Grinding Day at Old Mill State Park, an annual event in late August, is a celebration of a century old tradition of grinding wheat, meeting friends, and enjoying nature at this oasis on the prairie.
The park is on the site of Lars Larson’s flourmill, which began grinding wheat in 1896. In its heyday, the flourmill was slow, grinding barely four bushels of wheat an hour. People waited in line all night to get their wheat ground. Many brought picnics and camped overnight.
The Middle River and a spring fed swimming hole made it an attractive place to swim, picnic, camp and hike. Liberty Bond picnics were held during World War I to raise money, and one creamery picnic drew 6,000 people. During the barn storming days of aviation, picnickers could get a plane ride for a penny a pound.
It was only natural for the Larson family to sell the property to the State of Minnesota to become 285-acre Middle River State Park in 1937. The state wanted to tear down the Larson Mill in 1951, saying it was a safety hazard. The Marshall County Historical Society stepped up, saying they would restore the mill for the 1958 state centennial, and changed the name of the park.
Once a year, people gather to start up the old J.I. Case Stationary Steam engine and gristmill to make flour, picnic, sell flour, bread and donuts, listen to music, and swap stories of the old days.
Retired farmer John Hess portrays Lars Larson during Grinding Day, telling stories of the mill park.
“This is the only park I knew growing up,” said Hess. “It was our number one entertainment. We met here for 4-H meetings and softball tournaments. The swimming hole had a pier, floating dock, and diving tower.”
Hess is a member of the Friends of the Old Mill State Park, which puts on the annual Grinding Day as well as a July music fest, senior day picnic, pumpkin carving in October, and a candlelight ski and snowshoe under a full moon in winter.
The mill and the restored log home are on the National Registry of Historic places. The J. I. Case Steam Engine #359 is one of the oldest working engines in the nation.
The mill started with river power, which either ran too dry or would flood the mill. Larson tried a windmill but it blew down. Larson’s son John came up with the idea of the steam engine. It was later replaced with a gas engine. While restoring the mill in 1951, they found the original Case engine in a field and paid $75 for it.
The engine rotates a vertical pole, which turns a 1,800-pound rotating French mill stone over a 1,500-pound, stationary millstone on the second floor.
Kent Broten of Viking operates the steam engine. He said before the mill was built, people traveled 40 miles to Crookston for their flour, sometimes walking the distance.
“We have a record of a woman who used 600 pounds of flour a year and baked as many as 35 loaves of bread during thrashing,” said Broten.
Farmers paid 50 cents a sack to have their wheat turned into either flour, middling, or bran. Some farmers extended their sacks to get a “sack and a half” for the price of a sack.
Broten, who is active in the Marshall County Historical Society, believes the park and mill offer both a natural and cultural history of the region.
“Grinding Day is a good way to see how things were done in those days. It helps you appreciate what we have now,” said Broten.