By Paul Mcenroe
Star Tribune, Minneapolis
"If I was a younger man, I might consider it, but I’m 55 and I’m sorry to say that Swany White is going to be over with," Gary Thelen said from his home in Freeport, Minn.
"It’s just too expensive to rebuild," Thelen added. "I’m pretty solid that I’m not going to wake up and reconsider it."
The three-story wooden and brick structure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1897 and had been in Thelen’s family since 1903.
Investigators have ruled out arson, but were still sifting through the ruins Wednesday to determine what caused the blaze, Fire Chief Noah Van Beck said.
Van Beck said the mill was operating Tuesday when flames were reported bursting from a top-level enclosure at 4:30 p.m. He said the fire could be related to machinery used to mill flour at the time, but cautioned that he was only speculating.
Thelen was in the mill at the time of the fire, but said flames had so engulfed the upper floor that there was nothing he could do to save the structure.
Firefighters from nearby Melrose, Albany, Avon and St. Martin arrived with large water trucks and worked into the night in subfreezing temperatures to ensure that the blaze did not spread to nearby grain bins and other adjacent structures.
Van Beck said an investigator from the state fire marshal’s office surveyed the remains Wednesday and did not express concern about fire code violations.
Because it is listed on the National Register, the mill was required only to have a fire-protection plan, not necessarily a water sprinkler system, according to a spokesperson in the fire marshal’s office.
Tiny Freeport, 28 miles northwest of St. Cloud, had become a destination point for amateur bakers and history buffs throughout the Midwest. Many made the pilgrimage to buy locally ground flour, cornmeal or steel-cut oats, or for the sake of being able to say they’d baked their biscuits with flour from the mill that was captured in Garrison Keillor’s book, "In Search of Lake Wobegon."
While most customers no longer walked away carrying 50-pound sacks of flour, they gladly paid a few dollars for a branded cloth sack filled with flour destined for weekend pancakes or bread-making.
"You’d get asked where you’re from and you’d say, ’Freeport,’ and the person would say, ’Oh yeah, we drive up there to get flour at Swany White,’" Mayor Matt Worms said Wednesday.
"It’s kind of a gloomy mood in Freeport today, to see a 100-year business go up in a matter of hours," Worms said. "It’s not like losing a human being, but it’s close."
Worms said that if Thelen and his family decide to rebuild, there is state and local economic development money available.