Stone-Ordean-Wells Mills

The Stone-Ordean-Wells Mills ca. 1926, photographer unknown. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

4832 Grand Avenue | Architect: Unknown | b. 1924 | Extant

William Stone was lured to the Zenith City by his brother, Jay Cooke agent George C. Stone, in 1872 to operate a merchant dock named for Cooke’s brother Pitt. He also began building warehouses to store “flour, feed, salt, lime, iron ore and general produce” intended for the wholesale trade. Stone later turned his focus to the wholesale enterprise, incorporating Wm. R. Stone & Company Wholesale Grocers in 1880. In 1882, when the population reached 12,000, Stone was the village’s only wholesale grocer and took on Albert Ordean as a partner. Stone-Ordean Wholesale Grocers thrived in Duluth, first along South Lake Avenue and later along South Fifth Avenue.

In 1896 the firm merged with Michigan’s Wells-Stone Mercantile to become Stone-Ordean-Wells (SOW). Throughout the years SOW distributed groceries with brand names including Stone, Nokomis, Hiawatha, and Bluebird Express. The company enjoyed branch offices in North Dakota, Montana, and Minneapolis and distributed in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and eastern Idaho.

By 1911 SOW was producing so much coffee it constructed a modest manufacturing mill at 214-216 West Michigan Street to grind spices, sugar, peanuts, and coffee, which SOW first began began advertising locally under the “Empress” label in 1905. A 1915 ad for Empress Coffee stated that “four years ago Empress was unknown; today it is the biggest selling high quality coffee throughout the great Northwest.” That year the company opened a larger mill a block west at 332 W. Michigan Street. The four-story facility ground coffee until 1923, when the milling operation moved to West Duluth.

The firm constructed a four-story mill faced in brown brick with cement trim containing about 48,000 square feet of workspace along Grand Avenue. Its design essentially follows the Chicago Commercial style, but with eclectic ornamentation including Neo-Gothic tower buttresses between the building’s piers, large entrances topped with three-center arches, and a prominent cornice that carried the Stone-Ordean-Wells name along the Grand Avenue façade. By 1928 it was cranking out about 3.5 million pounds of Empress Coffee a year. But Stone-Ordean-Wells did not survive the Great Depression, and the facility was vacant by 1940.

During World War II, the building briefly served as the Duluth home of the U.S. National Youth Administration, and in 1945 it became the Oliver Mining Company’s research laboratory. Oliver moved out in the 1960s and by 1970s it had become home to Duluth’s Chroma-Glo Company, a screen-printing firm that turned to developing and providing products for the image-transferring industry. The company, known as Ikonics since 2002, still thrives in Duluth.