July 29, 2010

Celebrating 175 years: Mysterious Pilgrim Mills, Inc.

 Old Horlick's elevators used by Pilgrim Mills, Inc. All photos from Oak Clearing Farm and Museum.

By Gerald L. Karwowski, racinehistory.com
For years a number of brightly colored lithograph tin containers with the product name Pilgrim Minute Oats were turning up in antiques stores and flea markets all over the Racine, Wisconsin area. The unique Racine cans had graphics of a classic American Pilgrim and directions in six languages.

A brief search of city directories turns up a Pilgrim Mills, Inc. in 1957 at the Horlick’s Malted Milk plant at 2230 Northwestern Avenue. Then one night while surfing the Internet I typed in Pilgrim Oats and with some research solved a mystery that had been in the back of my mind for many years and here’s what I ended with.

In the 1950s a young entrepreneur named George Pellegrin became involved in farming and the production of grains and certified seeds. He used the seed profits to buy a grain processing plant and storage elevators at the old Horlick’s Malted Milk plant in Racine and named it Pell-Bari Farms (dealers in wholesale seeds). Soon after the name was changed to Pilgrim Mills and they began to manufacture and market oatmeal at retail prices as Pilgrim Minute Oats. ("Pellegrin" in French means "pilgrim" -- hence the name George Pellegrin chose for his company and oatmeal.)

The effort became a disaster and Pellegrin realized that he had been naïve to attempt to compete with a giant like Quaker Oats, which controlled the shelf space in the retail market place. Pellegrin had counted on export sales, which is the reason the containers have cooking directions in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese and Arabic. He soon found the international regulations, duties and currency exchange were eating up all his profits.

Allen's Merchandising, 1959
Pellegrin’s only redeeming experience from the failed oatmeal business was his wife Dorothy’s idea about what to do with a train box car load of unused, brightly painted oatmeal cans and invented a game called "Holi Boli," which used 10 of the metal containers held together in a 16” x 17” cardboard box and a few red and white Ping-Pong balls.

According to Pellegrin family lore, George dealt directly with Donald Allen, president of Allen’s Merchandising and got him to buy the entire lot of games by playing to his weakness: gambling. George knew that Allen loved to wager, so he got down on the floor with him and played Holi Boli for cash bets. Allen got hooked — and placed an order for the entire lot of 10,000 games!

Allen’s Merchandising was an early membership-only discount retailer and distributor. You had to have a membership card to be admitted. They were located in the front warehouse where the Pell Bari Farms and Pilgrim Mills offices were located. The production line for packaging Pilgrim Oats was also housed in that building before Allen’s rented it.

The Pellegrins had two sons in junior high school and their first real jobs in the family business was assembling the Holi Boli games. They also had to open thousands of unsold prepackaged cardboard containers of oatmeal and put the contents into 100 pound sacks for resale overseas. After the oatmeal fiasco Pellegrin continued to operate the facility as a commercial grain elevator.

In 1958 Pellegrin hired Robert Gorman to operate the business and by 1960 sold the controlling interest of business to Gorman and it was re-named Racine Grain Co.. (Pellegrin went on to a successful career in publishing as president of the Fort Atkinson-based Johnson Hill Press, publisher of agricultural trade journals.)

Today the main office of Racine Grain Co. is located at 1313 South Colony Avenue, Union Grove, Wisconsin. It is still a family-owned business and has grown to be one of the largest grain handlers in southeast Wisconsin. Robert and Joyce Gorman were the first generation and their son and daughter-in-law, Chris and Sue Gorman continue the business.

Racine Grain Co. operates three elevators; two in the Union Grove area and the original site at the Old Horlick’s complex in Racine.