By Tom Hintgen
Otter Tail County Correspondent
When you first arrive at Phelps Mill you hear the rush of the Otter Tail River,” said John Lauritsen, on assignment for a “Finding Minnesota” segment for WCCO-TV, based in the Twin Cities. ¶ Each week Lauritsen seeks out what he considers one of Minnesota’s “hidden gems.” On June 21 his hidden gem was Phelps Mill. ¶ The mill, which commenced operations in 1889, was one of close to 22,000 mills serving about 30 million people in the United States. Almost every settlement with a source of waterpower had a small community mill. ¶ Joining Lauritsen during his visit to Phelps Mill were Chris Schuelke, executive director of the Otter Tail County Historical Society, and Kevin Fellbaum, Otter Tail County parks and trails director.
“This is like a living history here at Phelps Mill,” Schuelke said. “The mill looks like it did when it first opened. The machinery is intact. You have the dam still intact.”
Said Fellbaum, “You can see the innerworkings of the gears and the power structure that powered this mill.”
He told Lauritsen about the recent foundation repairs at Phelps Mill. When renovations began, workers discovered that part of the basement had sunk about two feet, causing the entire mill to lean. Crews had to lift the mill up to save it.
“County residents, owners of Phelps Mill since 1965, wholeheartedly supported these much-needed repairs,” Fellbaum said.
Located in Maine Township, the mill was designed to produce 60 to 75 barrels of flour per day. Phelps Mill was very successful until 1900, but after that year business gradually declined.
By the 1930s the railway was in place and it became easier for county farmers to ship their grain to Minneapolis. Phelps Mill went out of business in 1939.
These days people enjoy walking across the Phelps Mill pedestrian bridge. Others fish along the banks of the Otter Tail River, enjoy picnics and look forward to the annual Phelps Mill Festival, scheduled this year for July 8-9.
WCCO-TV, in its June 21 segment of “Finding Minnesota,” also praised the late Geneva Tweten who in the 1950s was the first person to take the initiative to save the historic Phelps Mill. Her vision led to the mill being named to the National Register of Historic Places.