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The mill that Mill Avenue in Tempe is named after

When I went to ASU I couldn't have cared less about the story behind the names of the streets there. Over the years, however, as my life has gotten less hectic, I stop and think about it, and if you're wondering where the name “Mill Avenue” came from, yes, it was a flour mill.

It all started when people discovered that there was money to be made by growing wheat and selling it to the U.S. Military at Fort McDowell, which was several miles north of Tempe. This was back in the days right after the Civil War, 1867 or so, and the expense, and trouble, of bringing in food to the soldiers back then was considerable.

Luckily, all you had to do to grow wheat back then was to plant seeds in the Salt River and then harvest it. There was no need for canals, or anything like that. The river flooded, the water receded, seeds were planted, and with any luck a good crop would grow.

Yes, the wheat was grown on the river bottom. If you stand at the intersection of Mill Avenue and Rio Salado Parkway and look down, you will see where the wheat fields were. Of course now it's dammed up as a lake, but it wasn't back then. And no, contrary to popular belief, the Salt River wasn't a big, blue river that flowed continuously. It was a meandering riparian wash, with water flowing sometimes, mud most of the time, and then most of it drying up in the summer.

But growing and harvesting the wheat was only half of the job. The wheat had to be made into flour, and for that you need a flour mill, which is just a contraption that grinds up the wheat, you know, made out of grinding stones.

The mill in Tempe, by the way, was built by Charles Hayden. He also built “The Old House” (La Casa Vieja) across from the flour mill, which as of this writing, is still there, although the restaurant is now closed.

My research has shown that the wheat grown in the Salt River was pretty awful. The water was very saline (salty), which is where the river gets its name. Of course, after the dams were built, especially the Arizona Canal in 1885, there wasn't any reason to grow wheat in the river bed. But the location of the mill in Tempe was a good spot, so it remained there. It's still there, deemed historically significant by the City of Tempe.

Pictured at top: the Hayden Flour Mill in 1874, Tempe, Arizona. Behind it is Hayden Butte, but most people nowadays call it A Mountain. At least I do.

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