Most Americans are very familiar with the Pillsbury Company which has given us a host of iconic products, including the company’s Classic Yellow Cake Mix, every flavor of pre-made frosting, and those addictive Crescent Rolls. Pillsbury’s marketing efforts for its various brands also generated iconic characters like the Doughboy and Jolly Green Giant. The company itself is no longer around but its brands live on under different corporate conglomerates and are an ingrained part of American culture to this day. At its height, Pillsbury was one of the world’s largest producers of grain and other foodstuffs, and it all grew out of what was once a failing flour mill that caught the attention of a young Charles Alfred Pillsbury.
Born on December 3, 1842, Pillsbury had a modest upbringing in New Hampshire, where he eventually graduated from Dartmouth College. He became interested in the grain business after working six years as a clerk and partner in Montreal, Quebec, Canada for Buck, Robinson, and Co., a produce commission company. Pillsbury sold his share in the business to join his uncle, John Sargent Pillsbury, in Minneapolis in 1869. His uncle gave him a job at his flour mill. Pillsbury and his father soon pooled their resources and bought part ownership in another operation.
While his uncle had encouraged the young Pillsbury’s purchase of the milling business, it was largely viewed as a bad investment at the time. The mill itself was struggling, and flour milling itself was not terribly lucrative or stable. The Pillsbury’s also had relatively little experience in the milling business, including his uncle, a serial entrepreneur that never stuck to any one thing for long. But Pillsbury decided the problem was the milling method itself and set about figuring out how to improve the process.
Early innovations he adopted included middlings purifiers, machines recently invented by Edmund La Croix, that could produce fine white flour from the district’s hard spring wheat. His was also one of the first American mills to use steel rollers instead of burr stones to crush the wheat for the production of what was known as “new process” flour.
Pillsbury established the “Pillsbury’s Best” brand and claimed it was the finest flour in the world, which quickly captured a majority share of the high-quality flour market. The mill was posting profits just a year after Pillsbury purchased it. In 1872, he founded C.A. Pillsbury & Co. with his father and uncle, and began purchasing and building more mills. By 1886, the Pillsbury mills produced 10,000 barrels a day.
The company’s history in flour milling became synonymous with the history of the entire milling industry in America. The steel rollers Pillsbury used would go on to transform U.S. flour milling and led to important changes for wheat growing too, as it created a demand for the region’s hard spring wheat. Later, four new mills were added to the original plant, either by purchase or lease, including the Pillsbury “B”, Empire, Excelsior, and Anchor mills, and each of the new properties was rebuilt and equipped with the most modern equipment. Pillsbury also commissioned the first architect-designed mill, the Pillsbury “A.” It was the largest mill in the world by 1882, shortly after its opening, and it still stands on the Mississippi riverfront.
Pillsbury had a share in getting low freight rates for Minneapolis, as well as in building up the railroad system that helped make Minneapolis the center of the grain trade. To protect his supplies, he founded the Minneapolis & Northern Elevator Co., which owned storage elevators throughout the Northwest. Pillsbury sold his company in 1889, though he remained heavily involved right up to his death in 1899. (Sources: MinnPost, Wikipedia, BizHistory)