Anoka County history: Farming and milling in St. Francis

by Maria King

The early history of St. Francis is a story of grim determination in the face of a true wilderness.

The forests and swamps of the area attracted fur traders and lumbermen, but in both cases, they tended to pass through, rather than settle.

About 1845, logging began along the banks of the Rum, then proceeded inland, leaving in its wake cleared land suitable for farming.

The lumber was used to build homes, churches, schools, and perhaps most significantly, railroad tracks.

The railroad then made it possible to send the lumber throughout the country, especially west into the plains region, where trees were hard to come by.

Unfortunately, the railroad did not come anywhere near St. Francis, so it was denied the prosperity that results from market access.

By the 1880’s, all the best trees had been cut and loggers moved on to other parts of Minnesota.

The first farms were literally carved out of the forests.

Initially, northern Anoka County held subsistence farmers, who struggled to grow enough to eat.

Wheat was the primary crop, grown and harvested, milled into flour and baked into life sustaining bread.

However, wheat depletes the nutrients in the soil, and it was susceptible to rust, and could rot in a wet year, so it was always a risk.

Still, especially during the Civil War years, a wheat crop would bring a high price because the federal government was buying up wheat to feed the Union troops.

The timber industry had created a need for mills — first the saw mills, and later the gristmills, where wheat was ground into flour.

Both kinds of mills competed for the water power of the Rum River and both were financially risky.

Flour dust was extremely combustible, and mills were often destroyed by fire.

Spring floods would wash away the mill’s foundation, or a floating piece of spring ice, like a mini glacier, could scrape the entire building into the water.

Nonetheless, Dwight Woodbury came to St. Francis in 1855, bought the rights to the water power and proceeded to build a dam and both a grist mill and a sawmill.

He built his own house with some of the first lumber.

The saw mill was said to have a capacity of 3,000 board feet of lumber per day.

The flour mill was destroyed by fire in 1867 and immediately rebuilt.

Its capacity of 30 pounds of flour a day and 300 bushels of feed was adequate to the needs of tiny St. Francis for over 30 years.

By the 1880’s the town was growing fast, and so was local wheat production.

In 1888 Dwight Woodbury built a bigger and better mill, with a capacity of 250 barrels of flour a day, most of which was shipped to Chicago.

By 1901 the St. Francis Flour Milling Company turned out “Best Patent,” “Snowdrift,” and “Favorite” flour.

It remained in production until the mill burned down in 1933.

Next week, we’ll look at St. Francis’ early industry and retail commerce.

Editor’s note: Maria King is a volunteer for the Anoka County Historical Society.

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