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The Little Sack of Flour That Won the West

On a hot, dusty day in 1864 in the booming Nevada mining town of Gold Hill, the Civil War arrived in rare form—as an auction for a simple sack of flour. The entire population cheered with delight at the first bid: “The Yellow Jacket silver mining company offers a thousand dollars, coin!” yelled Gen. John B. Winters, commander-in-chief of the state militia and superintendent of the legendary business at nearby Virginia City.

What had prompted Winters to make such a generous offer? In fact, he was not alone. The flour sack traveled, first in the west, then to the East and finally St. Louis, bringing together entire communities, including pro-Confederate Democrats and pro-Union Republicans bitterly divided on the war.

The man responsible for the sack craze was R.C. Gridley, a merchant who became an unlikely fundraiser for needy Civil War soldiers and sailors.

Carte de visite by George H. Johnson of San Francisco, Calif. Author’s Collection.
Carte de visite by George H. Johnson of San Francisco, Calif. Author’s Collection.

Reuel Colt Gridley was born in Missouri on Jan. 23, 1829. The Gridleys lived in Hannibal, near the Clemens family. Young Gridley attended school with one of the Clemens boys, Samuel, who later attained fame under the pseudonym Mark Twain. At age 18, Gridley volunteered in the U.S. Army and was stationed at Taos, in the future state of New Mexico, during the Mexican War. He returned to Hannibal after his discharge, married Susan Snider, and became a carpenter.

The California goldfields drew Gridley back to the west. He took the Panama overland route to California in 1852. His wife and a young son, Amos, joined him in 1854. They surfaced in the mid 1850s in Kimshew Township, on the Feather River in Northern California’s Butte County. Gridley tried his hand at several occupations, including journalist and banker. He did not do well financially—a court notice in an 1858 issue of The Daily Butte Record described him as “an insolvent debtor” and called for his creditors to notify the court of their claims.

By 1860, Gridley’s fortunes had changed. According to the federal census, the family, which had now grown to include a daughter, Clara, had moved into the black. About this time, Gridley operated a mail express route from Oroville to Honey Lake, Calif., where it connected with a Wells Fargo & Company route.

Gridley and his family followed the mining boom to Nevada in 1862. A year later, Gridley became a senior partner in the Gridley, Hobart, & Jacobs General Store in Austin, located in the Reese River Mining District. This and other Nevada mining districts were growing rapidly as the Union sought new sources of gold and silver to help fund its war efforts.

In 1864, a lost bet on a local election catapulted Gridley from relative obscurity into the national spotlight.

The election, for Austin’s first mayor, pitted pro-Confederate Democrat David Buel against pro-Union Republican Charles Holbrook. Gridley supported the Democrat, and in an oft-repeated scenario made a bet with a Republican friend—in this case, Dr. Henry Herrick. They wagered that if Buel lost the race, Gridley would march down Main Street with a 50-pound sack of flour on his shoulder while a brass band played ‘Old John Brown.’

“A voice said: ‘Sell it to the highest bidder, for the benefit of the Sanitary fund.’”

Buel lost. The new pro-Union Republican mayor, Charles Holbrook, received the honor of selecting a sack of flour from Gridley’s store. The whole town turned out and there was much partying and drinking as Gridley made good on the wager.

Gridley’s boyhood pal, reporter Sam Clemens, detailed the story in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. He recounted the story in his 1872 classic, Roughing It.

According to Clemens, after Gridley finished, “he said he did not need the flour, and asked what the people thought he had better do with it. A voice said: ‘Sell it to the highest bidder, for the benefit of the Sanitary fund.’”

The Sanitary fund referred to the St. Louis-based Western Sanitary Commission, the rival organization of the U.S. Sanitary Commission headquartered in Washington, D.C. Both sought to raise funds, initially to support field hospitals and provide supplies needed to make camps as clean and healthy as possible, and later to help wounded and returning Union soldiers.

Clemens added, “The suggestion was greeted with a round of applause, and Gridley mounted a dry-goods box and assumed the role of auctioneer. The bids went higher and higher, as the sympathies of the pioneers awoke and expanded, till at last the sack was knocked down to a mill man at two hundred and fifty dollars, and his check taken. He was asked where he would have the flour delivered, and he said: ‘Nowhere—sell it again.’”

Clemens continued, “Now the cheers went up royally, and the multitude were fairly in the spirit of the thing. So, Gridley stood there and shouted and perspired till the sun went down; and when the crowd dispersed, he had sold the sack to three hundred different people and had taken in eight thousand dollars in gold. And still the flour sack was in his possession.”

“The Great Flour Sack Procession” from Mark Twain’s Roughing It.

“The Great Flour Sack Procession” from Mark Twain’s Roughing It.

As word of the auction and substantial funds generated at Austin for the Sanitary Commission spread to other mining towns, Gridley’s sack of flour became a metaphor for the efforts to support the Union troops. Virginia City asked Gridley to bring his sack to generate donations. After a poor initial showing of less than $500 at Virginia City, the sack moved on to Gold Hill with dramatically different results. Reporter Clemens traveled with the sack and noted, “we descended into Gold Hill with drums beating and colors flying and enveloped in imposing clouds of dust. The whole population—men, women and children, Chinamen and Indians, were massed in the main street, all the flags in town were at the mast head, and the blare of the bands was drowned in cheers. Gridley stood up and asked who would make the first bid for the National Sanitary Flour Sack. It was here that Gen. Winters yelled his opening bid of  “a thousand dollars, coin!”

Little Gold Hill soon raised more than $6,000. Shamed by its smaller neighbor, Virginia City asked Gridley to bring the flour sack back as competition between the mining towns, and donations began to build. This time, on its second trip to Virginia City, auctioneers Thomas Fitch and Charles De Long helped the sack garner almost $13,000 ($250,000 today) in cash and gold, along with some stocks and a shotgun that were sold, with proceeds added to the cause. Soon, Gridley’s famous sack had been embellished with the label “Austin Sanitary Flour.”

Soon, politicians and auctioneers vied for the right to preside over local events in other Nevada towns. Donations to the Sanitary Commission poured in as towns and mining companies joined the fundraising efforts. Silver City raised more than $1,500. Dayton, Nevada, almost $1,900.

After raising another $30,000 in Nevada, Gridley took his now famous sack of flour to California. Clemens noted “This wonderful sack of flour may be expected before long in San Francisco, when the length of the purses and the openness of the hearts of our citizens will be tried by it.”

Gridley had only minor success in San Francisco, raising only about $2,800. Still, the sack had made him a celebrity. California photographer George H. Johnson produced several cartes de visite of Gridley, some with solicitation for donations to the Sanitary Fund on the verso, along with the photographer’s credit.

After San Francisco, Gridley carried his famous sack to Sacramento, where it shamed its sister city by raising over $10,000. He continued east, raising money along the way for the Sanitary Commission. When Gridley arrived in St. Louis, the auction at the Merchant’s Exchange lasted half an hour and generated about $200 a minute, realizing an additional $6,000.

By January 1865, Harper’s Weekly noted “No Lady’s album in Nevada or California is considered complete without a photograph of Gridley and his sack of flour.”

All in all, Gridley raised in excess of $250,000, or about $4 million in today’s funds, to support Union troops.

This illustration, based on the carte de visite by George H. Johnson, appeared in the Jan. 21, 1865, issue of Harper’s Weekly.
This illustration, based on the carte de visite by George H. Johnson, appeared in the Jan. 21, 1865, issue of Harper’s Weekly.

The odyssey of the little sack of flour changed hearts and minds. According to A History of the State of Nevada, Gridley switched from “a rabid secessionist to an ardent unionist.” The book also noted, “The sack of flour brought about a change of feeling in Nevada. Men realized that they could feel differently about the war and still be friends.”

Gridley paid for much, if not all of the travel costs as he toured with the little sack, and made several donations of his own, to his financial detriment. As interest in his sack of flour diminished after the end of the Civil War, he returned to Austin, arriving at the end of the mining boom. Suffering from ill health and a dramatic decline in business at the general store, he left town with his family in 1868 and returned to Stockton, Ca., settling near his sister.

Gridley died a pauper on Nov. 24, 1870. He was 41.

His passing made national news. The Ann Arbor, Mich., Peninsula Courier noted: “The nation will listen to the grand history of that sack of flour with gratitude and gladness. His death will only be remembered in sorrow.”

The town of Austin adopted a coat of arms that incorporated an image of the famous sack.

Gridley’s remains rest in the Stockton’s Rural Cemetery, where the Rawlins Post No. 23 of the Grand Army of the Republic and the citizens of Stockton raised funds for a monument topped with a sculpture of Gridley based on a photograph. It was unveiled in 1887.

Cartes de visite of Gridley and his sack of flour live on in many photography collections.

The Gridley, Hobart, & Jacobs General Store building in Austin is listed as a National Historic Place. The famous sack of flour with the inscribed motto “SANITARY FUND $5,000” was given to the Nevada Historical Society on Oct. 13, 1914, on the 50th anniversary of Nevada’s admission to statehood. It is now on display at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno.

References: Manuscripts of Thomas Boslooper, PhD; Daily Butte Record (Oroville, Calif.), August 13, 1858; Twain, Roughing It; Territorial Enterprise (Virginia City, Nev.), May 18, 1864, San Francisco Bulletin, May 20, 1864; Harper’s Weekly, Jan. 21, 1865; Wren, ed., A History of the State of Nevada: Its Resources and People; Peninsula Courier (Ann Arbor, Mich.), Aug. 25, 1871; Los Angeles Herald, Sept. 10, 1887.

Jeremy Rowe has collected, researched and written about historic photographs ranging from daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes to cartes de visite, cabinet cards, mounted photographs and real photo postcards for more than 30 years. He has served on the Boards of the Daguerreian Society, Ephemera Society of America, and National Stereoscopic Association, and manages vintagephoto.com.

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