Jul 19, 2011 • By

Founder of General Mills

Back in the 1850s, when Cadwallader C. Washburn first gazed upon the rushing waters of the St. Anthony Falls along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, he gasped, envisioning the 16-foot waterfall as a great source of power that, if harnessed, could drive the wheels of industry in what would become the state of Minnesota.

But it turned out that Washburn, the founder of what would become General Mills, had plenty of other things to do while he got his milling operation up and running.

Washburn had already been a lawyer and a banker. His reputation for hard work and honesty led to his being elected to Congress, where he served three terms. He would also be a Civil War general and the governor of Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin, his giant La Crosse Lumber Company produced more lathes and shingles than anyone else in the Upper Mississippi Valley, while in Minnesota, he undertook building the dam and canal which resulted in the city of Minneapolis.

Washburn had the vision and the energy to survive every crisis in his life – and there were many. He also had the courage and wherewithal to build a network of mills and railroads that would last far beyond his lifetime. The biggest mill was the origin from which General Mills evolved.

Cadwallader Washburn and his brother William D. Washburn were joined by William H. Dunwoody and John Crosby (both from the east coast of the U.S.) in 1877. Dunwoody was a key salesman and would become a full company partner soon after. Crosby might have been drawn to Minneapolis because of its growing reputation and rapidly developing opportunities.

Interestingly, none of the three initial partners were millers. Cadwallader Washburn was a dignified public man, William D. Washburn a lawyer, and Crosby had managed a paper mill and an iron foundry. But together, they launched a milling company that today mills grain into flour, but also sells 100 food brands in 100 markets worldwide.

One final note… I’m sure Cadwallader was a fine name in its day, and it does have legitimate origins in England — the motherland of the Washburn family. However, for our Archives team, it’s a bit of a mouthful. It’s taken me awhile to be able to get it right without sounding like my cheeks are stuffed with marshmallows.

Apparently, it was a bit cumbersome for others as well. Looking at a materials invoice dated Dec. 20, 1880, from an ironworks company named Stout, Mills & Temple, the bill was addressed simply to “C.C. Washburn.”

C.C. was no doubt much easier to wrangle – and to write. It makes me wonder how his friends addressed him.