Otter Tail County touts historical significance of its Phelps Mill Park

To show off the special parts of Otter Tail County during the 2021 Minnesota Governor's Fishing Opener, tours were offered of the Phelps Mill on Friday, May 14.

Tours of the Phelps Mill were offered as a part of the 2021 Minnesota Governor's Fishing Opener on Friday, May 14. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)

Not every county can say that a building has been part of their community for 132 years. The Phelps Mill near Underwood in Otter Tail County ran, grinding wheat into flour, from 1889 to 1931.

To show off the special parts of Otter Tail County during the 2021 Minnesota Governor's Fishing Opener, tours were offered of the Phelps Mill, now part of a county park at 29035 County Highway 45, Underwood, on Friday, May 14.

The land was originally purchased by William E. Thomas, where he built the mill on the Otter Tail River because it could run on water power. The mill eventually shut down when they were unable to keep up with the flour mills in Minneapolis and St. Paul.


The Phelps Mill is located on Otter Tail River. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)

After it was shut down in the 1930s, the building sat idle for many years until Geneva Tweten, an Otter Tail County woman and activist, led a campaign to save the mill. According to the tour guide and Executive Director of the Otter Tail County Historical Society Chris Schuelke, Tweten wanted to preserve Phelps Mill before it collapsed.

In 1965, the mill and the land around it were purchased by Otter Tail County and were turned into a county park. Due to the persuasions of Tweten, the county then began to preserve the mill and the land where it sits.

"There's nothing else like this," Shuelke said. "This is an extremely rare example of having a rural flour mill in tact. It's almost like taking a step back in time."

According to Schuelke, the Phelps Mill tells the story of farming, agriculture, flour milling, water power and the entirety of the rural lifestyle from previous centuries. "We don't want to lose that," he said.

The mill is four floors, with the top three open to the public. The machinery is still in tact, and everything has been left as it was when it was running. Shuelke said this is very unique for a rural area.

Despite being built in the 1880's, the interior of the Phelps Mill remains in tact. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)


The mill's machinery is labeled with various signs to explain what they did when it was functioning. Before these signs were put up, people weren't sure how to tell what they were used for. Because of this, the Otter Tail County Historical Society brought in a volunteer to help identify old machinery and its use. Now, the history of the mill is preserved in those signs.

According to Schuelke, there were flour mills in small towns all across Otter Tail County in the 19th and 20th centuries. Because of that, these types of mills are important to the county's history in general because they brought entrepreneurs to the area.

People from all over the world have been to Phelps Mill. A signature of a visitor from Norway can even be found, etched into one of the walls.

Phelps Mill and the land it sits on became a county park in 1965. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)

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