Phelps Mill County Park
Open to the public daily: 6am – 10pm
November 1 – April 30
The park grounds are open on a limited basis in the winter months as weather permits. Facilities are not open and snow is not removed.
- Areas for fishing along the bank of the Otter Tail River – there no boat launching facilities
- Historic Mill Building
- Historic pedestrian bridge
- Modern ADA accessible restrooms – there is no running water in the restrooms
- Picnic tables
- Play area for children, 5 to 12 years of age
- Running water and electricity available
- Two picnic shelters that can be reserved, for weddings, family reunions, and picnics
Reserve a Picnic Shelter for Your Event:
Online Reservation system coming later this year.
- No camping or overnight stopping
- No parking or driving on the grass
- No beer or alcohol
- No smoking – The Otter Tail County Smoke-Free Policy prohibits smoking on all county property. However, per the policy, smoking is allowed in privately owned vehicles while on county property.
The history of milling in rural Minnesota is embodied in the story of Phelps Mill.
By the late 1800’s wheat was the king of crops and in such demand that nearly 1,000 mills were operating throughout the state. Otter Tail county was considered a prime location for the construction of mills. An abundance of water power from the Red River (now known as the Otter Tail River) lured entrepreneurs with dreams of turning the county into the largest flour producing area west of Minneapolis.
One such man was William E. Thomas who owned and operated a flour and feed business in Fergus Falls. In January 1887, Thomas purchased 37 acres in Section 33 of Maine Township. Running through this land was the Red River. At a point in the river was a slight rapids as the river swept down from hill country to meadow lands.
Thomas considered this point a perfect location for a flour mill. He sold his business and with his wife Nonie, moved to a log cabin above the spot on which he planned to build his mill.
The Work Begins
In the spring of 1888 Thomas began work on the dam. The first dam was constructed of wood and had an irritating tendency to leak. Workers often had to use sandbags and loads of gravel, dirt, manure, hay and straw to plug the steady stream of water which gushed through to the other side.
The mill was constructed of wood of which Thomas paid 2 cents a foot for pilings and 3 cents a foot for sawn logs and square timber. According to an April 1889 Fergus Weekly Journal article, the 36′ x 30′ mill was framed by Royal Powers without the aid of a blue print or sketch. Though he had no construction diagram to work from, Powers put the building together without marking a stick of lumber – keeping the whole plan in his head.
The mill was furnished with the finest machinery costing close to $5,000. The water wheel weighed over 7,000 pounds and was transported from Underwood by horse and wagon. The trek was so slow that it took a full day to make the nine mile journey.
Completion & Success
Construction was finally completed in October 1889 and in December the mill began operating. Known as “The Maine Roller Mills”, it was designed to produce 60 – 75 barrels of flour per day. It made patent, straight, bakers and low grade flours under such names as Gold Foil Patent, Silver Leaf Fancy and Bakers Choice.
The mill met with considerable success, for a few months after opening the Maine Township Board had its hand full laying out roads to the mill. At the height of the wheat grinding season, 25-35 wagons loaded with sacks of wheat would line up outside the mill. Farmers from a distance stayed overnight in the” Farmers Roost,” a bunk house Thomas constructed north of the mill. He also provided a barn where horses could be stabled free of charge.
Business & Sale
In 1895, after grinding more than 44,000 bushels of wheat and 25,000 bushels of feed Thomas decided he needed more machinery and space. As a result, he constructed a 25’x36′ addition on the north side of the mill. Covered with sheet iron, the addition was used for the grinding of buckwheat and rye.
After the turn of the century business at the mill gradually declined. Steam, gasoline and electricity powered mill more efficiently than water. In addition, railroads made it cheaper to ship wheat to Minneapolis/St. Paul than to mill the wheat in the county. Soon rural mills became obsolete.
Thomas sold the mills in 1919 to the Farmers Mercantile Company of Underwood for $35,000. They never made a go of it as many customers complained their flour was not up to the mill’s old standards. They sold out in 1928 to H.G. Evenson of Wall Lake who offered $10,500 for the purchase of the property. Evenson ground grain for stock feeding on a limited basis. The mill closed its doors in 1939.
The initial success of the mill brought growth to the surrounding village. When the stage line began making regular runs between Perham and Fergus Falls, one of their stops was at Leeper General Store across the road from the mill at Maine, as the village had to come to be known. There was another hamlet three miles north that was also known as Maine. To avoid confusion about which town was which, the stage line decided that the Maine with the mill would have to change its name. William Thomas suggested the name be Phelps, in honor of his wife Nonie’s maiden name. The village has been known as Phelps since.
There was a general store, which has remained open to the present. By 1900 there was a cheese factory closed in 1920 when the last cheese maker left. Other businesses included a restaurant, a blacksmith shop and a repair shop. These businesses declined as the business at the mill dropped off.
A Symbol of Old Rural Life
Phelps Mill has become a symbol of the old rural life. Geneva Tweten, a seamstress and local activist, led a campaign to save the neglected mill.
In 1965 Otter Tail County purchased the mill and surrounding land as a recreational site. Today it stands as one of the county’s picturesque landmarks, a reminder of an important time in our local history.
National Register of Historic Places
Phelps Mill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.