Ask a 'sotan: How did George Hormel, grandfather of Spam, get to Minnesota?

The Hormel Historic Home in Austin, Minn.
The Hormel Historic Home in Austin, Minn. was built in 1871 and preserves the home of George and Lillian Hormel. Originally from Buffalo, New York, George relocated to Austin after working in various meatpacking and hides businesses from Toledo, Chicago, and Des Moines before starting his own business in Austin.
Courtesy of Hormel Historic Home

Ask a 'sotan is an occasional series exploring the questions from curious Minnesotans about our state. Have a question about life in Minnesota? Ask it here.

Hormel, the international food giant that brought the world Spam (the eating kind) and other meaty meals, makes its home in Austin, Minn. But why Minnesota? asks Carol Wobschall of Waseca, Minn.

"What brought the Hormel family to Austin, Minn., where they began the meatpacking business that introduced Spam to the world?"

The answers lie in the writings of a young George Hormel. But first, a little history.

Hormel was born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1860. His family relocated to Toledo, Ohio, when his father opened a hide-tanning business in 1865. An economic crisis in 1873 led him to leave school at the age of 12 to find work to support the rest of the family.

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George Hormel, 1872
George Hormel, pictured here in 1872, a year before he left school to find work.
Courtesy of Hormel Historic Home

"It was desperate times. You had to be out working, and you had to do what you had to do," said Holly Johnson, the executive director of the Hormel Historic Home in Austin.

At about age 16, Hormel ended up working for an uncle's meatpacking business in Chicago.

He became a hide buyer for Oberne and Hosick in Des Moines, Iowa, in the early 1880s. For seven years, Johnson said, Hormel traveled through Iowa and Minnesota buying hides.

He seemed to enjoy Austin, a town he frequented, a bit more than others.

In his autobiography, "The Open Road," Hormel wrote:

"The little town of Austin, Minnesota, came nearest my idea of where I should like to locate. It was small — around three thousand — very active and growing. Although it was not much to look at in the eighties when its streets, lighted by smoking coal oil lamps, were quagmires in wet weather and ankle-deep in dust in summer, and the courthouse square was a tangle of hazel brush, I liked the people and the countryside.

I had been spending a few days here each month for seven years, and during that time I had become well acquainted with its hospitable and friendly people."

Hormel soon tired of traveling, and his letters to family members suggest he felt that he had yet to establish his own success, Johnson said.

George Hormel, circa 1920s
George Hormel, circa 1920s.
Courtesy of Hormel Historic Home

"He's a young man at this point, and he's writing to tell his family about his dreams," Johnson said. "He was disappointed in himself and he hadn't started a family, hadn't been working in the industry he wanted. In his mind, he felt that he wasn't accomplished yet."

In a letter to his mother Susanna in August 1887, he writes to his mother just as he's about to settle in Austin as a partner in a butcher shop called Friedrich and Hormel Packing House Market:

"You say you are glad that I am going to quit the road. Well so am I. I am awful tired of it I assure you. It is a hard life to follow up, and one soon gets sick of it. I am sure of success at Austin, Minn., more so than ever I was before in any enterprise.

Now don't think I am going to be a common everyday butcher, that isn't what I am going into. It is the Pork Packing business I am about to enter into.

So don't say that I am a butcher, but a Pork Packer. We must hold our head up in this world. Now laugh!"

In November 1891, Hormel started his own venture, Geo. A. Hormel and Co., which became the giant food corporation.

While its culinary offerings now run from deli meats to chili to Jennie-O turkey, Hormel Foods remains best known for Spam, which first appeared in grocery stores in 1937.

Interestingly, by the time the company invented the famous blue canned brand of cooked pork and ham, Hormel had already retired from handling the day-to-day operations at the age of 67.

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