Austin Sperry founded the Sperry Flour Co. in Stockton, California, around 1850. At that time, the gold rush miners were fed with flour shipped from South America and the East Coast. Sperry got his mill up and running and farmers there began to plant wheat.
Sperry died in 1881, but the company continued to expand with his partners at the helm. Expansion slowed somewhat as capacity caught up with demand around 1910.
But Sperry’s company moved into the Northwest, buying up established mills in order to expand. The other mills in Spokane used older technology, so the Sperry company built a new facility at 1211 East Sprague Ave. in 1918. Most of the existing mills used stones to grind wheat, a slow process compared to modern methods. At the time, the majority of local wheat was being shipped to California or the Mississippi Valley for processing. Industrial milling was relatively new to Spokane.
When the Sperry project was announced, The Spokane Chronicle proclaimed, “The vision of Frederick Post that Spokane was destined to become a great milling center, when he started his small mill, is now a tangible thing. National recognition of Spokane’s claim as a milling center is assured.”
The planned capacity of the mill was 2,000 barrels a day. World War I had slowed delivery on some of the machinery, but it was still the largest milling operation in Spokane when it opened beside the Northern Pacific rails. The warehouse was 43,000 square feet and the silos could hold 350,000 bushels of grain. At its peak, the company had more than 200 employees who processed the grains, sewed and packed flour sacks, and trucked the products to bakeries and grocery distributors.
The debt load on the new plants may have led to the merger of Sperry with milling giant General Mills of Minneapolis in 1929. After the merger, the new company was called General Mills, Sperry Division.
Activity at the Spokane mill rose and fell as the industry continually realigned itself over the next 35 years. In 1965, milling was shut down and the plant used for grain storage and warehousing only. About 70 workers were laid off. A drop in overseas demand was blamed. The Sperry plant in Tacoma was torn down.
The Spokane plant was sold to VWR United in 1966. The aging facility was sold to agribusiness giant ADM in 1981. “We take flour from our other nearby facilities in Cheney and Spokane and then add micro-ingredients to make dry mixes for products such as donuts, muffins and pancakes,” said Brent Jay, manager of the Sperry Mill. “We also make icings, glazes and other bakery ingredients like fruit fillings.”
– Jesse Tinsley
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