On the east bank of Mare Island Strait sits an abandoned mill. Once it produced flour which was shipped throughout the world. Now it sits vacant and forlorn. At one time it employed hundreds, including an aspiring actor named Boris Karloff and was a hive of activity. Now it is the home of seagulls and other birds. It is the General Mills Corporation complex in Vallejo and its story goes back to the earliest days of the Golden State.
Grinding nuts and seeds into flour is an ancient human activity. Throughout the state, there is evidence of the Native tribes gathering acorns and other wild seeds and grains and grinding them into flour using “grinding rocks”. These exposed rocks, with the holes worn into them over the centuries, serve as evidence of the extent of the pre-contact native population. With the coming of the Spanish, and the establishment of the missions, came the first attempts at large scale grist milling.
The first Americans to visit California realized that the soil and climate were perfect for growing wheat and other food crops. Much of the grain grown was shipped out unmilled, to eastern markets, but as the population continued to grow, the need for commercial grist mills became obvious. One of the first commercial mills in California was the Bale Grist Mill, built in the Napa Valley by Dr. Edward Turner Bale in 1846. In 1852, Austin Sperry began operation of his steam powered mill near Stockton. Soon there were grist mills all over the state, grinding grain and producing flour.
But what of the mill in Vallejo? In 1860, the founder of Vallejo, John B. Frisbie, began shipping grain from his wharf located south of the town to Liverpool, England. In 1869, Captain A. D. Starr built the first grist mill in Vallejo. The mill operated as the Starr Flour Mill until 1910, when it was purchased by the Sperry Flour Company. During the 1900’s the mill produced flour which was not only sold locally, but was shipped to Europe, Asia and South America. During World War I, the mill expanded as more and more flour was produced to feed American troops in Europe and was produced to help with the post-war relief efforts. It was during this time that a young, obscure English actor, named William Henry Pratt, better known by his stage name, Boris Karloff, worked as a truck driver for Sperry Mills.
In 1929, Sperry Flour Corporation was acquired by General Mills. On August 30, 1934, the mill caught fire. The fire resulted in a dust explosion which destroyed most of the mill. General Mills rebuilt and modernized the mill at this time. The mill produced flour under the “Gold Medal” brand until 2004, when it closed and the machinery fell silent. General Mills decided that the costs of modernization of the mill to current health and safety standards were too high and all of the salvageable equipment was removed. The 135 year history of grist milling in Vallejo came to an end.
Getting There: The site of the former General Mills plant in Vallejo is currently closed to the public. It is located at 790 Derr St. Vallejo.