Often in the Chloe books, a very minor character ends up being among the most memorable. I discovered this when The Heirloom Murders (the 2nd Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery) was published. Many readers wrote to me about Johann and Frieda, even though the elderly couple were only briefly onstage.
In Tradition of Deceit, the 5th volume in the series, a Polish immigrant named Pawel appears in the historical plotline. Pawel lives in The Bohemian Flats neighborhood in Minneapolis. He works at the Washburn-Crosby Mill, one of the loaders who move packed barrels of flour to the rail corridor within the mill.
A full barrel of flour weighed 196 pounds. In 1882, the mill produced 1,500 barrels a day; that increased to 10,000 by 1900. Loaders also hauled sacks of flour weighing up to 100 pounds. This exhausting, entry-level work often went to immigrants.
In Tradition of Deceit, Pawel’s story begins in the spring of 1878. Magdalena, who runs the boarding house where Pawel is living, notes of the men coming home:
The men looked like ghosts. Flour dusted their hair, their skin, their clothes. Tiny balls of sweat-caked flour caught on the hairs along their arms.
Pawel was a big man with massive shoulders and corded muscles. He spent his 12-hour shifts rolling 196-lb. barrels of flour from the packing machines into train cars. He was part of the Polish Eagles, a six-man crew that usually bested other packing teams when challenged to a race. No one would pick a fight with Pawel.
But unlike some of the other laborers, Pawel had a gentle manner. His face was broad and plain, his hair the color of dried mud, his hands huge. No one would call him handsome, but Magdalena liked him. She thought he liked her. Maybe, she thought, just maybe…
Pawel pulled a rag from his pocket and dabbed at his eyes. “Was the dust bad today?” Magdalena asked. The men often came home with red-rimmed, watering eyes.
“As bad as I’ve ever seen it,” Pawel admitted. “So thick in the air that I couldn’t see my hand at the end of my arm.”
It’s difficult to find primary source material for characters like Pawel, but as I thought about those early loaders, two things struck me. First, the work was incredibly difficult.
Second, many of the men who stuck it out made the best of it. They formed teams, and the loading competitions became legendary. I love imagining these burly men not just loading the barrels or sacks into train cars, but doing it as fast as humanly possible.
If you visit the Mill City Museum, you can walk through the rail corridor, and peek inside an original train car.
Exhibits preserve some of the machines once used in flour mills…
and make it easy to imagine the many men who once worked so hard to keep flour moving out of the mill.