You become observant, a good listener, when you bounce around as much as George Henry Christian did in his youth. Although his name is less known than fellow grain titans Pillsbury, Washburn or Crosby, Christian enjoyed an equally pivotal role in Minneapolis’ rise as a milling mecca from 1880 to 1930.

Born in 1839 on the banks of the Coosa River in Wetumpka, Ala., Christian moved with his father to a farm near Delavan, Wis., at 11, and then attended private school in North Carolina.

He worked as a clerk at his uncle’s shoe store in Albany, N.Y., moving downstate to clerk in an insurance company in New York City. Before he turned 30, he was working in Chicago’s flour and grain business at the end of the Civil War in 1865.

“Christian was a man, it is said, who knew how to keep his mouth shut and his eyes open,” wrote Paul Fossum, a late Carleton College economist.

Before he patented a Minneapolis milling system that would revolutionize grain separation, Christian’s wanderlust brought him to the leading millwrights in France as well as tiny Dundas, Minn., on the banks of the Cannon River south of Northfield.

He watched carefully and listened to what milling experts said. By 1860, the French were using silk to separate wheat middlings from the bran, creating a flour that made the whitest and cheapest breads, according to Fossum’s 1930 article in Minnesota History (tinyurl.com/MN-milling).

Before Minneapolis became known as the Milling Capital of the World, the settlements 50 miles to the south — Faribault, Northfield and Dundas — were the top dogs.

In 1857, a year before Minnesota statehood, brothers John and George Archibald constructed a stone mill on a Cannon River island near Dundas, a town they founded and named after their former Canadian hometown of Dundas, Ontario.

Another pair of Canadian brothers, Montreal millwrights Nicholas and Edmund La Croix, had moved to Faribault with a French-style milling system that purified the middlings. Air was blown under a series of silk sieves to carry off bran particles. The middlings were reground into the finest flour around.

The Archibalds insisted theirs was the best in the valley, pointing to the New York markets where their flour sold for $3 a barrel more than anyone else’s. One key: They had the La Croix brothers install their purifier at the Dundas mill.

By 1867, the 28-year-old George Christian had moved his flour-buying operation from La Crosse, Wis., to Minneapolis.

“With great foresight and discriminating intelligence [he] saw the possibilities at the head of navigation on the Mississippi and divined the great future of the region around it, especially in the production of cereals and their conversion into manufactured products of various kinds for consumption,” according to a 1923 history of Minneapolis.

Within a few years, Christian was in cahoots with Cadwallader Washburn, a former Wisconsin governor more than 20 years his senior. Their fledgling grain company would one day be known as General Mills.

But first, Christian started buying Cannon River flour in Dundas, intent of figuring out the secret behind its quality. That meant schmoozing with the braggart behind Dundas’ fine flour — John Archibald.

“Every time he went to the Dundas mill Archibald would tell him in a boastful way a point or two about his method of grinding wheat,” Fossum wrote, “little thinking that the flour broker was keeping a record of what he said.”

He cracked the mystery: Using the La Croix brothers’ purifier and setting the millstones high, you could crack the wheat and run the middlings through a series of stones each set closer together to create the smoothest and finest white flour.

Christian brought his system to Washburn, who hired him to oversee the Washburn B Mill’s 31-stone operation. When he patented the process, Christian — the good listener and keen observer — was on his way to massive wealth.

Did he cash in on innovations — pick a verb — borrowed or stolen from the Archibalds, La Croixes and the French? Perhaps. But Fossum, the Carleton expert, defended his pirating.

“The practice of ferreting out secret processes was extremely common during the period …” he wrote. “And lax patent laws even seemed to encourage this practice. That Christian learned the secret of Archibald’s milling process does not detract from the former’s reputation … Millers around Faribault and in France had a common knowledge of high grinding and the purifier, but most of those elsewhere were too busy to conduct the kind of examination made by Christian.”

Under his eye, the Washburn B Mill went from processing 600 barrels of flour a day to 50,000. Minneapolis flour shipments increased fivefold to 5 million barrels between 1876-84.

By then, Christian had sold out, rich enough to exit milling at 36. He went into the hardwood and paper businesses but took plenty of time to travel the globe — studying art, history and blossoming into a great philanthropist.

He and his wife, Wisconsinite Leonora Hall, built a hospital for tuberculosis sufferers and started the Citizens Aid Society with a $2 million endowment. “Through his labors hard conditions for the unfortunate were ameliorated to a large extent,” according to the 1923 biography published seven years after his death in 1918.

The Christians had two sons and two daughters, with George C. following his father into the grain business. Before his death, George H. commissioned construction of a house at 2303 Third Av. S. It has been the home of the Hennepin History Museum since 1957.

That’s where Marcia Cheney, one of many readers who suggest topics for this column, became fascinated with Christian’s story.

“He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page,” she said. “Unlike Washburn, Pillsbury or McKnight, Mr. Christian’s name doesn’t grace streets, schools or foundations. That seems odd to me given his contributions.”

The answer to his low profile might be found in that 1923 “History of Minneapolis, Gateway to the Northwest” (tinyurl.com/milling-innovator):

“He was a most modest man,” the story said, “never speaking of his benefactions and, in fact, maintaining the greatest reticence concerning them.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com