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Wilton, N.D., founder had hand in politics

The man who founded Wilton, N.D., was a U.S. senator, part owner of the world's largest flour mill, a founder of the Minneapolis Tribune, president of the third-largest railroad in North Dakota and owner of the mine near Wilton that was the large...

W. Washburn

The man who founded Wilton, N.D., was a U.S. senator, part owner of the world's largest flour mill, a founder of the Minneapolis Tribune, president of the third-largest railroad in North Dakota and owner of the mine near Wilton that was the largest lignite mine in the world.

William Washburn entered the record books in 1879 when he became the fourth brother to be elected to the U.S. Congress. What made this feat even more remarkable was that each brother represented a different state: Israel Jr. in Maine, Elihu in Illinois, Cadwaller in Wisconsin and William in Minnesota.

William Drew Washburn, the youngest of 11 children, was born Jan. 14, 1831, to Israel and Martha Benjamin Washburn in Livermore, Maine.

He attended schools in the area and in fall 1850 enrolled at Bowdoin College in Maine. He received a bachelor's degree in 1854 and studied law with his brother Israel Jr. He also was a clerk in the U.S. House while his three older brothers were members of Congress.

After being admitted to the bar, Washburn traveled on May 1, 1857, to St. Anthony Falls in Minnesota Territory, where his brother Cadwaller had purchased water power rights at the falls one year earlier.


Cadwaller helped organize the Minneapolis Mills Co., a lumber mill, and Washburn was hired as the secretary and agent to run the company. Washburn also purchased mills in Lincoln and Anoka and began converting them to make flour. In 1858, he was elected to the Minnesota territorial legislature.

President Lincoln appointed Washburn as surveyor-general of Minnesota in 1861. He ran for U.S. Congress in 1864, but lost to Ignatius Donnelly. Washburn helped start the Minneapolis Tribune in 1867 and was elected to the state Legislature in 1870.

In 1877, after serving three two-year terms, he merged Minnesota Mills with a company owned by his brother-in-law John Crosby to form Washburn-Crosby Co., a large flour-milling corporation. The next year, he established the W.D. Washburn Co. for milling flour and was elected to Congress, defeating Donnelly.

Because large flour mills relied on wheat supplies from Dakota Territory and a reliable outlet to the Great Lakes for shipping flour, Washburn banded with 12 other millers to form a railroad. These men met in Madison, Wis., on Sept. 29, 1883, and formed the Minneapolis and Pacific Railroad, with Washburn serving as president.

Construction began in April 1886. Eight months later, the railroad reached Lidgerwood in what is now southeastern North Dakota. Here, the railroad ran out of money. On June 11, 1888, it consolidated to form the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad. It reached Valley City in 1891 and entered Harvey in 1892. By August 1902, it entered Bismarck.

Politics remained a passion for Washburn. After serving three sessions in the U.S. House, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1888. With Washburn in Washington, D.C., he was ousted from management, but the name of the company remained Washburn-Crosby.

In 1889, in retaliation, Washburn merged his W.D. Washburn Co. with one owned by Charles Pillsbury. With the financing of British investors, they built it into the largest mill in the world, capable of turning out 17,500 barrels of flour a day.

With his railroad pushing into North Dakota and the good name of his family - the town of Washburn was named after his brother Cadwaller - Washburn turned his attention to this new state. In February 1898, he purchased more than 100,000 acres in northern Burleigh and southwestern McLean counties.


He was attracted by the rich deposits of lignite that lied just beneath the surface. To manage the Washburn Land Co., he brought in Walter P. Macomber, who had worked for Washburn at his Anoka mill since 1873.

To help attract settlers to the region, Washburn and Macomber platted a town site - Wilton - that straddled Burleigh and McLean counties. Washburn then organized the Bismarck, Washburn and Fort Buford Railroad Co. that would run through Wilton. The name of the company was later changed to the Bismarck, Washburn and Great Falls Railroad.

In 1899, Washburn constructed a grain elevator and depot in Wilton. In 1900, he organized the Washburn Lignite Coal Co. and brought in his son, Edwin, as mine manager. By September, Washburn had two crews hauling out 50 tons of lignite a day.

The mining operation grew rapidly. By the end of 1900, it produced 200 tons of lignite a day.

Most of the coal went to Bismarck and Fargo, but orders began coming in from Minneapolis and South Dakota. By 1903, the mine produced 1,000 tons a day, and it soon became the largest lignite mine in the world. In 1904, he sold his railroad to the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad.

Washburn returned to Minnesota and died on July 29, 1912.

In 1928, the Washburn Lignite Coal Co. was purchased by the Otter Tail Power Co. and the Washburn-Crosby flour milling company changed its name to General Mills. In 1935, the Pillsbury-Washburn Co. became Pillsbury. In 2000, General Mills purchased Pillsbury.

"Did You Know That" is a Sunday column that focuses on interesting people, places and events that had an impact on North Dakota, or even the country. It is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net . Wilton, N.D., founder had hand in politics Curtis Eriksmoen 20071216

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