Cargill Celebrates 150 years and Has a Long History of Transport Innovation
Article credit to Tim Nelson, MPRNews
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.”
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.”
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.
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