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How Minnesota became an international center of food manufacturing and research

The work of a father and son — J.S. Bell and James Ford Bell — helped transform Washburn Crosby mills into food giant General Mills.

A recent article reported that Puris, a company producing pea protein for meat substitutes, moved its headquarters from Iowa to Minneapolis in 2016 in part because of the city’s “long food history and its access to people with advanced degrees in food-related disciplines.” How did Minneapolis, and Minnesota more generally, become “one of the country’s biggest food-research hubs?” The answer involves a father, a son, marketing, and research laboratories (not to mention a fictional character).

James Stroud Bell and Gold Medal Flour

By the late-1880s, Cadwallader Washburn and John Crosby’s Minneapolis flour milling firm faced a hostile takeover from Pillsbury Company and its allies. (Note that I’m using modern company appellations and avoiding the multitude of intermediate names by which these companies did business between 1880 and 1900.) Pillsbury wanted Washburn Crosby’s brand new mill and its location at the falls of St. Anthony.

dual photo of washburn a mill in 1880
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Stereograph of Washburn A Mill in 1882
photo of mill city museum with washburn a mill ruins visible in foreground
Mill City Museum and ruins of Washburn ‘A’ Mill today
To stave off opponents, the Washburn Crosby Company recruited James Stroud Bell from the latter’s family firm in Philadelphia, with whom Washburn Crosby had done a great deal of business. They believed that Bell’s skills and reputation in the financial and commodity markets could protect Washburn Crosby. They were right. The company kept its independence, with the last threats dispatched in the summer of 1890.

By now president of Washburn Crosby, J. S. Bell turned his attention to increasing sales. But how? In the 1880s, storekeepers dispensed flour to their customers in unmarked containers. Washburn Crosby wanted to encourage customers to ask local merchants for its flour specifically.

The solution was to invest in branding and marketing. First, Bell and his management team set out to promote Gold Medal Flour, a brand associated with Washburn Crosby since 1880, as a high-quality, superior type of flour. Second, during the 1890s and 1900s, Washburn Crosby created local, regional, and ultimately national advertising campaigns built around the virtues of home and commercial bakers using Gold Medal Flour in their recipes. Pillsbury, Washburn Crosby’s local rival, followed the same script.

advertisement for gold medal flour showing barrels and sacks of flour
Washburn-Crosby flour advertisement card, 1904

James Ford Bell, Betty Crocker and General Mills

James Stroud Bell’s son, James Ford (Jim) Bell, began his career with Washburn Crosby after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1901. He worked his way up through the company, becoming a director in 1909 and a vice president in 1915 (after his father’s death).

In 1925, Jim Bell was named president of Washburn Crosby. By this time, he had already begun to develop his recipe for success in the food business. It consisted of four elements.

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First, before World War I Jim Bell convinced his father that Washburn Crosby needed a research staff and that scientific study could lead to improvements in Gold Medal Flour and, perhaps, new flour-based products. Jim had majored in chemistry and built the first laboratory for conducting research on flour. He saw the potential benefits of research first-hand. By 1924, vitamin- and mineral-enriched flours and a new breakfast cereal, Wheaties, had come out of the Washburn Crosby labs.

Second, Bell worked to expand the company’s marketing and branding efforts. His first job at Washburn Crosby, as a traveling salesman for Gold Medal Flour, convinced him that marketing flour and breakfast cereal was critical and that the company must master new technologies such as radio. This ultimately led to Washburn Crosby purchasing its own radio station, WCCO (Washburn Crosby Company), which eventually joined the fledgling broadcast networks of the 1920s and made Wheaties a nationally-known brand.

Third, Bell and his team believed that Washburn Crosby needed to create strong connections between home bakers (mostly women) and Gold Medal Flour. Their solution was to create a Home Services Department that could develop new recipes (based in part on the research done in Washburn Crosby’s labs), present the benefits of Gold Medal Flour through in-person demonstrations, and answer customers’ questions submitted by mail and through their own radio programs. Washburn Crosby personified all of this through a single character: Betty Crocker.

photo showing various versions of the betty crocker mascot
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Betty Crocker through the years
Fourth, Bell knew that he needed to create a professional headquarters staff to manage all the research and development, production and marketing functions. This involved recruiting accountants, human resource managers, engineers, and scientists and then coordinating their work to bring Washburn Crosby’s products to consumers. Bell’s success in developing this management structure made it possible to run separate laboratories, flour mills, and manufacturing plants in Minneapolis, Chicago, Buffalo and Kansas City and thus gave birth to his ultimate achievement: the merging of five companies into General Mills.

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For better or worse, the results of Bell’s recipe for success are now icons of the modern food economy, ranging from Wheaties and Cheerios to Bisquick and Betty Crocker cake mixes. Along the way, Washburn Crosby and General Mills expanded into animal feeds, vitamin production, and engineering services (based on General Mills’ expertise in building and operating factories).

Other major Minnesota companies, such as Pillsbury, Hormel and International Multifoods, followed this recipe for success — and together with General Mills they created an ecosystem of suppliers, spin-offs and university researchers whose skills could be applied throughout the Minnesota economy. Later, new Minnesota businesses such as Totino’s Fine Foods and Jeno’s in frozen pizza and Green Giant in canned and frozen vegetables were able to take advantage of the food research labs, distribution networks, and marketing agencies that grew up to meet the needs of General Mills and other food companies.

Research and development, branding and marketing, connections with consumers and a professional management structure: this was the four-part recipe that James Stroud Bell and James Ford Bell developed and then implemented between 1890 and 1950. It birthed Minnesota’s packaged food industry, and is the formula that companies large and small use today. Firms such as Puris and others may or may not develop into behemoths like General Mills, but they should acknowledge them for paving the path for Minnesota’s and the nation’s food industry.