time I take a can of condensed milk from a shelf in the pantry,
I think of an important man in early Texas. Largest letters on the
label spell Eagle Brand but in smaller print is the Borden surname.
Come on out of the pantry, Gail Borden. This is your life:
It's been one a heck of a ride, hasn't it, from a financially-challenged
Texas pioneer to the internationally famous inventor of condensed
milk and founder of Borden Company.
Your rags to riches story is one of rugged determination, a mind-set
of never giving up. Just ask Ashbel Smith, your friend in Baytown.
He knows all about you. During the lean years, he was your investor,
promoter and your shoulder to cry on when everyone else snickered
about your crazy ideas. Who's got the last laugh now, heh?
But let's start from the beginning, your entry into Texas
in 1829 when it was still part of Mexico. A jack of all trades,
you first followed in your father's footsteps as a surveyor. Although
you had little education (barely a year in school), you had enough
street smarts to plat downtown Houston
During the Texas Revolution, you were best known as editor and co-owner
of the newspaper, Telegraph and Texas Register. You didn't always
make the deadlines, though. Remember when the Mexican Army dumped
the press in Buffalo Bayou at Harrisburg on their way to war? It
was just one of those pre-San
Jacinto things, circa April of 1836.
To replace the equipment, you had to mortgage some of your land.
Publication was resumed in August 1836 but financial problems remained.
A year later you and your brother, Thomas, sold the newspaper. A
former business partner, Joseph Baker, already had sold out.
Well, so much for your newspaper career. What next?
as president of the Republic
of Texas, appointed you as collector of customs at Galveston.
You lost the job when Mirabeau
Lamar became president but got it back when Sam
returned to office two years later. Then you were fired when you
and Sam had
Oh well, you had other things to do, more projects stirring in that
way-out imagination. Remember the amphibious boat you invented?
You'd rather not? I think it's kind of funny - the way that sail-powered
wagon flipped over, dumping the passengers into the Gulf of Mexico.
And that movable bath house for the ladies at the beach. Actually
that was a pretty good idea, given how modesty was in style back
Then, there were the biscuits. You mixed condensed beef broth with
flour and put it on the market as a beef biscuit that would not
spoil. Ashbel helped financed the venture and made myriad contacts
for you in business and government. (He knew people.) The most impressive
connection, courtesy of Ashbel, was the London Exhibition where
the biscuit won a top prize and you got to meet Queen Victoria.
The biscuit also won a medal at the first state fair held in Corpus
Christi. As superintendent of the fair, Ashbel made sure your
biscuits were noticed.
Alas, in spite of all the fanfare and prizes, your beloved beef
biscuit bombed. I never tasted one myself but heard they were awful.
Again, you didn't dwell on past mistakes. Another idea was taking
hold - this one, bigger and better than ever. Condensed milk.
So you went back to your old pal and business partner for money,
advice and consent, and Ashbel wished you well.
After burned on the biscuit deal, Ashbel decided, "Enough, already."
He had spent too much money and time pushing those unpopular biscuits.
Forget the condensed milk.
I'm no financial expert but it seems to me that Ashbel missed the
boat on this one. Surely, as a medical doctor he should have shared
your enthusiasm for a milk product that could be taken anywhere
without the risk of spoiling. Condensed milk would be a handy item
in any pantry, nursery or battlefield.
It tastes good, too -- lot better than those beef biscuits. OK,
forget the biscuits. We won't mention them anymore.
Gail, have to hand to you. You did well, even without Ashbel's assistance.
You found investors up north and the rest is happy-face history,
with Elsie the cow smiling at us from the Eagle Brand label.
As for you, Ashbel: No use crying over spilt condensed milk.
See Gail Borden II
© Wanda Orton
Baytown Sun Columnist, September 1, 2014 column
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