The Grand Austin Flour Sack: An Idea Whose Time May Come Again!

For me, this summer’s reading included Mark Twain’s Roughing It, a compelling account of California and Nevada during the time of the Civil War by a man who did not fight. Legend has it that young Sam Clemens, after a brief experience with his local militia, decided that leaving the geographic area of battle was the better part of valor. I might disagree with him about his reasons, but I cannot quarrel with the results.

Chapter 45 of Roughing It tells a story about a man who sold and resold a bag of flour to raise money for the U. S. Sanitary Commission, ultimately raising $150,000 “in greenbacks” for the cause. With Twain, there is a very fine line–almost invisible at times–between truth and something else. I decided to find out what this was all about, and here are my results. Be amazed–be very amazed!

Inspired by the British Sanitary Commission of the Crimean War, the U. S. Sanitary Commission was formed by such Northern illuminati as Frederick Law Olmstead, Henry Whitney Bellows, and Samuel Howe. It was a private relief agency created to support sick and wounded soldiers of the Union Army. On June 18, 1861, federal legislation legitimized its existence.

As a non-governmental agency, the USSC was required to raise its own funds, and it did so in an amazing number of ways. Most people who have read anything about the American Civil War have heard of the Sanitary Fairs, held in almost every large northern city, which offered donated goods and services to be sold or auctioned off to raise money and help the efforts of the USSC in aiding the soldiers.

By the end of the Civil War, $25 million dollars had been raised to support nursing, extended-care hospitals and hospital ships, soup kitchens, field hospitals, lodges and rests for travelling soldiers. The USSC worked with Union veterans after the war to secure their bounties, back pay, and apply for pensions, until it was finally disbanded in May 1866.

But back to the Grand Austin Flour Sack, and what I hope is a true account of its national journey. The western states and territories were geographically removed from the sites of the battles in the East and Midwest, but that did not stop them from sending both men and money to the Union cause. Roused by the news that San Francisco had sent a very large sum of money to the USSC early in the war, the haphazard silver town of Virginia City, Nevada, was not about to be outdone. In fact, it was not–especially when it came to the Grand Austin Flour Sack.

The small town of Austin, Nevada, had held a race for mayor. The two leading candidates decided that the loser should be publically presented with a fifty-pound bag of flour by the winner, and should be required to carry the bag of flour through the town.

It is not easily remembered who won the election (Dr. H. S. Herrick), but Reuel Colt Gridley was the loser. He carried the sack of flour, now decorated with Union flags, on his shoulder for a mile or so, “while the town band marched behind him playing patriotic ditties,” including the national anthem. He and the flour sack were also followed by a large group of raucous, drunken miners.

As the colorful procession ended its tramp through Austin at the Bank Exchange Saloon, Gridley claimed that he did not need the flour and asked what he should do with it. Someone suggested that he auction it off to raise money for the Union Sanitary Fund. After auctioning off the sack of flour to the highest bidder for two hundred and fifty dollars, Gridley inquired as to where he should deliver the flour. The bidders, having had so much fun the first time, shouted that there was no need to deliver the flour; it should be auctioned it off again. According to Twain, the flour sack was auctioned off until the evening sun set. It had been sold to three hundred different people and had raised over eight thousand dollars in gold.

The news came to Virginia City, and a telegram went back: “Fetch along your flour sack!” The idea became so popular that Gridley and his fund-raising scheme went on to other towns in Nevada such as Gold Hill, Silver City, Dayton and Carson City. The flour sack itself was painted and beribboned. Gridley and his sack of flour rode into town in carriages, with bands playing and politicians looking for an opportunity to speak. The auctions were impromptu celebrations for the Mother Lode mining communities, large and small alike.

Mr. Gridley continued on to towns in California and he eventually traveled back East, continuing to re-sell the bag of flour. Finally, he sold it at the Great Sanitary Fair in St. Louis. Upon selling the sack for the last time, it is said that Gridley asked that the flour be used to make mini cakes to be sold for the final proceeds.

When the famous flour sack ended its journey, it was estimated that it had raised at least one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. According to Mr. Twain:

This is probably the only instance on record where common family flour brought three thousand dollars a pound in the public market.

Gridley had, unfortunately, chosen to pay the expenses for his travels on behalf of the USSC himself. Fifteen thousand miles later, he returned home to Austin, only to find that the “mines had played out.” His store had been shut down, and Gridley now found himself with very little money left for the support of himself and his family. He finally ended up in Stockton, California. It was here that he passed away, penniless, buried in a grave marked only with a simple wooden cross.

After hearing about Gridley’s death, Union veterans sold one pound sacks of flour in order to raise money to erect a statue in memory of Gridley. A beautiful monument, topped with a statue of Reuer Gridley, now marks his Stockton gravesite.

The original flour sack is in the archives of the Nevada State Museum, in Sparks, Nevada. It was initially available for loan, but the process became cumbersome, and eventually the sack ceased to be available for exhibit. The town of Austin has begun a campaign to raise funds so that the sack might be returned to Gridley’s home, now a museum.

In my researching, I found a copy of a telegram regarding the use of the Gridley Flour Sack during World War I. It is from Josephine Gridley Wood to Elizabeth Weir. It is dated December 6, 1917:


I have no idea if the flour sack was ever used during World War I, but I hope so. I am certain there are causes today for which the Grand Austin Flour Sack could be useful. Perhaps Battlefield Restoration . . .
Further Reading:
Mark Twain. Roughing It. University of California Press, 1993.

2 Responses to The Grand Austin Flour Sack: An Idea Whose Time May Come Again!

  1. Where is the flour sack today?

    This is a very interesting article. I enjoyed reading it very much. 🙂

  2. the flour sack is at the Nevada Historical Society, nevada’s oldest cultural institution in Reno, Nevada.

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