Freeport residents stunned by Swany White Flour fireby Conrad Wilson, Minnesota Public Radio
Freeport, Minn. — Freeport residents are in shock after a fire destroyed the very thing that many say put the central Minnesota town on the map.
The Swany White Flour mill, which had been a Stearns County landmark for over a century, burned to the ground Tuesday.
A day after the mill went up in flames, Freeport firefighters continued to pour water on a smoldering pile of rubble where the Swany White Flour Mill stood.
Owner Gary Thelan declined a recorded interview, but says at this point he has no plans to rebuild the mill.
"I think it's over with," Thelan told MPR. "Swany White is probably gone."
The effects to the town are undeniable, said Freeport Fire Chief Noah VanBeck, who received a call around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday that the mill was on fire. He was initially hopeful the fire could put it out, he said.
"Once we got there and assessed the situation, there was no chance of saving it," VanBeck said.
"It's devastating. It's a hundred-some years old," VanBeck said. "It's a landmark definitely and it will be greatly missed."
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Constructed in 1897 and run by the Thelan family since 1903, the flour mill in Freeport was a centerpiece and a point of pride for the community.
Freeport grew up around its mill, which also became a tourist attraction for the town. The Swany White Flour company produced about a half a million pounds of flour annually to sell in health food stores and co-ops in Minnesota, as well as a few places out east.
Mills like the Swany White Flour mill use to be common, said Sarah Warmka of the Stearns History Museum, but competition from larger mills in Minneapolis during the early 1900s and a drop in demand following the Great Depression put most out of business. Warmka said the Freeport mill survived using the same basic technology it had from the beginning.
"The mill switched over from steam to electricity in the 1960s, but the equipment that they use is much the same as they did before that." Warmka said.
At Charlie's Cafe, across from where the old mill stood, the late morning breakfast crowd buzzed with questions about what will happen now that the mill is gone.
Restaurant owner Jesse Job recalls the moment as he watched the mill burn.
"You know, it's funny. Just the day before as I was driving into town, I was reading the sign on the front of the building. And one of the things it says on there is 'Since 1903.' And that what was kind of going through my mind. That's a part of our little town and we just lost it."
Inside the kitchen, Marlene Stroeing cooked up a ham omelet for a customer. She says her husband worked at the mill for 20 years, she said. Her eyes welled with tears as she spoke.
"The mill was a very important place. People would stop in here and ask where it is," Stroeing said. "And they'd go buy flour or whatever, oatmeal. We bought the oatmeal here too, so now we'll have to go someplace else."
Other business will also have to go elsewhere for flour.
"I haven't fully processed what that's going to mean for us... I guess we're going to have to research other mills," said Alice Wilson, head baker for Camphill Village, an organization that supports people with special needs. Camphill Village bakes bread and cookies for its own use and also sells to co-ops in the area.
Swany sold about 500 to 600 pounds of flour each month to the organization - all of which the organization used for its baking. Wilson liked it because it was an organic, local product. Now she's not sure what she'll do.
"I know there aren't any in the immediate area so we're just going to have to see what the options are," Wilson said.
- Morning Edition, 12/29/2011, 7:25 a.m.