Ella Pillsbury Crosby, matriarch of the Pillsbury family, a pioneer in Minnesota business and government, died Jan. 8 at her home in Wayzata. She was 96.

Her grandfather, Charles A. Pillsbury, was the founder of C.A. Pillsbury and Co., one of the great milling enterprises on the Mississippi River in the 1870s. Her great-uncle was John S. Pillsbury, a former governor of Minnesota instrumental in the founding of the University of Minnesota.

Crosby, who was active in various civic organizations, may be best known for her decades of volunteer leadership and fundraising for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Among her most memorable contributions: She donated the two Chinese lions guarding the institute's 24th Street entrance.

But to her children, Crosby is remembered as the gracious matriarch of her large family, whose members are among the last direct Pillsbury descendants still in Minnesota.

"She led a full life," said her brother George Pillsbury of Wayzata, a former Pillsbury Co. executive and state senator. "She always did her best, whether it be on the tennis court or skiing or involved with something like the art institute. She was always interested in art and culture."

Crosby also was interested in retaining family traditions. After her mother died in 1991, she kept alive family customs such as the Christmas party featuring Virginia-reel dances and Easter waffle breakfasts, said son Tom Crosby, Jr.

"She was very much the matriarch," said Crosby, mayor of Medina.

Crosby was active in the Lake Minnetonka Garden Club, the Junior League and Stevens Square, then a home for elderly women.

Crosby was proud of her family's legacy, said her son. "I think she instilled in her children a sense of responsibility," he said, "that we are longtime members of this community and we have the opportunity to serve."

Crosby, one of six children of John and Eleanor Pillsbury, grew up in a stately mansion a block from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, during an era when the neighborhood was home to wealthy business leaders. Crosby studied at Northrop Collegiate School for Girls in Minneapolis, graduated from Foxcroft School in Virginia, and attended Vassar College. She married Thomas Manville Crosby, whose grandfather John Crosby was a partner in another historic Minneapolis milling company -- the Washburn Crosby Co. Her husband was a General Mills executive who later was a founder of what is known as Northwest Equity Partners.

Tom, who died in 1988, and Ella raised six children: Tom Crosby Jr., David Crosby, Eleanor Winston, Mary Dolan, Lucy Mitchell and Robert Crosby. In addition to her children and her brother George, she is survived by 20 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.

Crosby recently published an autobiography for her family. In it, she shared a century of photographs and memories.

"When I look back on all the fun I have had and the places I have traveled, the most rewarding part was that I shared these times with my family and good friends," Crosby wrote. "I am glad to see that my children grew up with this same sense of responsibility and purpose that is larger than any single individual."

Services will be held at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1200 Marquette Av., Minneapolis.

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-73-4511