General Mills traces its history to the Minneapolis Milling Company, which was incorporated in 1856. The company was founded by Illinois Congressman Robert Smith, who leased power rights to mills operating along the west side of Saint Anthony Falls on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Cadwallader C. Washburn acquired the company shortly after its founding and hired his brother William D. Washburn to assist in the company's development. In 1866 the Washburns got into the business themselves, building the Washburn "B" Mill at the falls. At the time, the building was considered to be so large and output so vast that it could not possibly sustain itself. However, the company succeeded, and in 1874 he built the even bigger Washburn "A" Mill.
In 1877, the mill entered a partnership with John Crosby to form the Washburn-Crosby Company, producing Winter Wheat Flour. That same year Washburn sent William Hood Dunwoody to England to open the market for spring wheat. Dunwoody was successful and became a silent partner.
In 1878, the "A" mill was destroyed in a flour dust explosion along with five nearby buildings. The ensuing fire led to the death of 18 workers. Construction of a new mill began immediately. Not only was the new mill safer but it also was able to produce a higher quality flour after the old grinding stones were replaced with automatic steel rollers, the first ever used.
In 1880, Washburn-Crosby flour brands won gold, silver and bronze medals at the Millers' International Exhibition in Cincinnati, causing them to launch the Gold Medal flour brand.
In 1924, the company acquired a failing Twin Cities radio station, WLAG, renaming it WCCO (from Washburn-Crosby Company).
General Mills itself was created in June 1928 when Washburn-Crosby President James Ford Bell merged Washburn-Crosby and 28 other mills.
In 1928, General Mills acquired the Wichita Mill and Elevator Company of the industrialist Frank Kell of Wichita Falls, Texas. With the sale, Kell acquired cash plus stock in the corporation.
Beginning in 1929, General Mills products contained box top coupons, known as Betty Crocker coupons, with varying point values, which were redeemable for discounts on a variety of housewares products featured in the widely distributed Betty Crocker catalog. The coupons and the catalog were discontinued by the company in 2006. A similar program, Box Tops for Education, in which coupon icons clipped off various General Mills products could be redeemed by schools for cash, started in 1996 and is still active.
General Mills became the sponsor of the popular radio show The Lone Ranger in 1941. The show was then brought to television, and, after 20 years, their sponsorship came to an end in 1961.
Beginning in 1959, General Mills sponsored the Rocky and His Friends television series, later known as The Bullwinkle Show. Until 1968, Rocky and Bullwinkle were featured in a variety of advertisements for General Mills. General Mills was also a sponsor of the Saturday-morning cartoons from the Total Television productions studio, including Tennessee Tuxedo. The company also was a sponsor of the ABC western series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, starring Hugh O'Brian.
In 1970, General Mills acquired a five-unit restaurant company called Red Lobster and expanded it nationwide. Soon, a division of General Mills titled General Mills Restaurants developed to take charge of the Red Lobster chain. In 1980, General Mills acquired the California-based Good Earth health food restaurant chain. The company eventually converted the restaurants into other chain restaurants they were operating, such as Red Lobster. In 1982, General Mills Restaurants founded a new Italian-themed restaurant chain called Olive Garden. Another themed restaurant, China Coast, was added before the entire group was spun off to General Mills shareholders in 1995 as Darden Restaurants.