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Gail Borden

by Wanda Orton
Wanda Orton

Every 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 and Galveston.

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?

Sam Houston, 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 a disagreement.

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. Oops.

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.

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. Terrible, yuk.

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
More "Wandering" columns

Related Topics: People | Food | Columns | Texas Towns | Texas |

Wanda Orton's Recipe:
"I make a simple fruit dessert with a carton of Cool Whip, can of condensed milk, 8-oz. pkg. cream cheese, mix well, then add can of crushed pineapple and can of fruit cocktail. Drain the fruit well. (I use the large carton of Cool Whip and large cans of fruit. However, you can downsize, depending on taste.)"
Texas Escapes, in its purpose to preserve historic, endangered and vanishing Texas, asks that anyone wishing to share their local history, stories, and vintage/historic photos, please contact us.
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