From humble beginnings to global power, Cargill marks 150 years

Cargill grain elevator, Minneapolis, 1931
Cargill grain elevators, like this one in the 3500 block of Dight Avenue in Minneapolis, dotted the Minnesota landscape.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society | 1931

The company's beginnings were modest, to say the least.

"Cargill itself was founded in Conover, Iowa, which doesn't really exist any more, in 1865."

Company archivist Bruce Bruemmer tracks the story of William Wallace Cargill, who began as the proprietor of a trackside grain warehouse and became founder of one of the Big Four — Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus Commodities — known as the ABCD Group.

Together they dominate the global flow of food and agriculture commodities.

Cargill kicked off a celebration Monday marking the company's 150th year. From its beginnings at the close of the Civil War, the commodities trader and processor has grown to become the largest privately held company in the country, with more than 150,000 employees worldwide.

Cargill's startup might look familiar to an Internet entrepreneur today. W.W. Cargill and two of his brothers followed the original information superhighway — the nation's burgeoning railroads — and applied that new technology to their grain business. The company expanded from Iowa to La Crosse, Wis., and moved to Minneapolis a century ago.

"They came to Minneapolis because of the trading possibilities with the Minneapolis Grain Exchange," Bruemmer said. "So this was the place to be for the trading business. For actually getting the grain, it was southern Minnesota, then expanded to North and South Dakota, little bit in Iowa, little bit in Wisconsin, and some in Montana, as well."

Cargill once occupied the Northstar Center, 1963
Cargill once occupied downtown Minneapolis' Northstar Center on 7th Street South and Marquette Avenue.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society | 1963

The Cargill family diversified into grain elevators, insurance, flour milling, farming, lumber and a railroad — but nearly collapsed under crushing debt when the founder died in 1909.

The company pruned some operations and focused on the grain business. It fought through the Great Depression and a legal battle with the Chicago Board of Trade, which had at one point banned Cargill from trading. It expanded to Europe and South America after the Depression and diversified again — even building ocean-going vessels for the military during World War II.

"That's how we got into ship building and ocean transportation, because the U.S. government asked us," said Paul Hillen, vice president for global marketing. "And Port Cargill was right here in Minnesota and we launched a lot of those ships and barges right on the Minnesota River."

Steel-hulled vessel built by Cargill, 1944
A steel-hulled ocean-going vessel built by Cargill sits in port.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society | 1944

Cargill has a long history of transport innovation — for example, pioneering new uses for "unit trains," a string of cars all dedicated to a single commodity, initially meant for coal. Cargill saw the approach's potential for agricultural.

The company has since become one of biggest the food and commodity suppliers in the world, from eggs for McDonald's to bulk road salt.

Cargill's wide reach has also earned criticism along the way.

Competitors called Cargill's unit train innovation "boxcar blackmail" for its impact on farmers and small elevators, according to a Dartmouth professor's history of the company.

Protesters have decried Cargill's meat processing operations, alleging animal cruelty. They've also complained about the company's impact on farming in the Amazon rain forest.

Cargill Elevator Company laboratory, 1923
A laboratory for the Cargill Elevator Company in Minneapolis.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society | 1923

Cargill was the subject of a well-known meat contamination case in Minnesota that helped put a national spotlight on food safety.

Lately, corporate officers have been touting the company's progressive values: Former CEO Gregory Page is one of the 10 members of Risky Business, a nonprofit that highlights the economic risks of climate change in the U.S.

The company, still family-owned, can afford to take the long view in ways that publicly held companies can't, said corporate vice president Mike Fernandez, at a kick off celebration today. "You're going to see a company that's committed to nourishing the world and doing so in a way that's both sustainable, and provides access to affordable food," he said.

The company is marking its sesquicentennial at business units in 68 countries and with a week of events at its Minnesota headquarters — including, fittingly, a new company cookbook.

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