Inside General Mills
General Mills founder had broad impact in U.S.
August 20, 2010
Consumers in the 1870s wanted bright, white flour. And when the middlings purifier – a device that removed husks from kernels of wheat – was developed to do just that, Cadwallader Washburn was happy to share the technology with his Midwest colleagues.
Together those millers produced a product to compete with the white flour milled in the eastern U.S. For the next 50 years, Minneapolis – dubbed “Mill City” – produced more flour than anywhere in the world.
Cadwallader, the founder of the company that became General Mills, was one of seven Washburn brothers who more than 150 years ago left indelible marks on American history.
|Author Kerck Kelsey with a portrait of his great, great grandfather, Cadwallader Washburn, founder of General Mills.|
That’s what author Kerck Kelsey told a group in Minneapolis while on tour promoting his books, “Remarkable Americans – The Washburn Family,” and "Prairie Lightning - The Rise and Fall of William Drew Washburn.”
Kelsey ought to know his stuff. The Maine resident is the great, great grandson of Cadwallader Washburn.
Six of the brothers attended Abraham Lincoln’s presidential inauguration, which Kelsey says is understandable given that Israel Jr., the eldest brother, was a founding member of Lincoln’s Republican party.
Four of the Washburn brothers were politicians on the national stage, each being elected to the U.S. Congress, each representing a different state. Cadwallader, meanwhile, served as a major general in the Union Army during the War Between the States, and also as governor of Wisconsin.
Sons of a failed shopkeeper and his wife, the boys left their marks on politics, industry, diplomacy, the military, their church, and their own children in ways “that will likely never be equaled again by a single generation of any American family,” Kelsey says.
While he highlighted the achievements of several brothers during his talk, Kelsey shed the most light on Cadwallader and his younger brother, William – the two most entwined with the origins of General Mills.
|Kerck Kelsey sifts through some of the volumes of information in the General Mills archives.|
“Cadwallader thought big,” said Kelsey. “When he looked at the falls at St. Anthony along the Mississippi River in 1855, he had a vision.”
The falls occurred in a section of river that dropped 46 feet in a quarter of a mile. Cadwallader envisioned a dam, water power, mills, wheat fields, railroads and grain. Most importantly, according to Kelsey, Cadwallader’s vision included building his mill to make his flour that would someday bake the bread to feed the world.
William, 15 years younger than Cadwallader, was different than the plain, retiring Cadwallader. William was good-looking, sociable, and a flashy salesman – one who didn’t always follow through with solid business plans.
After Cadwallader fired William three times from the mill – but hired him back twice – William set his sights on what would be his greatest achievement – building railroads for the Midwest mills.
Workin’ on the railroad
In the late 1800s, the only route for Minneapolis flour to get to the East Coast by train was through Chicago, which had a thriving milling business of its own.
The railroads charged exorbitant transportation fees for Minneapolis flour and grain to travel through Chicago, and Minneapolis flour was often conveniently delayed in the city, while the Illinois grain and flour went right on through, according to Kelsey.
By 1882, the year of Cadwallader’s death, William had already begun securing investors to build a railroad north through Canada and then south, shortening the trek to the East Coast by 200 miles. Finished 10 years later, the “Sioux Line” not only proved faster, but – without the extra fees –cheaper.
In spite of this great success, William lived a more lavish lifestyle than he could support, and died broke.
Contrasting brothers made a team
Kelsey made it clear from his research – some of it conducted in the General Mills Archives - that Cadwallader was a no-nonsense man who was determined to feed the world with his flour.
With the help of William’s railroads, he eventually did.
A Princeton University graduate, Kelsey spent his career teaching and selling schoolbooks, financial services and history.
Kelsey earned a master’s degree in history at Harvard University just before his 70th birthday, and since has written three books about the Washburn family.
Inside General Mills