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Dave Wood column: Taking wheat to the Pickwick Mill

My great grandad's diaries continue to be a wonder. The sorts of hardships pioneers faced are unbelievable to me. One that sticks in my mind is an early entry in which he writes that he has returned from a 100-mile roundtrip journey into Minnesota so he could get his wheat ground into flour. He writes that the journey took five days and he stayed overnight at the hotel in the town where his flour was ground.

I no longer have old Dave Wood's diaries because they now reside at the Davies Library at UW-Eau Claire, a repository for the Wisconsin Historical Society. A few weeks ago, we were at loose ends and I asked the B.W. If she'd like to take a trip into the wilds of Minnesota to check out the mill where Dave had to travel to market his wheat.

"Where would that be?" she asked.

I'm not sure but I think it was a town called Hokah, hard by Winona.

And so off we took for Hokah. The Minnesota guides told us Hokah had a flour mill back in the mid-19th century. We arrived at Hokah. No flour mill. So we tried Rushford. No flour mill. So we tried a bevy of little towns that once were flourishing, but now are much smaller. Finally, we gave up. Well, I gave up. But not Beautiful Wife.

She was determined to find the spot. And so after a day and a half of search, the town where grandad traveled so many times dawned on me.


The trip took us 15 minutes from Winona. There's not much left of Pickwick. The hotel where he stayed is long gone, but little Lake LaBelle is there and so is the Pickwick Mill. And, by gum, it was open on that beautiful Sunday. It stands six stories tall, because gravity was its major mover in the day. The docent saw my cane and said that he wouldn't charge me because I probably couldn't climb to its top. Ruth dropped in a five-spot and bounded up the stairs.

And the docent, a retired Pickwick farmer, gave me the straight dope on the mill. In its day, the grist mill ground 150 barrels of flour per day, powered only by a tiny millrace that siphons water off Lake LaBelle. The six-story structure is made of stone, with no need for mortar, as the sheer weight of the building keeps it upright. The mill is stuffed with old timey equipment, and the old account books are still in place. I looked for Dave Wood's name but there wasn't time for a thorough search. The docent old me that farmers would come from 200 miles away in Wisconsin, Iowa, and points west to get their flour ground.

The millstones still work and in the old days produced a flour as fine as talcum powder.

How did Pickwick get its name?

"Well," said the docent, "the owner's wife was from out east and she was a reader. While the mill was being built, she read a book called "Pickwick Papers" and convinced her husband to name the town after the book."

The docent was full of information. Before I knew it, we were talking about the good old days, when we both worked on threshing runs. "God but that was fun. When the run was over the crew would get together for a keg of beer. And the food, was that something!

"One farmer we threshed for was also the local buttermaker. His poor wife didn't have to worry about making coffee for the crew. Her husband would take a 10-gallon cream can to the creamery. Mix up some coffee and raw eggs, dump it into the can filled with water, then submerge a steam hose into the can and cook it that way! Best damned coffee I ever drank."

On the way home, we talked about my ancestor and that long harrowing horse drawn trip on a road that didn't exist. But he probably didn't think much of it. He didn't have to drive 200 miles and get in line with dozens of other wagons lined up so the teamster's kids could have bread on the table. And, unlike his descendents, he knew where he was going!

The Pickwick Mill is open May through October, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m, Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Two miles off highways 14 and 61 on County

Road 7. Phone 507-457-0499.