MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — General Mills is celebrating its 150th birthday Friday. The company wasn’t only a pioneer in foods, but also in commercial broadcasting, and it all started right here in the Twin Cities.
In 1924 General Mills, known at the time as the Washburn Crosby Company, purchased WLAG, a struggling radio station after hearing it was going off the air.
“Even though there weren’t that many people with receivers we just thought it wouldn’t be as vibrant of a community,” said Tom Forsythe, chief communications officer of General Mills, and self-titled chief storyteller.
Forsythe says one of the first things Washburn Crosby did was change the call letters to W-C-C-O. Then they began thinking of new ways to present their products over the air.
“The way broadcasting worked is sponsors would actually create programming,” said Forsythe.
And one of the programs created was the “Gold Medal Flour Home Service Talks,” which later transformed into the “Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air,” where you could enroll into Betty’s cooking school, listen to her make meals and eventually graduate.
“The first market and the only market where Betty is heard is here in the Twin Cities, but eventually Betty’s show goes nationally,” said Forsythe.
Women started writing Betty for advice on life and cooking, and men did too for other reasons.
“So she averaged four or five marriage proposals a week,” said Forsythe. “She would be quite a catch.”
Her popularity was growing and so was her mystery. People wanted to know who she was. Where did she come from? And where did she learn to cook?
General Mills was holding a big secret.
“Today we actually confess that Betty Crocker isn’t real and never was,” said Forsythe.
The first to read Betty’s script on WCCO Radio was Blanche Ingersoll. She did it for two years before Marjorie Child Husted took over.
Before recording devices were invented, every time you heard Betty’s voice outside Minnesota it was another woman who had been sworn to secrecy reading her script. Eventually recording equipment was invented and there was only one voice.
Then Betty’s image was released in 1936. General Mills commissioned the portrait from Neysa McMein, a well-known artist in New York.
“McMein blended the features of several Home Service Department members into a one motherly image,” according to bettycrocker.com, “which remained the official likeness of Betty Crocker for nearly 20 years.”
So, Betty Crocker was a fictional creation by General Mills that first aired right here on the Good Neighbor.
Again, General Mills is welcoming the public to its 150th birthday celebration at the Stone Arch Bridge Festival on Friday.
Tune in Friday, and hear how “The Big G” kept everyone’s ears tuned to the THE LONE RANGER!