George A. Hormel
December 4, 1860 – June 5, 1946
George Albert Hormel was born in Buffalo, NY, on December 4, 1860, the third child of John and Susanna Hormel, German immigrants from Schwalbach, Germany. After the Civil War, the Hormel family moved west to Toledo, OH, where George’s father opened a tannery. George’s childhood was one of strong family connections and hard work; later in life, he noted that one of the most important lessons he learned from his parents was that “it was quicker and easier to do the chore properly the first time… this lesson has proved a gold mine to me.”
When he was eight years old, George got his first paying job as a paperboy for the Toledo Democrat, while continuing to work in his father’s tannery, pulling wool and tanning hides. The family’s financial situation took a downturn in the Panic of 1873, and George was forced to drop out of school after only six years of grammar school. To help his parents make ends meet, he worked in construction, as a stevedore, and in a meat market.
In 1875 George went to work for his uncle, Jacob (Jay) Decker, who had acquired a meat packinghouse in Chicago. He worked in that job for the next two years, learning the techniques of processing hogs for the retail food market. At the age of 15 he was working 14-hour days for $10 a month plus room and board, starting his day at 5:30 every morning. It was a hard life, but he learned things that stayed with him for the rest of his life. His mother Susanna had always extolled the virtues of cleanliness, and his Uncle Jay relentlessly hammered home the concept that cleanliness in a packinghouse was the path to profit. “Clean food doesn’t spoil in a hurry,” his uncle would say; “Dirty food spoils while you look at it.”
At the age of 19, George decided to strike out on his own. He purchased a one-way train ticket to Kansas City, MO, arriving with less than $5 and an absolute confidence that he could succeed. He landed a job as a wool-buyer with Major J.N. Dubois, who paid him a salary of $75 a month plus travel expenses. Just a George was getting his feet under him in the new position, however, Dubois shuttered the company and absconded with $100,000 in company funds obtained through fraudulent bills of lading. Out of a job and with no prospects, George found himself back in Chicago, working as a common laborer in the hide cellar of a hide and wool dealer. The work was so hard and the conditions so bad that George decided to quit, but the very day he made up his mind to walk off the job his boss offered him a better job as a company buyer.
The new position relocated George to Des Moines, IA, where he was assigned a territory that covered most of Iowa and parts of southern Minnesota. Minnesota’s pastoral beauty and unblemished spaces made a huge impact on George, after years of toiling in the crowded squalor of cities like Toledo, Chicago and Kansas City. “I used to wonder what it would be like to spend a day in the sun with nothing to do but fish,” he remembered, but for the time being his desire to succeed drove him on.
His territory included the Minnesota town of Austin, at the time a thriving community of about 3,000 inhabitants. The work of a traveling hides buyer gave George more leisure time than he had previously had, and a better salary with which to enjoy it. George enjoyed roller skating and ice skating, but he also discovered a fascination for card-playing. He become a serious and frequent poker player, winning and losing considerable sums of money. In short order, gambling became not just a pastime for him, but also a real problem, one he recognized himself. “The urge to gamble became as insidious as a tippler’s urge to drink,” he later wrote. “I not only lost what I earned but began to draw advances against my future earnings.” That realization caused George to take a hard look at his life, and to consider its direction. A life on the road, with no roots and no financial security, he decided, did not bode well for the future he wanted for himself.
If George was committed to no longer gambling with cards, he remained willing to gamble on business, particularly when he could stake his personal drive, hard work and energy on the outcome. He borrowed $500 from his employer to purchase a partnership in an Austin butcher shop with Albrecht Friedrich, the son of one of his best customers. In 1887 George wrote to his mother, “I am sure of success at Austin more so than I was in any enterprise. Now don’t think I’m going to be just another butcher… It is the pork packing business I am about to enter into…” George had seen plenty of examples of the waste and inefficiency of packing houses during his early years, and yet most of those businesses were still profitable. “If they can run a market profitably that way,” he wrote, “imagine how much better I can do running things right.”
The firm of Friedrich & Hormel opened for business in Austin in October, 1887. Ironically, the town’s two newspapers both ignored the genesis of what would become Austin’s greatest business endeavor. Within a couple of years, however, the new company was attracting notice. In 1889 the Mower County Democrat remarked that “The business is immense and still increasing.”
Part of the reason for that expansion and early success was sausage. “The sausage they sold at distant markets last year,” the Democrat noted in 1890, “has given them such a standing in the world that it became necessary to enlarge their manufacturing facilities.” In spite of such positive results, however, George and his partner did not see eye-to-eye on their vision of what the business should be, and so they dissolved their partnership in 1891. If the start of that enterprise had merited no media attention, the change certainly did. “It is Hormel’s intention to carry out the plans heretofore mentioned…” the Austin Register said, “by making his packinghouse one of the leading industries in southern Minnesota.” It was a prophetic statement, but there were pitfalls waiting on the road to that eventual outcome.
George set up packinghouse operations in a converted creamery and hired his first employee, a Swedish immigrant named George Peterson. After two months of hard work, Geo. A. Hormel & Company Pork Packers and Provision Dealers opened for business. The exact date is uncertain, since once again the local newspapers failed to take note of the event. In February that year, George married Lillian Belle Gleason, a teacher at Austin’s Franklin School, and their only son Jay was born late that fall.
The following year the Panic of 1893 almost wiped out the fledgling business just as it was getting off the ground. George needed to open new retail outlets to market the products his packinghouse was turning out, but he was mortgaged to the hilt and could not obtain further credit from the banks. What saved the company, George always asserted later, was the quality of the sausage they were making.
Hormel & Company held on through the financial crisis and did more than survive – they grew. Within eight years of the company’s start, the expanded packing house went from processing 2,500 hogs a year to nearly 33,000. George’s father had always urged him to “originate, not imitate,” and he followed that advice. In 1895 he introduced “Hormel’s Sugar-cured Pig Back Bacon,” a lean bacon that quickly became a favorite of consumers and is today known as Canadian bacon.
For the next decade the company continued to grow, so much so that in 1899 George retired his overalls and meat cleaver and took on a strictly administrative role, overseeing the ever-expanding business. Always willing to try innovation to improve efficiency, George brought in new methods of refrigeration and preserving meat. Beginning in 1904, the company started to branch out beyond Austin, opening distribution centers in Duluth, MN, St. Paul, MN, San Antonio, TX, and Chicago, IL. When the meat packing industry was the subject of public outcry and official investigation after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906, Hormel & Company received a clean bill of health – “The Hormel plant ranks among the most perfect in the country from sanitary and inspection standpoints,” a federal agent noted.
At the age of 67 George Hormel finally retired from the helm of the company he had created and built from the ground up, literally with his own sweat and effort. Thirty-six years of running the business, he felt, was enough, and he believed the company could benefit from the leadership of younger men. He and Lillian donated their beautiful Austin home to the YWCA and moved to California, leaving the directorship of the company in the hands of his son, Jay.
George died in 1946 at the age of 85, having seen his life’s work result in a dynamic, industry-leading company that was greater than perhaps anyone other than himself would have ever imagined it could be. The company that bore his name also made a lasting contribution to his adopted hometown. Austin was transformed by the presence of Hormel & Company, an employer that provided a level of stability to the town that other towns lacked, especially during such hard times as the years of the Great Depression. As his son Jay remembered him, “His character and basic religious conviction will inspire people to those positive virtues which will make this community and this world a better place in which to live.”
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