Gail Borden was not a woman despite the spelling of his first name. He never lived in Elgin, and he never donated funds for the library which bears his name. How his name became attached to our library is as fascinating and complex as the man himself.
Born in New York in 1801, Borden found his way to the province of Texas as a young man where he farmed and published a newspaper. His newspaper supported the Texas independence movement and he became associated with such historic figures as Stephen Austin and Sam Houston.
After struggling with various other enterprises in Texas and New York, Gail Borden had suffered the death of his wife and was near financial ruin. Finally, at the age of 55, after years of experimentation, Borden was a awarded a patent for condensed milk.
Although the patent was awarded in 1856, it was not until 1861 that financing was secured and the first plant was operational. Condensed milk, initially sold from handcarts in New York City, became an immediate success in urban areas where fresh milk was difficult to distribute and store.
As the company began to prosper, Borden's life took another turn; he met and married Eunice Church, a widow with two sons. The Church family had once lived in Elgin, Illinois, prior to the death of Hiram Church, an early settler in this area.
When his new wife described the Fox Valley area to Borden, it seemed the ideal location for expansion of his company to the West, and in 1865 the Elgin Milk Condensing Company was established. Borden visited often but never lived in Elgin. He bought a home on Division Street in 1873, but failing health led him back to Texas, where he died in 1874.
By 1892, the citizens of Elgin were desperately seeking a building for the library which had barely survived for years in rented rooms in the downtown area. Samuel and Alfred Church, residents of Elgin and stepsons of Gail Borden, offered to purchase and donate the Scofield mansion at 50 N. Spring Street for this purpose. All they asked was that the library "be forever and always known and called the Gail Borden Public Library."
Today we still bear, with great pride, this name which has become synonymous with our local library. This is how we acquired our name, and this is why so many people use phrases that would be incomprehensible outside the Elgin area, such as: "I'm taking the kids to Gail Borden today."
(article first appeared in the Fall 1991 library newsletter)
For More Information About Gail Borden:
Gail Borden: Dairyman to a Nation.
Frantz, Joe Bertram.
University of Oklahoma Press, 1951.
Focuses on the history of Borden's family and business. Illustrated with drawings and photographs.
Milk, Meat Biscuits, and the Terraqueous Machine: The Story of Gail Borden.
Wade, Mary Dodson.
Eakin Press, 1987.
Showcases Borden as an inventor.
The Story of Gail Borden: The Birth of an Industry.
Kienzle, George J.
Privately Printed, 1947.
Focuses primarily on Borden's business and professional life. Line drawings.
Texas Yankee: The Story of Gail Borden.
Baker, Nina Brown.
Focuses on Borden's growing-up years.
The Canning Clan: A Pageant of Pioneering Americans.
May, Earl Chapin.