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Saturday
Jun232018

Milling on Minnehaha

Article by Michael Rainville, Jr.

Minnehaha Creek has been an important fixture in Minneapolis and the western suburbs for over 150 years. Ever since the first settlers came to the area when Fort Snelling was established in 1819, people have been drawn to it. The first person to capitalize on the power of the creek was our friend from my last article, The Oldest House in the City, Ard Godfrey.

During the mid-1800’s, Minnehaha Creek and Falls would have been well known throughout the tourism world. It was very popular to take a steamboat from St. Louis up to St. Paul and explore the creek and lakes of Minneapolis. Thousands of people made that journey every year, including many photographers and artists. This lead to the creation of many paintings and stereoscopic view cards of the falls, which spread throughout the country. The popularity of the art and view cards eventually led to Minneapolis and Minnehaha Creek being called a must-see vacation destination.

Now one would think that with the popularity of the area, someone would settle that land immediately. The reason why this was not the case is because it was within the Fort Snelling Military Reservation. Fortunately for Godfrey, he had a friend who was an officer at the fort, and in 1851, with his friend’s help, Godfrey made a claim to "the wooded point lying between the Mississippi river and Brown's creek, as Minnehaha was then called.” His first project was opening a sawmill in 1853 on the north side of the creek, roughly halfway between Minnehaha Falls and the Mississippi. I’m sure he got this idea from the sawmill that was located on the same stretch of the creek which helped build Fort Snelling a few decades before. Even though sawmills would always create a profit since everyone needed wood, he quickly opened a second mill on the creek closer to the Mississippi. This second mill was a gristmill, a type of flour mill, and was a two-story wood frame building with a gabled roof and a redbrick chimney, much like his house in the Village of St. Anthony. Godfrey’s gristmill became very popular as many farmers in the area would take their various grains directly to mill to be made into flour.

Godfrey's gristmill, 1865 

Godfrey's dam, 1889 

Godfrey dam ruins, 1920 

Like many mills that operated during the early years of the city, Godfrey’s sawmill and gristmill burnt down, but while his mills are no more, the foundation of the limestone and wood dam he built for his mills is still visible today. There’s a reason why we’re called the Mill City. Mills weren’t exclusive to the Mississippi around St. Anthony Falls. They could be found anywhere there was a body of water in the city. When you find yourself strolling down Minnehaha Creek, look through the foliage, find the remains of Godfrey’s dam, and imagine a time when the creek was more than just a place of monumental beauty.

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About Michael Rainville, Jr.

A 6th generation Minneapolitan, Michael Rainville Jr. received his B.A. in History from the University of St. Thomas, and is currently enrolled in their M.A. in Art History and Certificate in Museum Studies programs.

Michael is also a lead guide at Mobile Entertainment LLC, giving Segway tours of the Minneapolis riverfront for 5+ years.

He can be reached at mrainvillejr@comcast.net.

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