Determined seamstress saved the historic Phelps Mill in the ‘60s
by Carol Stender
Otter Tail County’s iconic landmark, Phelps Mill, is undergoing repairs this summer. That’s not surprising for a building that’s more than 130 years old. Workers will shore up the foundation and make other repairs to what is one of Minnesota’s last remaining grist mill in existence. The park will remain open, but the mill itself will be closed to the public through September, county officials said.
The very fact that the building still stands is quite remarkable and due to one woman’s seven-year campaign to save the site. It all took place six decades ago. Geneva Tweten, a seamstress and activist from Fergus Falls, waged the effort to save the mill from decay and destruction.
The building, at the time, was in pretty rough shape, according to Fergus Falls Daily Journal articles. The roof was caving in, all the windows needed replacing, and it simply was not safe to venture inside the structure.
But Tweten recognized the historical importance of Phelps Mill to the county and state. Mills were where farmers brought grain to be ground into flour and livestock feed. Phelps Mill, located 16 miles northeast of Fergus Falls in Maine Township, ground more than 44,000 bushels of wheat and 25,000 bushels of feed at the height of the 1895 season.
In her campaign to save the site, Tweten sought to have it named a state historic site, a national historic site, or a state park. And she sought the help of some political heavy hitters including then Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Former State Conservation Commissioner George A. Selke, and other federal officials.
Her efforts seemed to be going nowhere when the Otter Tail County Board took action. Board members purchased the aging mill and 18 adjacent acres for $3,500 in 1965. The move made Phelps Mill the first Otter Tail County park.
“It is better this way,” Tweten told a Minnesota Motorist reporter, ‘because now it will really belong to everyone in Otter Tail County … and it will be enjoyed for generations to come by the descendants of early-day farmers who brought their wheat to the mill to be ground into flour.”
If the mill was in tough shape at the time, so was the property. There were brush and debris to be dealt with and amenities to be put into place to make it a welcoming park.
Tweten seemed to look beyond the blemishes at the time and shared her vision for the site. She hoped it might have a chapel where weddings could take place. And she imagined picnics, fishing, and swimming, plus tours of the mill itself. The goal was to get the mill to look like it did when it opened in 1889.
But money was needed for the initial work.
Tweten planned a two-day bazaar where handcrafted items would be sold. The money going towards the Phelps Mill project.
Radio Station KOTE in Fergus Falls conducted a campaign to raise one million pennies for mill restoration and development of the Phelps Mill site.
“It will prove to be an excellent historical attraction for Minnesotans and for the thousands of visitors who come to the Otter Tail empire for their vacations,” Tweten told a Fergus Falls Daily Journal reporter.
A Green Thumb crew made up of mostly farmers age 60 and over, came to the site and built two restrooms, 12 picnic tables, and some mill restoration. They also planned to build outdoor fireplaces and replace the canopy along the east side of the mill.
Seven youth working under the Neighborhood Youth Corps and the College Work-study program helped cut brush and undergrowth, plus trimmed trees and moved earth on the park’s 18 acres. The newspaper in its August 1966 account called the land a “virtual jungle” that was tamed by the work crew.
Delano Perala of New York Mills supervised the youth, who also put in a well for picnickers and erected and painted 70 guard rail posts to define a parking area. They turned 50-gallon drums into trash receptacles, filled eroded gullies, and removed debris.
A lack of tools and equipment was a problem at the start, but firms and individuals gave voluntary assistance.
The boys were paid $1.25 an hour and worked 29 hours a week.
The property was taking shape and began to look like it did when William E. Thomas came to the area in the 1880s.
Thomas was just 22 when he came to Otter Tail County from Grant County, Wisconsin. He was employed in the flour and feed business in Fergus Falls and became intrigued by the idea of operating a flour mill himself. He found the ideal spot 10 miles downstream from Otter Tail Lake where the river was both narrow and swift.
He didn’t waste time. Williams purchased the 37 acres of land in Maine Township in January 1887. He moved there with his wife, Liona “Nonie” Phelps Williams. They lived in a cabin on the property.
And the building began. Thomas started with the dam in 1888. The first dam was constructed of wood and had a tendency to leak. Workers often had to use sandbags and loads of gravel, dirt, manure, hay, and straw to ply the steady stream of water which gushed through to the other side.
When it was constructed, Thomas paid 2 cents a foot for fillings, and 3 cents a foot for sawn logs and square timber.
There was no sketch or blueprint for the building. The 36-foot-by-30-foot mill was framed by Royal Powers who, according to an April 1889 Fergus Falls Weekly Journal article, put the building together without marking a stick of lumber. The whole plan was in his head.
Once it was completed, the mill was furnished with the finest machinery costing close to $5,000. The water wheel weighed more than 7,000 pounds and was transported from Underwood by horse and wagon. It took one full day to make the nine-mile journey with the heavy wheel.
It became known as the Maine Roller Mills and was designed to produce 60 to 70 barrels of flour per day. It made patent, straight, bakers, and low-grade flours under such names as Gold Foil Patent, Silver Leaf Fancy, and Bakers Choice.
At the height of the wheat grinding season, 20 to 35 wagons loaded with sacks of wheat would line up outside the mill. Farmers from a distance stayed overnight in a bunkhouse they named “Farmer’s Roost.”
The success of the mill brought growth to the surrounding village. The stage line began making regular runs between Perham and Fergus Falls with one of the stops being Leeper’s General Store located across the road from the mill at Maine, as the village became known. But, in another hamlet three miles north, there was also a village named Maine. To avoid confusion about which town was which, the stage line decided that the Maine with the mill would have to change its name. Thomas suggested that name be Phelps in honor of his wife’s maiden name.
While Phelps never had a large population, it did experience a period of growth during the height of the mill’s success. There was a general store and, by 1900, a cheese factory. The village also had a restaurant, blacksmith shop, and repair shop.
The cheese factory closed in 1920 when the last cheese maker left. Other businesses closed over time except for the general store, which has remained in operation.
The mill was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Thanks to her initial efforts, ongoing repairs and maintenance of the building takes place, including the foundation work that will occur this year.
The mill is a site where visitors can learn about mill operations and the importance of such businesses in the 1880s. That includes the Parkdale Mill near Dalton. While that mill was never restored like Phelps, an excavation crew, including workers from ABC Construction, Otter Tail County Highway Department, and volunteers, unearthed the Parkdale Mill’s two millstones and 2,300 pound turbine. The turbine is used as an educational tool at Phelps Mill.
It is smaller than the two at Phelps Mill, but gives visitors an opportunity to see the turbine up close.
The Otter Tail County Historical Society created a video “A River of Wheat: The Phelps Mill Story” which was installed on the main floor of the mill. The seven-minute video, produced by Evan Johnson and Ellida Productions and Underwood native Wade Barry, included historical photos with current footage to tell the Phelps Mill story. The two received an Award of Excellence in a national videographers competition for their work.
Tweten would be pleased to see her efforts reach fruition and preserve an important piece of history for the area.
Phelps Mill Park is open May 1 to Oct. 31 from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. The mill itself is expected to be open this fall.