This entry was significantly expanded in 2021 and slightly updated in 2022.
Springfield got the official word that Pillsbury Mills wanted to build a major flour processing plant locally on May 8, 1929.
Springfield had been in competition with cities in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan along with other communities in Illinois. The city’s advantages, according to the announcement, included a good available workforce, a location in the middle of a productive grain belt, and excellent rail connections.
Once Springfield won that contest, officials focused on two possible building sites: the one at 15th and Philips that was eventually chosen, and one somewhere on the south side – the exact spot was never reported. The north end got the nod mainly because the mineral rights to that property had never been sold, meaning a coal mine could never be dug under the plant. Soil samples also showed the ground was more suitable than on the south side, and, to top off the deal, what are now the Illinois and Midland railroad yards existed already, right next door.
Pillsbury’s 17-acre site was open ground at the time. While it’s not clear what the property had been used for all the time in the past, at some points in the 1800s, it was a “driving park,” a site for horse-and-buggy races. The Great National Horse Show and Equestrian Fair was held there in 1865.
Pillsbury officials said the new plant would cost $1 million to build and at first would employ 150 people Although Pillsbury imported about 40 workers from its Minneapolis headquarters – managers, chemists and head millers – most of the jobs went to central Illinois residents.
“At the outset the company will manufacture pancake flour, soft wheat flour and cake and bread flour,” the Illinois State Journal reported. “As the business grows, it is also proposed to erect a corn mill and to manufacture corn products and breakfast foods. … Seventy-five percent of the workers at the new plant will be from the city of Springfield, providing a livelihood for approximately three hundred families.”
Counting equipment and other addons, the plant ended up costing $1.25 million, the equivalent of about $18 million in 2021. Pillsbury sent its top officials, including two members of the Pillsbury family, to Springfield for the plant’s grand opening on May 3, 1930.
Pillsbury started increasing the mill’s capacity almost as soon as it went into operation. The company added a 2-million-bushel wheat storage elevator in 1934 and the following year added a fifth floor to the specialty building.
When the first addition was completed, the plant was using 11 million bushels of wheat every year. In 1936, the plant’s main product was Pillsbury’s Best flour. But it also manufactured Sno-Sheen cake flour, wheat cereal, Farina Health Bran, wheat bran, Daisy feed, and flours to make pancakes, buckwheat pancakes and doughnuts. Yellow and white corn meal and hominy grits were produced elsewhere but packaged here in Springfield.
The Springfield plant underwent three major expansions – in 1937 and in the late 1940s and late 1950s.
The 1937 project, which included a nine-story warehouse and grinding/sifting building, doubled Pillsbury’s grain storage capacity. The Journal reported:
The new warehouse has a capacity of 40,000 barrels of flour, making the plant’s total capacity 75,000 barrels. Twelve sifters will sift the flour. Each sifter is composed of 12 boxes, and each box contains 28 sleeves. The flour is sifted through silk cloth, of which there are 1,344 pieces.
The plant, with the new addition, can load 109 railroad cars simultaneously and has six unloading pits for wheat and can unload 60 cars a day.
With the addition of 100 men, the plant will now employ 420 men steadily, with 100 in reserve for the busy season.
During World War II, most of Pillsbury’s output went to the military, and expansion plans for Springfield were put on hold. As soon as the war was over, however, the company announced its next big project. This was the period when Pillsbury employment grew fastest, from about 500 workers shortly before the war up to 1,100 in 1950. Women also started to become more prominent among Pillsbury’s workforce, partly, no doubt, because so many men had gone to war.
Governor Adlai Stevenson was the featured speaker when Pillsbury held a grand opening for the 1949 project. The biggest part of that expansion involved construction of what was called the premix plant, but the company also introduced more automation and electronic controls.
“Flour was transferred pneumatically from the mills to the plant and stored in bins,” the State Journal-Register’s John Reynolds reported in 2011. “Sugar was brought in on special railroad cars, then carried pneumatically to its own storage bins, where it was held until needed.”
Partly because of all that automation, the expansion itself increased local employment by only about 30 workers.
The 1949 addition allowed Pillsbury Springfield to make premix products not for homemakers, but for bakeries, restaurants and institutions. Products Pillsbury manufactured in the new facility included mixes for doughnuts, sweet dough, cake bases, doughnut coating sugar, and institutional type mixes. This project also included new administrative offices and a front-door reception area.
The third big expansion in Springfield broke ground in 1958 and opened in 1960. The most obvious addition this time was a 10-story storage warehouse, but Pillsbury also modernized its milling facilities and further updated equipment for flour handling and packaging. Even before this round of construction, the Springfield plant was Pillsbury’s biggest, and the 1958 project made it bigger yet.
A total of 1,215 people worked at Pillsbury locally as of 1958. (According to some, total employment reached as high as 1,800 earlier in the 1950s.)
Pillsbury continued to invest in the Springfield plant into the 1960s. But some of that money went into automated equipment, which again cut the need for workers.
In announcing the new construction in 1958, Pillsbury president Paul Gerot declined to estimate how many people the plant would employ in the future. What he did say was that automation would reduce the number of “inefficient” jobs, but those might be offset by the creation of new jobs. The fact is, however, that three years later, Pillsbury’s local workforce had dropped about five percent. It was the start of a slow decline that got a lot faster later in the ‘60s.
When Pillsbury was operating, though, it was a good place to work. Aside from good wages and stable jobs, Pillsbury employees – known informally as “doughboys”– formed baseball, softball and bowling teams. Golf leagues also were very active.
It wasn’t always perfect, of course. Pillsbury workers, represented by American Federation of Grain Millers Local 24, went out on strike at least three times between 1950 and 1980. But employees had other memories too.
When Pillsbury celebrated its 50th anniversary in Springfield in 1979, State Journal-Register reporter Charlyn Fargo talked to Helen McCuen, who was then the company’s longest-serving local employee. She had gone to work for Pillsbury in 1933, starting out at 25 cents an hour.
“It was a lot harder back then,” McCuen said. “My hands used to be swollen at the end of each day from lifting and using them constantly. Now, it’s all automation. You still work hard, but you’re using different muscles.
“But I’ve liked all my jobs. It’s all so different now. Men used to have to lift the five and 10 pound sacks and use a hand cart on the 100 pound bags. Everything is palletized now, straight to the box car or truck.”
McCuen told Fargo women weren’t promoted at Pillsbury when she started there. She did get a pay raise during World War II, but that was because she was offered a sweeping job instead of working on the production line. Sweeping paid 3 or 4 cents an hour more than she was making, so she took it. “You didn’t worry about such things as promotions,” McCuen said. “You were darn glad to get a job.”
Men and women had different jobs in the plant anyway, McCuen said. “Men’s hands weren’t as nimble. They didn’t want our jobs. We all worked together.”
Lewis Morelock, a former president of Local 24, told an online presentation sponsored by Lincoln Library in February 2021 that, when he started at Pillsbury in the early 1970s, there were certain jobs women simply weren’t allowed to do. The company changed that prohibition a few years later, he said.
The area around Pillsbury had its own grocery store, an ice cream shop, a gas station, a barbershop, and numerous corner taverns, where third-shift employees could stop at the end of their workday, which was the first thing in the morning.
And, of course, there was The Mill restaurant and nightclub at 906 N. 15th St. It opened in 1933, a couple of years after Pillsbury was built, in what had been a grocery store operated by Herman and Louis Cohen. The Mill lasted almost 40 years.
In a 2005 interview with The State Journal-Register, Pillsbury Mills Neighborhood Association president John Keller remembered what it was like when the plant operated at the end of his street.
“The neighborhood always smelled like a fresh-baked loaf of bread or doughnuts,” he said. Sometimes Keller would fall asleep on his front porch listening to a machine wrap pallets with plastic. He grew so accustomed to the sound that “it was just like going to bed with your TV on.”
Rex Bangert, who worked at Pillsbury and lived nearby as a child, had a similar memory. Commenting during the 2021 library presentation, Bangert said he got used to the sound of trains moving in and out of Pillsbury and the nearby yards. “When we moved, I had trouble falling asleep, it was so quiet,” he said.
Bangert and another commenter at the presentation, Tim House, mentioned another benefit enjoyed by the families of Pillsbury workers: test-kitchen baked goods. “My father worked there,” House said. “We ate donuts for breakfast every day.”
Cutbacks in Springfield started in earnest in 1964, when Pillsbury closed one of its three local mills. About 100 people lost their jobs that time around. Then, in 1969, the company cancelled all planned spending on improvements and new machinery, saying the Springfield plant had had “high operating costs for the past several years.”
As late as 1979, however, the Springfield operation was the largest in Pillsbury’s $3 billion empire and had 550 employees. The way it worked had changed greatly over the years, according to the SJ-R’s 50th anniversary story:
There are many restrictions at the plant. Uniforms are required, but they are never to be worn anywhere outside the plant. They can’t even be taken home to launder. No jewelry of any kind can be worn, with the exception of a single wedding band. Visitors are cloaked in white lab coats, complete with hat or hair net, depending on length of hair. Employees with beards are required to cover them.
Human contact is restricted to the buttons on the computer. The exact amounts of flour, sugar, hot shortening, salt, milk and egg, soda and leavening are programmed into the computer for each product.
“’We can do 278 totally different products through this computer without ever touching the product,” John Davsko, a Pillsbury manager, told the newspaper.
In 1989, however, a British conglomerate, Grand Metropolitan PLC, bought the entire Pillsbury company. The new owners moved grocery product lines out of Springfield to Murfreesboro, Tennessee in 1990, and then in 1991 sold the facility to Cargill Inc. The two moves cut the already shrinking Springfield workforce in half, to fewer than 200 people. “It was pretty depressing at Cargill,” Morelock remembered.
When Cargill closed the plant for good in 2001, only about 45 people still worked there.
Ley Properties Management purchased the former Pillsbury complex — 20 buildings and warehouses and 30 grain silos — from Cargill in 2008 and began a salvage operation. The site was sold again six years later to a partnership, P Mills LLC, owned by Joseph Chernis III and his son, Joseph IV, and Kenneth Crain of Sherman.
P Mills began demolition, but the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency accused the partners of improper asbestos removal. Joseph Chernis IV eventually spent two years in federal prison on charges connected to the removal.
Update: The plant was still derelict in early 2022, when P Mills turned the 18-acre site over to a new nonprofit owner, a group named Moving Pillsbury Forward. Spokesman Chris Richmond, the son of a former Pillsbury employee, said Moving Pillsbury Forward intended to secure the site from vandals and scavengers and seek redevelopment grants. The ultimate goal was to convert the abandoned plant into a home for light industry, he said.
“We know once we get this property dealt with and removed, it gives the rest of the neighborhood a chance to actually buoy up and shine at a brighter level than it has,”Richmond said in announcing the property transfer.
Richmond estimated in October 2021 it would take $12 million and about five years to clear the site for redevelopment.
One lasting piece of the Pillsbury image originated with a Springfield employee, according to Morelock, a 20-year employee who served for a while as president of Local 24.
“Did you know that the original Pillsbury Doughboy shown in their commercials was first introduced in a suggestion box by a member of the union there at the Springfield plant?” Morelock wrote in an email to SangamonLink. “It took off and became the national symbol for the brand.”
Pillsbury claims the Doughboy idea came from its advertising agency in 1965. For more on this controversy, see SangamonLink’s entry on Pillsbury ‘Doughboy’ origin debate. Also see Chris Richmond’s comment below.
Hat tips: To former Pillsbury employees Rex Bangert, Tim House and especially Lew Morelock for their participation in Lincoln Library’s presentation on Pillsbury in February 2021. Their comments added greatly to this entry.
See also: The Pillsbury Reunion Project continues to add to Pillsbury’s history in Springfield. Some of its findings are included in the comments below.
More information and photos: Springfield Business: A Pictorial History, Edward Russo, Melinda Garvert and Curtis Mann, 1998. The 2021 Lincoln Library presentation was recorded and is or will be available through the library.
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