Nov 28, 2011 • By

Flour power at Pillsbury

As manager of the General Mills Archives, all kinds of interesting materials show up in my mailbox. A recent one was the booklet, “The Story of Flour,” published in 1923 by the Pillsbury Flour Mills Co.

Filled with photos, it includes references to wheat production dating back to 2700 B.C. in China. Pillsbury and General Mills don’t quite go back that far. They were rival flour companies when they both emerged on the Minnesota milling scene in the 1860s. Positioned across the Mississippi River from each other at St. Anthony Falls, one company built a mill and the other built a bigger one.

And so the story goes.


The first mill built at St. Anthony Falls was in 1822. Erected by the U.S. government, the mill didn’t produce much flour.

Commercial milling started to emerge in 1854, and by 1866 there were eight mills operating at the falls, including the Alaska Mill, which later became the Pillsbury B Mill.

Wheat production from eight mills – including one owned by Cadwallader C. Washburn, the founder of what would be General Mills – was 172,000 barrels per year.

By 1923, it took just two days for Minneapolis mills to equal that production.

This gigantic leap in Minneapolis milling history resulted from expanded railroad transportation, flour exporting (both domestic and international), the introduction of innovative changes – such as the middlings purifier – and the move from millstones to steel rollers.

(The Flour Special, a typical method of Pillsbury distribution)

In the early 1920s, an average of 500 rail cars of grain – two-thirds filled with wheat – arrived in Minneapolis daily. The Pillsbury A mill, the largest single flour mill in the world since 1890, used much of that wheat to produce 14,000 barrels of flour daily, with an additional 3,000 daily barrels added from its New South A mill.

If this amount of flour was placed in 24.5-pound bags end-to-end, the flour bags would extend 50 miles.

Flour testing

The Pillsbury Flour Mills Company maintained a well-equipped laboratory starting in the early 1920s to test wheat and flour samples.

The laboratory housed a complete miniature flour mill, equipment to test gluten and nitrogen content, and a full bakery to make bread samples from a variety of flours.

These samples were later judged by external millers and experts because Pillsbury was always seeking the “perfect” flour.

The end of the story

Pillsbury, at the end of “The Story of Flour” booklet, was focusing on the great success of the company’s flour production. The company gave itself a high rating because of the constant governance of trained organizations and because it owned the most modern machinery available.

The early millers also relied on their version of a continuous improvement program, as new innovations for the milling process were always at the forefront of the millers’ minds. All of these attributes, combined with high standards, resulted in “Pillsbury’s Best” flour.

From flour to Poppin’ Fresh

The Pillsbury division at General Mills today has diverted from its flour roots to produce refrigerated dough, Grands! biscuits, dinner rolls, and Totino’s pizza and snacks.

And the Pillsbury Doughboy? He’s been poppin’ out of dough cans since 1965.

Editor’s note: Have a question about General Mills’ history? Send our Archives team an email.

Visit our History page on for more information about our past.