Born November 9, 1801 in New York state, Borden spent parts of his childhood in New York, Kentucky, and Indiana. When his father expressed a desire for more fertile lands than he owned in New York, the elder Borden made the long wagon trek to Indiana. In twenty, Gail had finished school and taught school for two years. He excelled at arithmetic and became as surveyor. He and his brother Tom took a flatboat loaded with supplies for settlers down the Mississippi to New Orleans in the summer of 1822, where he learned of the opening of Texas to Americans. He and Tom met Stephen F. Austin and learned more of the new frontier.
Tom joined Austin’s famed “300 families” and moved to Texas, but Gail’s health did not permit Gail’s following his brother. He remained in Mississippi, where he met 16-year-old Penelope Mercer, whom he married. In 1829, Gail packed up his family to follow Tom to Texas. Gail was granted a Spanish league (4428 acres) of land along the Colorado River. After spending some time farming and raising stock, Borden replaced his brother as official surveyor in Austin’s colony, headquartered at San Felipe. He then represented San Felipe at the Convention of 1833. It was at the convention for statehood that he met Sam Houston.
Tom joined Austin’s volunteers when war broke out, while Gail remained behind to assume Austin’s place and more importantly, to publish a newspaper that would rally support for the cause. With Joseph Baker and his brother Thomas as partners, Borden launched theTelegraph and Texas Register, a newspaper that would serve as the voice of the government of the Republic of Texas after the revolution. He wrote the history of Texas as it was being made. He printed the battle cry of the new republic: Remember the Alamo! When Santa Anna claimed Harrisburg, he burned Gail’s print shop and threw the press into the river.
President Sam Houston appointed Gail tax collector for the Port of Galveston and a year later he became Secretary and General Agent for the Galveston City Company. After serving as collector of customs at the port of Galveston in the early days of the Republic, Borden turned his energies to Galveston real estate. As agent for the Galveston City Company throughout the 1840s, he helped sell 2500 lots that developed the island into the largest city in Texas during the later part of the nineteenth century. He now had time to work on some ideas of his own.
One such idea was a condensed food product that would last for a long period of time. One evening at dinner, Gail and Penelope served condensed soup, condensed foods, fruits, and extracts. His guests firmly refused a second helping. After dinner, he treated his guests to a ride in a “land schooner.” The vehicle harnessed the wind and skittered across the beach. The women screamed for him to stop the vehicle. He applied the rudder the wrong way. The schooner splashed into the water, turned on its side, and skidded to a stop, dumping all the passengers in the water.
Gail and Penelope had six children, but in 1844, yellow fever swept Galveston. Gail’s four-year old son died in March and Penelope in September. He lost another son two years later, and Gail never quite recovered from the losses.
When gold was discovered in California, the party heading west asked Gail to make them a nutritious meat extract they could use along the trail. Gail based his product upon “pemmican,” an Indian product that was made from buffalo meat or venison. [The meat was dried in the sun, pounded into a fine powder and mixed into melted fat. The Indian concoction held a strong, unpleasant taste.] Gail’s “meat biscuit” held a more palatable taste. The gold seekers purchased 600 pounds of the product.
Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, the Arctic explorer, used the biscuits on an expedition. In 1851, the expedition was awarded the Great Council Medal at the International Exhibition in London. Tom and Gail built a meat biscuit plant in Galveston. Gail traveled to Washington in hopes of selling the product to the American war office, but the officials scoffed at the idea. Efforts to market the biscuits commercially also failed. The venture sent Gail Borden deeply into debt.
On board a ship returning from the 1851 London Exhibition, Gail witnessed several children dying when the two cows on board ship took sick. Recognizing the need for a better means to deliver fresh milk to the populace, Borden applied a process he had viewed among a Shakers community in New Lebanon, New York. The Shakers used a vacuum pan when they condensed sugar, fruit juice, and extracts. He experimented with the process until created a milk that lasted for three days before it began to turn sour. He applied for a patent, but it was denied when the Patent Commissioner said there was “nothing new” in the process.
Unfortunately, Gail was deep in debt and a long experimental stage for the milk product was be too expensive. Two friends stepped in to help: Robert McFarlane, discoverer of dyeing processes and editor of the Scientific American and Dr. John H. Curried, head of an important laboratory offered to test Gail’s claims. The patent was issued on 19 August 1856. Two months later the world’s first condensed milk factory opened in Wolcottville, Connecticut.
Again, the venture was a failure. New York City customers accustomed to the watered output of “swill milk dairies” – doctored with chalk for whiteness and molasses for “creaminess” – found Gail Borden’s pure condensed milk strange and rejected it. Gail dejectedly returned to Texas.
He reestablished a working relationship with his former partners. They set up business in an abandoned mill at Burrville, Connecticutt under the name “Gail Borden Jr. and Company.” Again, Gail’s timing was bad for 1857 was the year of the Panic. The Panic of 1857 was a financial panic in the United States caused by the declining international economy and over-expansion of the domestic economy.
Fortunately, Gail met Jeremiah Milbank, a wholesale grocer and banker. Milbank took an interest in Gail’s invention and in Gail’s honest character. They became partners. Milbank bought out Gail’s previous partners. Milbank and Borden opened the New York Condensed Milk Company in February 1858. The first samples were carried from house to house. Next, Borden’s Condensed Milk was ladled out from 40-quart cans pushed through New York streets on a hand-cart. When Gail began canning the milk it lasted indefinitely and could be shipped worldwide. Gail Borden “pasteurized” milk long before Louis Pasteur.
When Frank Leslie, editor of Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper led a campaign against the “swill milk,” Borden benefited. The Civil War brought more success for the company with an order for 500 pounds of condensed milk, but it brought personal sorrow. His son John Gail joined a New York regiment and his son Henry Lee a Texas Cavalry unit. Gail built several plants during the war. Demand ran ahead of production.
Many competitors set up their own business. One actually adopted the “Borden” trademark. Gail Borden was forced to create the “Eagle Brand” trademark. At the end of the Civil War, Gail relinquished his duties to John Gail, home from the war. Gail returned to Texas. There he and Henry Lee, who also survived the war, revived the meat biscuit factory in what is now Borden, Texas. He died on 11 January 1874. Gail Borden is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, north of Manhattan. The epitaph reads: “I tried and failed, I tried again and again, and and succeeded.”