by the coming of the railroads. Steam and electrical power removed the need for a river. Roller mills, and new bolting, sifting, and cleaning equipment made better flour, but were more expensive than stone mills and gravity separators. Growing population encouraged larger and better-financed mills. Financial needs, as today, gave rise to mergers and acquisitions.

The huge crop yields required a vigorous export trade, which required major facilities close to navigable rivers and coast ports. But the many new mills built in the 1890s counted on a strong Chinese market for the flour. When the Chinese learned to build their own mills, that market needed only the unmilled grain, and the Northwestern industry found itself with surplus capacity.  

Mergers, acquisitions, and conglomerates are not new. The flour industry in Minnesota started it all back in the 1890s. Spokane’s C & C mill was purchased in 1895 by the Portland Flouring Mill Company, which by that time had nine mills operating in the west. North Pacific Flour Mills of Walla Walla had mills in Walla Walla, Dayton, and Prescott, Washington, along with mills in Idaho and Wasco, Oregon. In about 1902, H. P. Isaacs, the owner of North Pacific, closed some mills and some were sold to the Portland Flouring Mills. The Portland Flouring Mills Co. also owned the Puget Sound Flouring Mills in Tacoma.  

California had become a center for wheat and flour during its 1850s gold rush and the leader there was the Sperry Flour Company of Stockton. Sperry moved into the Northwest in 1920 with the acquisition of the many mills of the Portland Flouring Mills Company. General Mills of Minneapolis, the nation's giant, moved west in 1929 to merge with the Sperry Flour Co. During the 1920s and 1930s, many of the smaller mills in the state were deemed too small or technically obsolete, and were closed. General Mills operated the old Sperry plants in Tacoma and Spokane until 1965. The Tacoma plant was razed. The Spokane Sperry mill was sold to VWR United (the Centennial, United Pacific, Van Waters, and Rogers combine) in 1970 and converted to a starch-gluten plant. In 1981 the plant was sold to ADM and it is being operated today (2010) as a mix plant.

Cereal Mills were close relatives to flour mills and most familiar to our area was the Albers Bros. Milling Company. Albers began in Portland and moved north to Tacoma and Seattle. It was purchased by the Carnation Milk Company of Seattle when Carnation was unsuccessful in stopping Albers from using the trade name "Carnation Mush." Albers was able to keep its local mills going right into the 1960s and 1970s by concentrating on pet and animal foods. Today, owned by the Nestle Corporation, they are still in the animal food and cornmeal business but do not have a mill in Washington.

Washington’s largest and longest lasting milling company was the Centennial Mills, founded in 1889 by Iowan George Pahl, who owned the Centennial Mills in Avaca, Iowa. Moritz Thomsen soon became its president. Thomsen was a business tycoon fitting of the times of the early twentieth century. He came to Seattle and in 1896 and began dredging up land out of Elliott Bay for his second mill. That waterfront land was the beginning of Seattle’s southerly industrial district.

Thomsen built or bought mills in Wenatchee, Ritzville, Pasco, Sprague, Reardan, Vancouver, Creston, and in Wasco, Oregon. Known as the “Business Doctor,” he at one time was president of 14 corporations. He purchased and revived the floundering Pacific Coast Cracker Company. During World War I the shipbuilding industry expanded in Seattle and bought out the Centennial Mill, as it needed the land. By 1931, Centennial had purchased the Tacoma Grain Co on the Old Town waterfront in Tacoma. In 1939 they built a new modern mill on East Trent Street in Spokane.

In 1948, Centennial bought the large Crown Mills of Portland from the Balfour, Guthrie & Company and moved its headquarters there from Seattle in 1958. Moritz Thomsen’s grandson, Moritz Milburn, was president and also a principle in a new conglomerate, the United Pacific Co., which picked up ownership of the mills in 1960. Under this new ownership the plant was modernized and the firm again became a leader in the milling industry with its effort to modernize old mills. In 1981 the Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM) bought Centennial. ADM is still operating the huge Trent Street plant in Spokane.

In 1965, the Fisher Flouring Company of Seattle  became Western Washington’s only surviving mill. It flourished for many years before being acquired by the Pendleton Mills of Oregon. Pendleton was associated with the popular Swans Down Cake Flour brand of the General Foods Company. They closed the Fisher mill in 2002 and its production was moved to Blackfoot, Idaho. 

Besides ADM's Trent Street plant in Spokane, the only other mill still operating in the state is the former F. M. Martin Grain and Milling Co. mill in Cheney. It was sold in 1942 to the National Biscuit Compnay and is now owned and operated by ADM. An interesting sideline here is that founder F. M. Martin’s son, Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955), worked in the business, but is better known as Washington’s governor from 1933 to 1941. His son Clarence D Martin Jr. was Under-Secretary of Commerce in the Kennedy administration during the early 1960’s. 

Fires were always a threat to the mills, as flour dust is flammable, and under certain circumstances, explosive. Many mills burned over the years and they were not always replaced. The state’s major mill fire took the Centennial Mill on the Old Town Tacoma waterfront in 1947. Having evolved from the 1890s Tacoma Grain Co., it was obsolete and was not replaced.

Few Survivors

Early mills were usually built of wood and most are long since gone. Three of these have survived in Washington: Oaksdale, Pataha, and Waitsburg (sadly, Waitsburg burned in late 2009). The J. C. Barron mill in Oaksdale runs periodically, producing health foods.

A few mills were built of brick and have been converted to modern use. The Flour Mill Mall in Spokane (C & C mill) and the Albers Mill condominium in Tacoma are good examples. The Albers mill in Portland has been rebuilt into an office building.

Around 1910, poured concrete began being used to make multi-story mills and grain elevators. Many of these still stand and are mostly used as grain storage. Two water -powered grist mills have been preserved and can be visited in operation at certain times. They are Cedar Creek mill near Woodland and the Thorp mill in Thorp. 

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum.


Josephine Brandenburg Beardsley, From Wheat to Flour (Chicago: Wheat Flour Institute, 1937); Florence E. Sherfey, Eastern Washington’s Vanished Gristmills and the Men Who Ran Them  (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1978); Washington Centennial Commemorative Booklet  (Olympia: Washington Centennial Association and Washington State Department of Conservation and Development, 1945); “Wheat Fields of the Columbia,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, September 1884, p. 503; Carlos A. Schwantes, Railroad Signatures Across the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, [1993] 1996); Norman Reed communication with  Richard Ferrell, retired Director of Engineering, Cereal Food Processors Incorporated;  Centennial Mill Historic Preservation Assessment (Portland: Portland Bureau of Planning, 2006) available at (http://www.portlandonline.com/bps/index.cfm?c=44029&a=146290); Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916); Paul Dorpat, Seattle Now and Then (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1990) Vol. 1, pp. 144-145.

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