This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
Decades before Gail Borden made milk safe for America, the New York native began collecting customs duties at the port of Galveston for the Texas Republic on Jun. 24, 1837.
It was in 1829 that Gail Borden Jr. followed his brother Tom to the promised land on the Brazos, the flourishing colony founded by Stephen F. Austin. The empressario put him to work surveying the vast grant, and the conscientious newcomer quickly earned his employer’s trust and the respect of his neighbors.
During Austin’s frequent trips to Mexico, Borden acted as his capable and level-headed stand-in. His influence in the colony gradually grew as did a passionate belief in the vision of an independent Texas.
With the clouds of revolt boiling on the horizon, Gail and Tom Borden recognized the need for a newspaper published by and for Texans. The inaugural issue of The Telegraph and Texas Register rolled off a second-hand press in October 1835. Though not the first paper printed in the northernmost province, nine others had come and gone since 1813, The Telegraph was the first to last longer than two years.
The inexperienced editor compensated for his shortcomings as a writer with fiery enthusiasm. Gail’s rousing advocacy of Lone Star separatism caused many to call him the “Tom Paine of the Texas Revolution.”
When Santa Anna marched into Harrisburg on Apr. 15, 1836 in hot pursuit of the runaway rebel government, the town was deserted except for three printers bravely cranking out the latest edition of The Telegraph. As per the dictator’s decree, the press was dumped into Buffalo Bayou.
Four historic months later, the Bordens resumed publication at Columbia, temporary capital of the liberated land. Gail Borden admired Sam Houston but felt honor-bound to support Austin for the presidency. Realizing the popular Hero of San Jacinto was a shoo-in, he confided in a letter to Austin two weeks before the election, “I wish to tell you that from the sign of the times you can not be elected.”
The dismal prophecy hit the political nail right on the head. Houston out-polled the founding father of Texas by a ten-to-one margin, and a stunned Austin finished a humiliating third.
The Borden brothers decided to sell The Telegraph in 1837. Tom was disconsolate over the death of his wife, and Gail, plagued by poor health, did not want to make a career out of journalism.
Houston did not hold Gail Borden’s political opposition against him and in May 1837 nominated the out-of-work publisher as collector of customs. With the infant regime flat broke, the revenue-gathering post was critically important. The senate agreed with the choice and confirmed him with only a single dissenting vote.
Toiling night and day, Borden surpassed all expectations. During 1838 he personally accounted for a third of the Republic’s income by passing the plate at the port. But incoming President Mirabeau Lamar ignored his remarkable record and replaced him with his own appointee.
When Houston returned to office three years later, so did Borden. His encore was marred, however, by scandal and recriminations.
Angered by personal debts long unpaid by the Republic, Borden foolishly made up the difference out of government funds in his care. Tempers flared, and he resigned after an ugly falling-out with Houston.
Borden stayed in Galveston, where he focused on a lifelong fascination with inventions. Impractical experiments with a wind-powered land schooner gave way to a meat biscuit composed of beef concentrate and flour. An excited Border pictured fame and fortune, but years of expensive promotion brought only disappointment and poverty.
Fifty-six years old and practically penniless, he struck it rich at last with condensed milk. Starting with a small New England plant, the Civil War created an insatiable demand which ensured success far beyond the inventor’s wildest dreams.
Borden remained in the North for the duration of the conflict, more for business than political reasons. But the war split his family with one son fighting for the gray and another for the blue.
When peace finally came, Borden enjoyed extraordinary wealth and the satisfaction of accomplishment after so many years of adversity. He was often seen strolling through the slums of New York City handing out coins to derelicts and urchins.
Although he spent little time in Texas in his twilight years, Gail Borden considered the Lone Star State his home and died here in 1874 at the Colorado County community he had founded. His epitaph expressed the simple philosophy of the persistent pioneer whose name was known in every American household: “I tried and failed. I tried again and again, and succeeded.”
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