At Thanksgiving, the Borden’s brand is a well-known and essential ingredient in many kitchens across the nation. Gail Borden, the inventor of condensed milk, played an important role in the Texas Revolution before he turned his attention to science and business. Borden’s story is how an Indiana farm boy with almost no formal schooling went from being a Texas revolutionary and editor to a celebrated inventor and wildly successful New York factory owner. The calm and curious man nurtured not only revolution in Texas but a revolution in the food industry.
Gail Borden II was born in Norwich, a remote farming community in southern New York in 1801. As did many farmers and pioneers of the time, the family set out often in pursuit of greener pastures a number of times. The family settled for a short time in Kentucky before moving to Indiana. He had little formal education save for a few courses in 1816 and 1817 to learn surveying. Many details of his youth are incomplete, but it is apparent that he was very intelligent and very principled.
He and his brother served in the Indiana Militia for a time. In 1822, he was part of a group that saved a freed slave from being lynched. Afterward, he headed south. He ended up in Amite County, Mississippi, on the Louisiana state line. With little formal education, Borden was able to land a job as a school teacher. He later also became county surveyor and a deputy federal surveyor. By 1828, he married and started a family.
By 1829, his brother, Thomas Borden, also a surveyor, had moved to Texas and enticed his brother and his family to try their luck in the new land. Borden accepted the challenge and arrived in Galveston on Christmas Eve. He began farming in what is now the Fort Bend County area. Within a few months, Borden was hired by Stephen F. Austin as a surveyor for his growing colony, on the recommendation of his brother.
Things changed quickly in Texas as a great wave of change swept the land. American colonists who had come to Texas grew uneasy at the increasing depredations of an increasingly unstable Mexican government. In 1832, Borden became part of the committee of correspondence at San Felipe, communicating concerns about Mexico with other Texas communities. He served as a delegate to the Convention of 1833, which included future Texas presidents Sam Houston and David G. Burnet, which called for separate statehood for Texas from the Mexican state of Coahuila y Texas in order for Texans to more directly address their own affairs.
In 1835, Borden began working with his brother Thomas and Joseph Baker, a Maine native and school teacher, to start a newspaper. The Telegraph and Texas Register saw its first edition on October 10. It rose in prominence, essentially becoming the newspaper of record during the days of the Texas Revolution and the Texas Republic. Its editorials rallied the people of Texas during the revolution and called for aid from the United States. In 1836, the paper printed the Texas Declaration of Independence and one of the first copies of the new constitution for the Texas Republic.
In the meantime, he produced the first topographical map of Texas and became a tax collector for the fledgling Texas Republic. After the end of the Texas Revolution in 1836, he worked with local officials to plan the layout for the City of Houston. He and his brother sold their stakes in the newspaper in 1837. Borden became the official port collector for Galveston that year and served off and on until 1837. Starting in 1839, he served as an alderman in Galveston and began selling real estate.
Borden was active in church, serving as a Sunday School teacher, a Baptist deacon, and as a missionary to newcomers arriving in Galveston. He also served in the local temperance society and tried to curb gambling in the city.
His wife died in a yellow fever epidemic in 1844. The loss prompted him to find answers to prevent future epidemics. He began experimenting with refrigeration techniques, believing as many did at the time, that temperature and air quality were related to outbreaks of yellow fever and malaria. As he experimented with refrigeration, he began studying the preservation of food. By the late 1840s, he began producing a dehydrated beef biscuit, but it was a poor seller. This prompted his next innovation, condensed milk. The next phase of his life, for which he would be best known, was underway.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com