The Mississippi River rushes into an impressive drop over St. Anthony Falls, fueling water power that was once the lifeblood of Minneapolis, Minnesota. On those river banks in 1866, a man named Cadwallader Washburn began what would become General Mills.
Five years earlier, in 1861, six remarkable Washburn brothers had attended Abraham Lincoln’s presidential inauguration. Abolitionists all, one brother had written Lincoln’s campaign biography.
Now Lincoln was dead. The Civil War over.
Like his brothers, Cadwallader Washburn grew up on a rocky little farm in Maine. He had been a farmer, a school teacher, a lawyer, and under Lincoln a major general. In 1866, at 48 years of age, Washburn began building a flour mill at St. Anthony Falls.
Washburn had visited the falls by steamboat before the war. He gasped when he saw it. He realized this was a source of power. If you wanted to power industry in those days, you did it with water.
Washburn’s B mill eventually rose six stories above the frontier. It was not only the largest mill west of the Mississippi, but west of Buffalo, New York.
People called it “Washburn’s Folly.” It would flood the markets with flour, they said. He could not sell it all.
Charles Pillsbury disagreed.
Pillsbury’s first business venture in Montreal, Canada, had failed. But the 27-year-old had some cash in his pocket when he arrived in Minnesota in 1869.
A New Hampshire native—born to the same modest circumstances as Washburn—Pillsbury and his father purchased interest in a run-down flour mill on the opposite river bank. The Pillsbury family had no experience in milling flour, which was deemed to be an unstable business with questionable profits.
Yet Pillsbury turned a profit in the first year.
Unexpected fame soon followed Pillsbury.
“No one would have selected him as the member of the class who was to gain a world-wide reputation,” a fellow Dartmouth College graduate later said.
Pillsbury and his partners parlayed a single time-worn mill into one of the world’s larger flour empires. His competitor, Cadwallader Washburn—who had built a second, bigger mill—was flourishing, too.
Then disaster struck.