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Charles Pillsbury Biography

Charles Pillsbury Image

CHARLES ALFRED PILLSBURY, a prominent flour miller of Minneapolis, Minn., son of George A. Pillsbury, and born in Warner, Merrimac county, N. H., Oct 3, 1842, spent his boyhood in a modest home and found so much difficulty in securing a thorough education, that before he had left the doors of Dartmouth college, a graduate in 1863, he had had to teach a part of the time to meet the expenses. Six years of experience in Montreal as a clerk and partner in a mercantile enterprise introduced him fairly to a business career, and it was during that time, on Sept. 12, 1866, that he took to himself a wife in the person of Miss Mary A., daughter of Capt. Charles Stinson of Goffstown, N. H. The commerce of Montreal, largely consisting of grain from the Western States, and the fact that John S. Pillsbury, an uncle, had settled at the Falls of St. Anthony, Minn., in 1855, drew the thoughts of the subject of this sketch to that then far western country; and in 1869, Charles A. Pillsbury became a resident of the rising little city of Minneapolis, which, thereafter, his own enterprise and example were destined to make to grow with unexampled rapidity.

There stood on the banks of the river, at that time, four or five flour mills, deriving their motive power from the Falls, none of them large in size and all old fashioned, grinding their grain with the now antiquated buhr stones. In the employment of his uncle, and soon afterward in part ownership of a small mill at the Falls, Mr. Pillsbury made a close and thorough study of the methods of flour milling then in vogue, and mused much on the possibilities of securing better results with more modern appliances. Every new idea in flour milling received a hearty welcome from him, and when the "middlings purifier" and the "roller" process originated with keen inventors in Minneapolis, he seized upon the new improvements promptly, adapted his mill to their use, threw out the old buhr stones, and entered into a lively competition, with the Washburn family, Mr. Christian and other millers in the production of what was called "new process" flour. A brand which he named "Pillsbury's Best" proved of excellent quality, and was rapidly introduced wherever Minnesota flour found its way. It is claimed that "Pillsbury's Best" is now, in fact as well as in name, the finest flour in the world. The use of a series of carefully gauged steel rolls in the crushing of grain into flour effected an entire revolution in all the large flour mills of the United States, owing to the greater economy in use and the entirely satisfactory quality of flour produced; and it even led to important changes in wheat growing, because it created a demand for hard Spring wheat, theretofore less highly esteemed than the softer Winter wheat of more southerly latitudes.

In 1872, Mr. Pillsbury persuaded his father, George A., and his uncle, John S., to join him in an enlargement of the business; and the firm of Charles A. Pillsbury & Co. then entered upon a career of remarkable enterprise. A brother, Frederick C. Pillsbury, came into the firm at a later date. The career of Charles A. Pillsbury from that time forward is almost the history of the industry which makes Minneapolis one of the best and largest markets for grain in the world. The care, thoroughness and soundness of the proceedings of the Pillsbury firm finally gave their mills the foremost place in the flour manufacturing industry of the United States. 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 appliances of all kinds. To ensure an ample supply of the finest wheat, the firm brought into being The Millers' Association, and the agents of this organization have since permeated the grain fields of the whole of the Northwest, making the most minute and careful inspection of stocks and buying only the best. A system of grain elevators for storage and shipment purposes was also created, under the ownership of The Minneapolis & Northern Elevator Co., of which Mr. Pillsbury is yet president, and the big buildings of this concern may now be seen scattered all through the grain growing sections of the region tributary to Minneapolis. Warehouses were built in Minneapolis. The final step in the extension of the business of the firm was the construction of the huge Pillsbury "A" mill, with a capacity of 5,000 barrels of flour a day, since increased to 10,000, and certainly the largest and best flour mill under the canopy of the sky. As a preparation for this enterprise, Mr Pillsbury first made a thorough investigation of the flour mills of Europe, including those of Buda-Pesth in Hungary, which are said to produce the finest flour in the old world. While the foreigh mills embodied few ideas unfamiliar to Yankee eyes, yet they did suggest an idea or two, and the Pillsbury "A" mill, built in the year 1882, was the pride of the firm and the despair of every rival in the business. Among the nearly thirty great flour mills, which lift their imposing proportions into view in Minneapolis, no group is more impressive than that created by the Pillsbury firm. The production now amounts to 24,500 barrels of flour a day, and the brands are known everywhere upon the globe. The simple recital of these achievements is almost a sufficient description of the man who wrought the result.

His true character as a man would not be fully illustrated, however, unless reference were made to the system of profit sharing, which he introduced into the mill. While paying liberal wages to the men, he has disbursed as much as $25,000 a year among them, as a reward for their interest in the success of the business; and, as a consequence, no strikes have ever interrupted the tranquil stream of diligent activity in the Pillsbury flour mills.

In 1889, an English syndicate bought a controlling interest in the largest flouring industries of Minneapolis and the water power at the Falls and combined the whole interest under the name of The Pills bury-Washburn Flour Mills Co. Mr. Pillsbury remains the manager and one of the three American directors of the entire property. The name of Charles A. Pillsbury & Co. is yet retained by the former partners, but their operations are confined at present to the management of The Union and Empire Elevators and to looking after the assets of the firm, which are largely, but not entirely, invested in pine lands.

Mr. Pillsbury is a man of robust physique, strong courage, buoyant health and genial nature. The fatigues of business have been borne by him lightly and surplus vitality has been left for other affairs. He has never cared much for public office, and in fact has declined repeated offers of the Mayoralty of the city and other stations, and has never served in public life except as State Senator, for the ten years beginning with Jan. 1, 1877. During every year except one of that time, he held the chairmanship of the Finance Committee of the Senate, and had charge of the bill, recommended by John S. Pillsbury, the Governor, for the adjustment of the State debt.

He was for many years a trustee of Plymouth Congregational church, and is yet a constant attendant at its services, and a generous contributor to missions and charity.

The father of two boys, twins, he long ago exchanged the little old house near the Falls, in which he began life in Minneapolis a quarter of a century ago, for a commodious stone mansion on Stevens avenue.

Henry Hall, ed., America’s Successful Men of Affairs, an Encyclopedia of Contemporaneous Biography, Vol. II (New York: New York Printing Company, 1895) 626-628.