Jeff Carroll - Legendary Texas


When the 74 men, women, and children in 20 wagons from Sangoman County, Illinois, left the main  wagon train in 1846 to try a new shortcut to California they didn't know that history would record their names on geographic features and in books describing epic adventures. Today Donner Pass hosts a variety of winter sports and the Donner Party is remembered as an epic story of survival. All across the world the story of the 47 survivors made headlines. Trapped in the snow, some starved, some froze, and some ate their friends and relatives.



Down here in Texas, one man read the story with particular interest. As a surveyor, newspaper editor, and veteran of the Texas War for Independence, Gail Borden was familiar with both the frontier and the news. "What," he thought, "if I can invent something that will make such tragedy obsolete?" Borden was also an inventor. His "Locomotive Bath House" was a privy-like structure on wheels that you could roll into the waves at Galveston so that ladies could feel the sand between their toes in privacy without having to deal with the sun and surf. And, his "Terraqueous Machine" was a boat with wheels designed to sail on land or sea so the challenge of inventing something new was welcome.

The marvelous "Meat Biscuit" resulted. After six  years of work Borden developed "an improved process of preserving the nutritious properties of meat, or animal flesh, of any kind, by obtaining the concentrated extract of it, and combining it with flour or vegetable meal, and drying or baking the mixture in an oven, in the form of a biscuit or cracker." He felt that it would benefit all of the seamen of the world, colonists "on long journeys through destitute regions," those faced by hostile Indians who dared not build a fire, geologists, surveyors, explorers, patients in hospitals, and any family that didn't want to cook, "especially in warm weather."

Now folks, that sounds like a good idea; sort of a cross between a modern dog biscuit and the dry soups that you pump up with water. Others thought it sounded good, too. Borden offered a full partnership to Dr. Ashbel Smith, the Yale graduate who had become surgeon-general to the Republic of Texas. Smith, in turn wrote an article for the prestigious De Bow's Review explaining that the new invention would revolutionize industry in the South. He then attended the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in May of 1851 where, as the only American on the international panel of judges, he recognized his partner's invention with the highest award for contribution to the food industry. He said that it was the responsibility of America to provide for "the poor of those countries who never taste good meat."

But, all was not sweetness and light. Elisha Kent Kane carried a supply on his first polar expedition and reported that even starving sled dogs wouldn't eat it. Frederic Law Olmsted on his often quoted Journey Through Texas fed his to the birds and reported that, for himself, he would "decidedly undergo a very near approach to the traveler's last bourne" before he would eat it. Others simply said it was "unsightly" and the Army preferred real beef.

So, after spending $60,000 in building a processing plant in western Colorado County and promoting his marvelous meat biscuit, the project failed. In a way, though, it was a success.

On his way back from the London exhibition, Borden became interested in the problems surrounding milking seasick cows. When passengers faced the prospect of coffee without cream, a new idea was born. In  May, 1858, a new advertisement appeared in the New York edition of Leslie's Illustrated newspaper: "BORDEN'S CONDENSED MILK--is hitherto unequalled in the annals of the Milk Trade. For Sale at 173 Canal Street, or delivered at dwellings in New York and Brooklyn at 25 CENTS per quart." Unlike the meat biscuit, this idea worked.

Gail Borden Condensed Milk

Atomic Web Katz