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Column: Worthington Milling Co. was a sizable operation

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Nov. 4, 2006.

WORTHINGTON — Somewhere in that great maze we call the internet it is possible to find a full-color label for Worthington Milling Co. In the background, a young, 19th-century mother is rolling out dough. In the foreground, a small boy covers his eyes with his right hand. His left hand reaches toward the seat of his short pants, where there is a white flour imprint of a woman’s hand. The boy has received a swat for some mischief or misdeed.

The label’s signature, Worthington Milling Co., Worthington, Minn., Manufacturers of High Grade Hard Wheat Flour, is set out in bold letters. In smaller type are Worthington Mill’s brand names: Pearl White and Best Patent.

Worthington Milling Co. stood along the north side of the railroad tracks along a part of that former Campbell Soup Co. chicken plant that now is Worthington’s albatross. It is believed if you were riding a train from Mankato to Sioux City, Iowa, in 1873, you would not see a larger man-made structure along the whole route than the flour mill at Worthington. This became part of a problem. The mill probably was too big from the outset.

This is not to say the Worthington mill was not successful through a period. Farmers from Spirit Lake, Iowa, to Dakota Territory, 60 miles distant, brought wheat to Worthington. This was their nearest rail site. Worthington’s first miller, C.Z. Sutton, was known familiarly as Abe. Abe was on the scene in Worthington’s first year, 1872. In his book, “A Life Worth Living,” Sutton’s son, Ernie, writes of the early days of the mill and the grain elevator that was part of it.

There was a bit of deception. Ernie Sutton says, “All locally used flour was put in sacks, some weighing forty-eight pounds but marked fifty while the ninety-six pound sacks were stenciled one hundred pounds; the difference paid for the sacks.”

In another book (“From Bull Run to Bristow Station”), Nobles County pioneer Morton Bassett tells how popular Worthington flour sacks became. “Abe Sutton ran the flour mill … and had his name printed on the flour sacks,” Mort remembered. “It was said, and probably with plenty of proof, that every boy in the county had ‘Abe Sutton’ printed on the seat of his pants.”

The mill offered Worthington’s best jobs. Ernie Sutton tells that story:

“All employees with the exception of the engineer and the head miller were paid two dollars a day of ten hours labor. … Unions were then not in evidence and there was no such foolishness as pay for overtime — if it was necessary extra time be put in, it was perfectly satisfactory to be a little late on some other occasion … all employees were allowed a specially low price on flour used in the home.”

“Five days a week the mill ground wheat flour,” Ernie relates. “On Saturday the huge millstones were thoroughly cleaned and that day corn meal and buckwheat flour were ground.” Slough hay and corn cobs kept fires burning under the mill’s boiler.

By 1876, there were 20 flour mills in Minnesota. A dozen years later, four large corporations, including Pillsbury, produced nearly all of Minnesota’s flour. This was one thing working against the Worthington mill. The grasshopper plagues also caused the mill to close down for long periods. C.Z Sutton went into bankruptcy. Worthington Milling Co. closed.

Who but George Draper Dayton should try to get the great millstones turning once again. In October, 1887, Dayton’s Minnesota Loan & Investment Co. acquired what it called Okabena Mills. Dayton remembered, “It took about as many dollars to rejuvenate the plant and get it ready to run as it did to buy it.”

By December, “The best millwrights in Minneapolis are doing the work and next week Worthington will have one of the first-class mills of the state running.” Okabena Mills made its own wooden barrels. By January it was turning out 125 barrels of flour each day. But even George Dayton could not make the mill turn a profit:

“I traded the mill for property in Minneapolis, which later I ‘traded in’ when I bought the corner of Seventh and Nicollet. There are those who have grown rich operating flour mills, but I am not in that class.”

Briefly (1892), Okabena Mills was made a farmers’ co-operative. It did not survive to the 20th century.