Vanishing icons

Things come. Things go. That much we know about the rhythms of life. But the disappearance of the Swany White flour mill in Freeport, destroyed by fire this week, seems particularly poignant.


Owner Gary Thelan told MPR’s Conrad Wilson that he’s not going to rebuild.

“It’s the continuation of the loss of small-town America,” photographer Richard Olsenius told the St. Cloud Times. The Maryland man photographed the town a few years ago for a story on Garrison Keillor’s territory. “The mill was like the church in the community. You know that guys, for three generations before you, hung out there and leaned on the same counter. When you lose something like the mill, there’s a piece of us that is taken away.”

Apparently, it was the last commercial flour mill in all of Minnesota.

“This was a place where you walked into a 12 x 20 room with a counter and some wall displays of all their flours and grains in bags,” MPR reader Frank Steen of Saint Paul told us in an email today. “In a couple minutes you were greeted by a flour covered man who had milled the flour. He would total your bill in dollar or 50-cent increments on a 10-key calculator and offer to carry your order out to your car. The quality was great. We just made 9-grain with extra rye with sweetened cranberries for Christmas. I think we have two-loaves worth in the dough bucket. We’ll have to blend in a tear or two.”

What struck me about Wilson’s photograph of the mill above, is it is from almost the same angle as the Minnesota Historical Society’s 1977 photo.


It’s the smokestack that was the icon of the icon and, fortunately for Freeport, it’s still standing.

It would make a great historical marker.