The Women of Mill City

The Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota, celebrated Women’s History Month with a fascinating and multi-layered special event.

Mill City Museum

I find it easy to imagine the lives of historical rural women. City women, not so much. Perhaps that’s because most urban historic sites interpret the lives of wealthy people who lived in fancy homes.

Local citizens often rally to save a treasured mansion from the wrecking ball, and God bless ’em for doing so.  There is seldom widespread lamentation, though, when the tenements or nondescript homes middle-class or poor women lived in a century or more ago give way to new development.

The Mill City Museum offers a glimpse the lives of working women. Created among the ruins of what was once the world’s largest flour mill, it tells the story of the flour industry technology and its role in Minneapolis—and global—history. But interpreters and exhibits also shed light on the day-to-day lives of employees.

Mill City Museum

The mill hired its first female workers in 1919.  The “Women of Mill City” event included an experiential glimpse of the work done by female packers. Interpreters explained how fast the women had to work in order to meet their quota. They personalized that history by relating the story of a legendary young woman who worked so efficiently that she was able to take naps during her shift and still make her numbers.

Mill City Museum

Guests were also invited to try their hands at a simulated packing activity. I managed to fill my box with the requisite number of sacks before the stopwatch brought me to a halt, but only by running. I can’t imagine keeping that up for eight hours, not to mention actually filling and sealing the five-pound sacks, instead of pretending.

(These clever girls beat the clock by creating an assembly line.)

Mill City Museum

Visitors were introduced to a completely different aspect of women’s role in flour industry history when an interpreter portraying Ruth Andre Krause, who became Director of Pillsbury’s Home Services Department in 1950, made a presentation in the museum’s baking lab. Ruth, sometimes known as “Ann Pillsbury,” became the public face of Pillsbury—overseeing baking tests, showing guests through the company kitchens, and appearing at public events.

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When she discussed the development of mixes, an assistant passed out brownie samples so visitors could assess quality for themselves.

Mill City Museum

Between the experiences of women on the work floor and the powerful role women played in marketing Pillsbury and Gold Medal Flour to the world, the museum provided lots to think about. But for this special event, event planners also included first-person performances showcasing the contributions of other Minneapolis women.

Eva McDonald Valesh, known as Eva Gay, was a writer and speaker who went undercover to document the lives of women factory workers in the 1880s. She exposed harsh conditions women endured, and led to the first big female-led strike by women working in a textile factory in Minneapolis.

Mill City Museum

Other performances featured Gratia Countryman, Head Librarian of the Minneapolis Public Library; and Mary Dodge Woodward, who managed a Bonanza farm. More on them another time.

Guests who attended “The Women of Mill City” event left entertained, educated, and engaged.  In the museum world, it doesn’t get much better than that.

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2 Responses to “The Women of Mill City”

  1. cookiebaker13 Says:

    Kathleen-Thank you for your continuous effort to teach/inform us of even more herstory. I want to keep learning.

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