FREEPORT, Minn. (AP) — When National Geographic magazine sent photographer Richard Olsenius to put pictures to Garrison Keillor’s tales of a mythical Lake Wobegon country, Olsenius made his home base in Freeport.
He stayed for a couple of months at a local motel and spent hours bicycling surrounding trails and streets in search of the images that would capture the idyllic, small-town aura of Keillor’s Wobegon. And those images were all around him: the churches, the ice-fishing tournaments, the town taverns, the festivals, the mill.
As more of those small towns fade away, there remains in many people’s minds an image of what a small town is, Olsenius said. Many might never have visited such a place, but keep it instead as a vision, a place they one day might want to visit to see how life used to be.
It’s why the fire Tuesday night that destroyed the Swany White flour mill is more than just the loss of another building or business in just another quiet town in the middle of just another prairie state.
“It brought a tear to my eye,” Olsenius said Wednesday. “It’s like the loss of someone you care about. You don’t ever expect it to happen, and then one day it comes out of the blue.”
The way Olsenius sees it — and he’s not alone — the Swany White mill was an iconic presence that went a long way to preserving what small-town America, what Central Minnesota, was. If you’re not nostalgic, he said, you probably couldn’t care less.
But if you’ve spent any significant time in those small towns, you likely know better.
“It’s the continuation of the loss of small-town America,” said Olsenius, who lives in Annapolis, Md. “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.”
What’s left in Freeport are the smoldering remains of the last small mill in the state that was fully operating as a commercial business, said Bob Frame, senior historian at Mead & Hunt, an engineering firm. Frame works in historic preservation and has compiled a database of all of the state’s current and former mills. He also is writing a book about the topic.
When mills were first built in rural communities, it was usually because the towns had made that a priority and had made a significant financial investment in the mill.
“It was significant from day one,” Frame said. “It didn’t necessarily employ a lot of people, but it generated a lot of economic activity. And it had historic value.”
Better transportation, better shipping, more efficiencies and consolidation slowly spelled the end to small-town mills. Many mills sold off their equipment and turned the building into another use. The mills that hung onto their equipment mostly became museums.
And the fire at Swany White was like burning down a working museum, Frame said.
Inside, it was like a stage set, said Olsenius, who earlier in his career worked as a Twin Cities news photographer.
“The leather belts and the way that building vibrated,” he said. “It was like artwork in leather and in iron and wood. It was a photographer’s dream come true. The joy of that mill was its visual texture and its history, wrapped into one.”
Frame was at the mill last summer researching for his book. On Wednesday, he lamented some other things that he saw in June that were likely lost in the fire.
A collection of historic flour sacks. An original blueprint of a flow chart for how the equipment worked. A Midget Marvel mill that was virtually a miniature, self-contained milling machine.
“I didn’t know it was going to be my last time,” he said of his visit. “It’s amazing that it lasted as long as it did.”
And while there is rubble where the mill used to stand, a unique piece of Swany White will live on.
The Mill City Museum in the Twin Cities, a former mill nearly destroyed by fire in 1991, is a milling museum and education center. One of the museum’s features is a soundtrack of what a real working mill sounds like.
That soundtrack was recorded at the Swany White mill, Frame said.
“In a way, the Swany mill sounds live on,” he said.
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