Minneapolis / Saint Paul / Twin Cities urban explorationMontana Flour Mill

August 2003


Members: Max Action, Joe 3.0, & Slim Jim

We left the Twin Cities in search of an abandoned mental institution. In the process, we stopped in a smallish old mill town in western Minnesota to get a bite to eat … and couldn't help but notice that the huge flour mill that dominated the riverfront in the "downtown" area looked abandoned, too.

We reluctantly climbed out of the air-conditioned car for a closer look, and the wet, heavy heat immediately descended, drawing the sweat from our pores so it could sit there and not evaporate in the humidity. Yuck. However, our spirits lifted as we approached the structure: it was indeed vacant, and we forgot the heat as our minds turned to looking for an entry point.

Access to the silo side of the property was surprisingly easy; we more or less walked into the silos, the only obstacle being the extremely exposed nature of a building in such a populated area in the bright summer afternoon sun. We acted as though we owned the place, and just walked in without acting suspicious. It helped that we were all wearing pretty normal clothes: in anticipation of scouting out a partially-used asylum on a Sunday afternoon, I'd made a special effort to dress in a manner that would not attract undue attention in a conservative rural area. I felt like a bit of a weiner in my patterned button-up shirt and combed hair, but the camouflage seemed to work, as no one looked at us twice as we crossed the cracking, weedy parking lot and entered the silos.

It was surprisingly cool and pleasant inside, although the smell of the thick blanket of pigeon droppings was strong enough to punch. The odor of dry, ancient bird poop is, well, it's an acquired taste. It's not a good smell, I know, but the learned connotations of cool places and adventure have been too deeply wired in for me to ignore. I admit it; it's become a smell that I like.

However, I still tried not to breathe much around bird dropping dust: there are some nasty diseases one can get that way. Some of them will kill you. So, being a total safety freak, I tried not to breathe deeply whenever I remembered not to. Unfortunately for my lungs and health, there was a lot of cool stuff in there to make me forget not to inhale.

We split up as our curiosity took us in varying directions; I quickly wound up in the basement, where most of the space was taken up by tangles of machinery, pipes, and gears. Downstairs, spiders reigned supreme, and my head was quickly swathed in thick webbing, chunky with the husks of dead bugs and discarded arachnid skins. When I discovered a tunnel that went in the direction of the more interesting milling buildings adjacent to the silos, I headed back upstairs to regroup with the others before continuing.

In the meantime, I poked around on the ground floor of the silos, and struck gold! Well, actually it was an old Harley Davidson shirt. I'm not that into Harleys, but I AM into skulls, and this one featured a lot of them. It was in a pile of old clothes and such that had clearly belonged to a homeless person who had been squatting there. Everything was dusted with pigeon poop; the owner had clearly left these belongings here quite some time back. I wondered who he'd been, and where he was. I wondered if he was dead. Smelling the shirt, I wondered if he'd died inside of it. However, even terrible BO allied with bird poop and filth cannot withstand a couple machine washes, and so I wound up carrying my odoriferous trophy around for the rest of the exploration.

Soon all three of us had had our fill of the silos, and I led the group downstairs and into the utility tunnel that led over to the milling buildings. A stairwell halfway through the tunnel led upward and out into the woods alongside the river, another stairwell led up into the plant, and the very end of the tunnel opened up into the woods by the river. One of the few pieces of graffiti was found here; a cryptic note to meet Agent 47 at the other end. Having just come from the other end, we assumed Agent 47 was no longer waiting around. Maybe the Harley shirt wearin' hobo had got him.

Then it was upward and onward into the mill. Each floor had something different to recommend it. As I understand flour milling, they would get the unfinished flour to the top floor, and then it would get processed as it went downward level by level, with gravity cheaply doing a lot of the work. Some floors featured rows of old wooden grinding machines, others had giant old wooden boxes that were, I believe, sifters that would shake around and sift the fine flour through. All of it seemed to date back to the 1800's: the sifters had metal handles made in 1860.

The only piece of graffiti we saw through the main floors was a single red anarchy symbol, which just warmed my jaded punk rock heart. (Although I'd rather it had been a single satanic pentagram, which would have warmed by jaded 80's heavy metal heart for weeks …) There was a tense moment when Joe 3.0, enjoying the view from a broken window, announced that some guy was approaching. However, as he got nearer we saw that he looked to be a laborer of some kind, and did not seem to be coming to roust or bust us, so we forgot about him.

We moved quickly upward from floor to floor, driven by the desire to see what marvels would be next, pigeons fleeing in thundering, crazed loops before our advance. At the top, a doorway led outward to the roof, and the roof had a stairwell that led up into the top of the silos. Here we discovered a king's ransom in bird poop, and the third and final piece of graffiti, reading "FUCK THIS MILL." Now, I'm a reasonably well-hung guy and all, but the mill was too much woman for me, and I was far too intimidated to follow the unknown painter's advice.

So, instead, we decided to get out of there, in case anyone had seen our brazen dashes across the rooftop and was even now calling the police. So we darted back across the rooftop into the mill, and began the trek downward.

We ran into the stranger on the second floor.

Well, he wasn't entirely a stranger: it was the rough-looking guy we'd seen walking toward the mill earlier. I was in front coming down the stairs when I noticed a guy in a flannel shirt and a four day beard scruff watching us descend the stairs. He could have been a poorly dressed working stiff or a well-dressed bum. Either was potentially problematic: a bum might be territorial or insane, and a regular Joe might want to call the cops. Either might want our wallets. Or our innocence. Or our blood. heh

As I took the next couple of steps, I sorted rapidly through my repertoire of potential responses, discarded both fight and flight, and opted for a short incurious glance, a small smile, a casual "howdy," and a continued steady pace toward the bottom floor and the outside world. I don't remember if he said anything back, but he didn't follow us. As an added precaution, we headed down into the basement tunnels, where the stranger, who probably did not have a flashlight, would be at a disadvantage in the darkness.

Wanting to avoid exiting in the broad daylight from the structure, we headed out the tunnel into the woods by the river, and thrashed our way through the sticky heat and clinging foliage until we reached paved civilization. Two minutes later, we were back in the car with the air conditioning on high. We'd originally stopped to find somewhere to eat, and by this point we were ravenous.

After a break for some crappy diner food, we continued onward to our original destination.

But that is another story, for another day.




Nothing to see here, buddy.
Move along.