When the future won’t wait, the people of the past disappear

Back in my hometown, the empty factories still stand as a daily reminder to the passersby that my hometown’s best days are behind it.

It was a mill town, the kind that stood along every river in New England until the jobs went south and from the south, went to Mexico, and from Mexico went overseas.

The factories and the jobs in them are never coming back.

While a few have been turned into senior housing, the main purpose of each abandoned building today is to give me something to point at while telling people what once stood there in a town that was quite something in its day. They’re monuments to the people who worked in them that are far more meaningful than the granite stones that mark their burial locations in the cemeteries nearby.

Minneapolis isn’t my hometown. It’s quite something now, and its best days clearly are still ahead. But there are a few reminders of what it was back in the day, and without them, how will the future ever know about the people who built such a magnificent city?

That’s the reality that faced the University of Minnesota Board of Regents today when it considered requests to somehow preserve the old grain silos of the Electric Steel Elevator Property in Prospect Park, which the university bought in 2015.

But there’s another reality in Minneapolis that my hometown doesn’t face. The U of M property is valuable real estate, so today the regents voted to tear the silos down, the Star Tribune reports, consigning them to memories that will one day be forgotten.

“It’s sort of a monument to history,” Lindsey Kieffaber, a graduate student in architecture at the U’s College of Design, said. “They’re the last of their kind.”

It’s hard to find a true bad person in the situation.

Historic preservation only works if there’s someone to preserve it and nearly three dozen old silos aren’t attractive to anyone to save and who can blame people who don’t have a bottomless pit of money to throw into a bottomless pit? Lots of people want to preserve history; few bring cash to the table.

The steel silos were the forerunner to the concrete storage behemoths that symbolized what built Minneapolis: Grain.

The silos were built in 1901. The first 12 could hold 100,000 bushels of grain, Grain Elevators of Minnesota said.

Right away the elevator began breaking records—it proved it could load 86 grain cars in just under 13 hours. Besides its futuristic exterior (giant steel buildings like this were exotic at the time) the elevator’s insides were cutting edge as well, keeping with the company’s values.

Every bushel represented a farmer, a railroad worker, and a grain elevator employee long since passed now.

My hometown’s historic buildings are now a testament to an economy that no longer works for people; Minneapolis’ disappearing history is a testament to an economy that does.

“I am all in favor of historic preservation,” a Star Tribune commenter notes, “but these are simply not that significant. They are a hazard. The land would be put to better use with just about anything new.”

The people of my hometown would say the same thing — and accurately so — if it had the luxury Minneapolis has of being attractive to the future.

Until then, the immigrants who built America by working the factories that fueled the westward expansion, are going to be alive in my town as long as those buildings, such as they are, stand.

Sorry about your past, Minneapolis.

  • Ben
  • MrE85

    One bonus to tearing down the silos near the U is all that steel will likely be recycled into something else. It’s a bit like America, always getting old and rusty, then turning into something shiny and new.

  • Mike Worcester

    It’s one matter to demo a history and pretend it was never there. At least in this case it appears that the U will make sure the story of the elevators survives. During the heyday of urban renewal, that likely would not have been the case.

  • chlost

    Too bad Chip and Joanna Gains aren’t here for a silo renovation project.https://magnoliamarket.com/magnolia-silos/

  • Gordon near Two Harbors

    So, the question becomes: Why are the dying, New England mill towns not attractive to the folks who would invest in new infrastructure and urban redevelopment?

    Why does Minneapolis have the “luxury” of being able to do so?

    • Well, for one thing it’s a big city. Mill town’s had one sector: manufacturing.

      • Gordon near Two Harbors

        At one time Minneapolis was a mill city, too. It evolved, grew, and became prosperous. So, my original question remains. One could also expand it to include entire states like Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, etc.

        • And my answer remains the same. Size. Mpls, like Boston, like most other major cities in states are hubs of commerce. The industrial towns of New England were manufacturing areas. Manufacturing is dead.

          They’re like the Iron Range. They could only do one thing.

          As I’ve written before, the people who worked the mills had a singular goal. Creating a life for their kids so they could get out and not have to work the mills.

          They did.

          • Gordon near Two Harbors

            Maybe that’s just the natural economic progression for those places. No one ends up wanting to live or invest there. It seems that only those places that have reinvented themselves –either by turning their old industrial waterfronts into green spaces, or by tying themselves to some other quality-of-life amenities–can prosper again. Definitely not easy or cheap.

          • Ben

            We may still see these mill towns regenerating, at least I have hope. I did a little Google street view walk through Fitchburg, MA. The town definitely is rough around the edges, but there must be some cheap housing stock there of which others could take advantage. I noticed a Puerto Rican flag in one apartment window and I know MA has many Brazilian immigrants. New people can and will come in to try to make a better life for themselves. Railroads and highways brought development to towns across the country. High speed internet connections will do the same. I could see myself in an apartment on the third floor of that building in Fitchburg working away at my desk and taking in the view of the Nashua River right outside my window.

          • We look forward to having you in my hometown. Have I mentioned there are Dunkin’ stores there?

          • Ben

            Funny, that was one of the first things I noticed when I pulled up Fitchburg in Google Maps. Pretty much seals the deal for me.