Bordon’s “cow in a can” was a life-saver on the frontier

Time Before Now – May 1856 – Future president James Buchanan was running a stealth campaign for the White House, German scientist, Johann Fuhlrott, identified the bones of a distant relative (right) as a Neanderthal and Baltimore tinsmith, Ralph Collier, received a patent for the first rotating egg beater.  But Americans would have to wait another year before Joseph Gayetty would come up with toilet paper by the roll.

May 14, 1856

On this day, inventor Gail Bordon received a patent for sweetened condensed milk.  The first of its kind not to require refrigeration, it was hailed as a life-saver on the frontier, Civil War battlefields and the Yukon Trail.

It was the  second attempt by Bordon (leftto find a nutritious, portable food source.  In an early version of C-rations, his unsuccessful “meat biscuit,” was a mixture of dehydrated ground meat and flour.  Based on pemmican used extensively by Native Americans, Bordon’s version was described  by the military as tasteless and unsatisfying.

Bordon was returning from England after winning the Great Council Medal at the 1851 London World’s Fair for his meat biscuit when hwas struck by the need for a safer milk product by a ship-board tragedy.  The ship’s two dairy cows became ill and died, as did several children who had consumed contaminated milk. 

His sizeable fortune had been largely spent on the meat biscuit and his first two tries as condensing milk failed, as well.  He’d acquired another technique form yet another culture, this time using a condensation method used by the Shakers.  (Above A vacuum pan could heat milk without curdling it.  The addition of sugar made  the product long-lasting without refrigeration.

By that time, the 55-year-old Bordon had already been a surveyor and newspaper publisher before becoming an inventor.

Port of Galviston circa 1826

Born a Yankee in Norwich, New York, in 1801, he’d become a Texan at 28.  Landing on Galviston Island, it wasn’t long before he was surveying for Stephen F. Austin (left) and collaborating with his brother Thomas to produce the first topographical map of Texas.

With a new partner he founded the Telegraph and Texas Register at San Felip Austin.  The publication, only the second permanent newspaper in the state, is still considered an invaluable source of information by historians.  But his career in journalism lasted barely a year. 

He sold his interest in the Telegraph and Register and became Sam Houston’s customs collector at Galviston.  Houston may have gotten a two -for-one. Bordon also drew up the first plan for the famous Texan’s namesake city.

Gordon’s original plan for Houston, Texas

But a dispute with Houston over the evaluation of his exchequer sent Bordon veering off  in another direction.  He began working for the  Galviston City Company, owners of a large chunk of Galviston Island. Falling back on his surveying experience, he helped find buyers for the company’s 2,500 lots.

He and his first wife, Penelope Mercer Bordon, devout Baptists, were the first Galveston citizens to be  baptized in the Gulf of Mexico. A Sunday School missionary to the poor, he was a member of the Texas Baptist Education Society, the founders of Baylor University.

When Penelope died of Yellow Fever in 1844, the same disease that had striken his 48-year-old mother, he began experimenting with refrigeration as a means to contain the infection.  Instead he developed safer condensed milk that didn’t need to be refrigerated. 

The opening shots of the Civil War increased the demand for the product and Bordon soon had four factories in three state.  In addition, he  developed processes for condensing fruit juices, beef extracts and coffee. 

But the war also divided the Bordon family.  Bordon’s oldest son, Henry Lee, designed  and built weapons for the Confederacy while his youngest son, John Gail, (right) was an officer in the Union Army.

All must have been forgiven, however, as both sons eventually worked for the family company.  Henry managed a large plant in Elgin, Illinois, and John succeeded his father as president. 

Following the war, Bordon used his vast war earnings to help repair the damage.  In 1873 he built a freedmen’s school, a day school and Sunday School for black children as well as a school for white children.  He helped build five churches, supported two missionaries and added to the salaries of the state’s underpaid teachers, ministers and students.

Bordon married twice after Penelope’s death and was survived by his third wife, Emily, by  six years.  He died  on January 11, 1874 in Texas at the age of 74 and was returned to New York for burial.

The company Bordon founded became the country’s largest dairy and pasta  manufacturer in the U.S. during the mid-nineteenth century, surviving until 2001.  Bought out by the international investment firm of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts in 1995 it was slowly dismembered, the divisions absorbed by a parade of other name brands, including Kraft Foods and H.J. Heinz.

Some things Bordon, however, survived.  The company’s famous “Elsie the Cow” logo, introduced in 1936, was the last heifer standing.  Honored by AdAge Magazine as one of the ten best icons of the 20th Century, Elsie (above)  is still used occasionally by the Bordon successor, Eagle Brand.

Elsie’s bovine bridegroom, Elmer the Bull, (left) was introduced as a trademark in 1841 for its chemical division.  Elmer is still holding things together on bottles of  namesake glue.

The Bryan Museum, 1315 21st Street, Galviston, Texas , home to one of the largest collections of  artifacts, Western art and documents in the country.  With more than 70,000 items  from saddles to 20,000 rare books.  Its various galleries cover the Spanish Colonial era, early statehood and the Texas frontier.  

Opened in 2015, it occupies the former Galviston Orphans Home,founded in 1878 and located in Galvanise in 1880. Destroyed by the 1900 hurricane that decimated Galviston Island, it was rebuilt in 1902 following a fundraising effort by  newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst. 

Designed by award-winning architect Alfred Muller,  the Gothic Revival building, was completed in 1895.  It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.  Admission is $4 for adults, $12 for seniors and military, $10 for students with ID, $5 for children 6 to 12 and children under 6 are free. 

The museum is open 10 to 4 Wednesday through Saturday.  Closed Monday and Tuesday as well as Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day.   For more information, go to, call (409) 632-7685 or write  The Bryan Museum, 1315 21st Street, Galviston, Texas 77550.

Hours may vary in accordance with CDC guidelines and state and local public health authorities.  Visitors are advised to get the most current information by          accessing the museum’s website.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.