Gail Borden’s life took him in many directions. With almost no formal education, he worked as a teacher, surveyor and as an influential newspaper editor during the Texas Revolution. He worked as a port collector during the days of the Texas Republic and was an important leader in early Galveston. By the 1840s, he turned his attention to science. As a result of Borden’s work, he would change food preservation, saving lives and changing the food industry.
He initially tinkered with primitive refrigeration systems, to no avail. Along the way, he began considering the problem of food storage. Despite efforts by men like Borden and others, modern refrigeration simply did not exist in the 1840s. This made it very difficult to preserve food for long periods. This led him to create a dehydrated meat biscuit by 1849, one designed to stay edible even after long-term storage. Uses by pioneers on their long treks west, remote populations cut off by winters or by the army seemed obvious. Though his invention won praise from fellow inventors, the meat biscuit was not popular with consumers.
By 1851, Borden concluded that he needed to relocate. At the time, Texas was not the center of international trade that it is in the twenty-first century. The relatively remote location and scarcity of industrial resources made staying in the state too cost-prohibitive. As a result, he moved his company and his dreams to New York.
He continued inventing, and in 1853, created condensed milk through a vacuum process. This allowed milk to be stored for extended periods, vital for remote areas. Borden’s condensed milk was patented in 1856. That year, Borden attempted to produce it in a factory he bought in Connecticut. His effort faltered quickly. In 1857, he reorganized and founded “Gail Borden, Jr. and Co.” to produce condensed milk. The company still struggled. In 1858, entrepreneur Jeremiah Milbank gained a 50 percent partnership in the company, giving it the funds needed. The company was renamed the New York Condensed Milk Co..
The new company slowly started finding customers. When the Civil War began in 1861, the New York Condensed Milk Company began working with the U.S. Army to sell Borden’s condensed milk. Condensed milk allowed troops to store milk without fear of spoiling while maintaining high standards for nutrition. Rotten or contaminated food had been a serious problem for armies, leading to many deaths from disease or increased casualties caused by loss of stamina and physical strength from illness. The availability of food for the Union compared to the struggling Confederacy proved to be a great advantage over the long term, keeping troops healthier for the long fight. Borden and Milbank became very successful, and the company expanded after the end of the war.
Though Borden had long since moved to New York and amassed a fortune, Texas was never far from his thoughts. Starting in 1871, he returned to Texas each year to enjoy the milder winters the region offered compared to the Northeast. The wounds of the Civil War were still healing for Texas, and Borden gave generously to education efforts in Southeast Texas.
In 1872, the small town of Borden in Colorado County was organized and named for him. Borden donated money to build two schools in the area. Though segregated schools were the law at the time, Borden built a white school and an African-American school to provide for the children of both races. He continued to support these and other schools. He donated money to build five churches in the area and gave extensively to other charities. He died in January 1874 at the age of 72.
The state legislature created Borden County south of Lubbock in 1876, named in his honor. The county seat, Gail, also named for Borden, was founded in 1890. Years after his passing in 1892, two of his stepsons from his third and last marriage, Alfred and Samuel Church, purchased a stately mansion in Elgin, Illinois and donated it to the city as the Gail Borden Public Library. Though Borden had no connection to Elgin, his sons decided it was a fitting way to honor a man who had enriched their lives and the lives of so many others.
Borden’s company continued after his death. The company began selling processed milk by 1875 and slowly expanded into other dairy products. By 1885, they became the first to sell milk in glass bottles. Company directors renamed it the Borden Condensed Milk Company in 1899. In the years afterward, the company was rebranded as the Borden Company in 1919, and it branched off into several different companies producing dairy products and industrial products. Their original product, condensed milk, is still sold by another spin off company, Eagle Brands, and is a staple of recipes around the world.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com