John S. Pillsbury Biography

In 1855 a Yankee merchant toured the western frontier and chose St. Anthony (now part of Minneapolis) as his home. The decision was fortunate, both for John Pillsbury and for the state to which he brought a combination of business and political savvy and benevolent concern for others. In forty-six years as a Minnesotan, Pillsbury helped establish the firm that became the world’s largest flour-milling business, served three times as governor, and contributed—generously and often anonymously—to numerous causes he deemed worthy.

Primarily an entrepreneur, Pillsbury pursued commercial enterprises in hardware, real estate, and lumber before founding, with his family, C.A. Pillsbury and Company. Meanwhile Republican luminaries, impressed by his industry and integrity, urged him to enter politics, first as a city council member and later as a state senator. In the latter role, he engineered the financial salvation of the University of Minnesota by streamlining its administration and retiring its debts. This “Father of the University,” who had completed no more than a common-school education, became president of the board of regents and a lifelong benefactor of the institution he had saved from bankruptcy.

As Minnesota’s eighth governor, Pillsbury was a practical and compassionate administrator, finally resolving a sensitive railroad bond issue and increasing aid to those ravaged by the grasshopper plague. He also encouraged legislators to create the office of public examiner to detect and purge corruption in public office.

Pillsbury devoted his final twenty years to commercial and civic projects. His fortune was immense, as were his gifts to various charities and, especially, to the University of Minnesota. Corporate generosity to cultural and educational institutions, which Pillsbury practiced and encouraged, has since become a Minnesota tradition.