George A. Hormel, ca. 1924

George A. Hormel, ca. 1924

George A. Hormel


George Albert Hormel, the son of German immigrants, used the knowledge, skills, and values he learned from his family to succeed as an independent meatpacker in an industry dominated by corporate giants.


When George Albert Hormel (born December 4, 1860 in Buffalo NY; died June 5, 1946 in Los Angeles, CA), founder of Geo. A. Hormel and Company (now known as Hormel Foods), died in June 1946, the mayor of Austin, Minnesota, home to Hormel Foods’ corporate headquarters, issued a proclamation. He announced that on the day of Hormel’s funeral all businesses would close at one o’clock to mourn “the loss of one of their most distinguished citizens, George A. Hormel,” because he “established a successful business here in Austin and the growth of Austin is tied in with the establishment of this business.”[1] (Several days later, the local newspaper boasted that “every drinking place joined in the tribute to Mr. Hormel and remained closed from one o’clock for the rest of the day [on] Saturday.”[2]) The mayor was not exaggerating the importance of the company to Austin’s economy – by 1950, Geo. A. Hormel and Company provided over 90 percent of the manufacturing jobs in Austin.[3]

The appreciation expressed for George A. Hormel continues into the present; company employees still observe his birthday, a tradition that has continued for nearly seventy years.[4] The city of Austin proudly calls itself “SPAM™town, USA” in reference to one of Hormel Foods’ most famous creations: SPAM® product. By the time of his death, the small packinghouse that George Hormel established in 1891 with eleven employees had grown into a company of nearly 6,000 employees.[5] The company was not only important to Austin’s economy, but also to that of the entire region. Over time, Geo. A. Hormel and Company became one of the largest independent meatpackers in the Midwest, processing nearly 3 million head of livestock per year and netting sales of $258.8 million in 1950[6] (approximately $2.34 billion in 2010[7]). Hormel’s success as a meatpacker is attributable to his close attention to detail and to his insistence on quality, efficiency, and innovation, but also to the assistance and cooperation of his German-American family.

Family and Ethnic Background

George Albert Hormel was born in Buffalo, New York, on December 4, 1860, the third child and first son of John George and Susanna (née Decker) Hormel. His mother had immigrated to Buffalo in 1852 from Neuwied, a village near Koblenz in Prussia’s Rhine Province. Fifteen at the time, Susanna (usually called Susan) Decker had come to the United States with her parents and five younger siblings, one of whom died on the sea voyage.[8] The owner of a successful meat business in Germany, Susan’s father Ludwig continued to practice his trade in the United States by operating a butcher shop in Buffalo. John George Hormel (who went by the name George) was born in 1830 in Schwalbach, a town near Frankfurt am Main. His parents were French Huguenots. The Hormel family emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1833 or 1834, when John George was just three years old.[9] Although his father worked as a tailor out of the family’s home, John George did not take up the same trade; rather, he found employment in a large tannery in Buffalo.

John George Hormel and Susan Decker were married in Buffalo in 1856. (As mentioned previously, George Albert was born in 1860.) In 1865 or 1866, the couple moved their young family from Buffalo to Toledo, Ohio. They were accompanied there by John George’s brother Christian Hormel and their mutual friend Ferdinand Heyer. Heyer was a fellow German immigrant who worked in the same Buffalo tannery as John George. Together, the three men formed a partnership and opened their own tannery in Toledo, Hormel & Heyer, which processed sheepskins into leather. In Buffalo it was common for young children from German families to work outside the home, and the Hormels and Heyers continued this practice in Toledo.[10] George Albert and the young Heyer boys worked at the tannery after school and on weekends. Their duties included pulling wool from sheep’s pelts and spreading wet wool on the roof to dry. Apparently, George Albert spent so much time helping out at his father’s tannery that by age thirteen he could “perform any skilled task in either the wool pulling or tanning departments of the business, and I could grade wool and leather almost as well as my father.”[11]

Unfortunately, the financial crisis of 1873 and the resulting economic depression caused such a decline in his father’s business that George needed to quit school and find external employment in order to supplement the family income. So, at age twelve, George took the first in a series of low-paying manual labor jobs and started working as a lather’s apprentice. This job was short-lived, however, as construction projects grew scarce due to the ongoing economic depression. Thereafter, he found work in a meat market. George became a “jack-of-all-trades” in the market, where his tasks included soliciting and delivering orders, trimming meat from bones, and making sausage. He learned a lot but found his boss intolerable. Unable to continue working for such a “brutal and tyrannical master,” George quit the meat market. Afterwards, he worked as a “dockwalloper” (also called a stevedore), then at a lumber yard, then in the car shop of the Wabash Railway Company.[12]

Shortly after he lost his job with the railroad, George went to work for his uncle Jacob “Jay” Decker, who was his mother’s youngest brother. Decker had recently opened a meat market in Chicago, which had just surpassed Cincinnati, Ohio, as the center of the U.S. porkpacking industry. By the time George arrived there in the early 1870s, Chicago’s packers were processing over one million hogs per year.[13] George learned how to process and pack meat in his uncle’s market. He later recalled those difficult years in his memoir:

He [uncle Jay] was a hard taskmaster, an exacting employer. Himself a graduate of the school of hard knocks, he had no patience with coddling the young. My hours were long and the work exhausting. At a busy time I often worked fourteen hours at a stretch. I was young and tough but at the day’s end I tumbled into bed like a felled ox. When morning came someone often had literally to kick me out to waken me. I often wonder how I stood that killing pace as well as I did. But I learned things working for my uncle I might otherwise never have learned so thoroughly.[14]

George Hormel worked for his uncle Jay in various capacities until he was nineteen years old, at which point he became dissatisfied with his low wages of $7.50 per week (approximately $169 in 2010). As a result, he quit and moved to Kansas City in search of a higher-paying job. George’s dissatisfaction with his pay was warranted. In an 1878 survey of the Chicago labor market, common laborers in packing plants earned an average of $1.50 to $2.00 per day, while skilled workers earned $3.50 to $4.00 per day.[15] George, who worked six days a week, earned just $1.25 per day in his uncle’s employ. So, together with his German-American friend August “Gus” Wollering, who worked as Jay Decker’s bookkeeper, Hormel bought a one-way train ticket to Kansas City in early 1880. The two friends chose Kansas City because the railway tickets were cheap, and because they thought they could find jobs there since Kansas City was a livestock and railway hub.

Contrary to his expectations, finding employment in Kansas City was difficult. After weeks of searching, George finally secured a job as a wool buyer. Unfortunately, soon thereafter, the company’s owner embezzled $100,000 of company funds and disappeared, leaving the company bankrupt and George without a job. He then returned to Chicago and found employment with Oberne, Hosick and Company, where he loaded and unloaded shipments of animal hides. It was strenuous and physically exhausting work; Hormel was ready to quit when he was offered a position as a traveling hide buyer for the company. He immediately accepted the promotion and relocated to Des Moines, Iowa, the headquarters of his assigned territory, which included northern Iowa and southern Minnesota.

After several years in this position, Hormel began to tire of his transient life and sought a place to settle down and start his own business. His father also encouraged him to find a different occupation. “When are you going to begin working at something you can show me in thirty years?” – This was the question John George asked his son one evening when George was visiting his family in Toledo.[16] Both father and son believed that owning a business was the best way to achieve financial success, but George Albert didn’t know what type of business or occupation he desired. His visit home also awakened a longing for community. “The rest from the continual sameness of life on the road and the sense of once again belonging to a loving and interested group – of not always being the stranger at another man’s table – had done wonders for me,” George wrote in his autobiography. “Working for myself wasn’t enough, I needed to be part of a family and part of a community that needed me as much as I needed them.”[17] With both goals in mind, profit and community, he looked for potential business opportunities throughout his buying territory. He wrote to his friend Gus Wollering and asked if he was interested in opening a butcher supply shop in Des Moines, but Wollering declined the offer.[18]

An opportunity arose for Hormel in 1887. On a business trip to Austin, Minnesota, he learned that a customer’s meat market had recently burned to the ground. The owner, a German named Anton “Fritz” Friedrich, rebuilt the shop but did not want to operate the market any longer. Hormel seized the chance to go into business for himself. In August 1887, he penned a letter to his mother from his room at the Arlington House in Stuart, Iowa, informing her of his plans:

I am sure of success at Austin Minn – more so than ever I was before in any enterprise – Guess I [would?] tell you now how nice and complete the market will be – Will see how trade opens up – If it is good, it will be so much nicer. Now don’t think I am going to be a common every day butcher – that isn’t what I am going into – It is the pork packing business I am about to enter into …. I can find plenty of business to keep the flies off from me – but it will take the first year to get things straightened around – So don’t say that I am a butcher but a pork packer. We must hold our head up in this world ….[19]

With $500 (approximately $11,800 in 2010) borrowed from his boss at Oberne, Hosick and Company, Hormel bought a share in the Austin meat market from Fritz Friedrich. In partnership with Friedrich’s son Albrecht, he opened the Friedrich and Hormel meat market in October 1887. But differing ideas about how to run the business prompted Hormel and Friedrich to part ways in 1891. As his 1887 letter to his mother indicates, Hormel intended from the start to expand the business into a packinghouse, while Friedrich was content to remain a small butcher shop. So, at the age of thirty-one, Hormel used the money he received from the dissolved partnership with Friedrich to establish his own packinghouse on the outskirts of Austin: Geo. A. Hormel and Company.

Business Development

When Hormel opened his pork packinghouse in rural Minnesota, the meatpacking industry was dominated by the Big Five packers: Armour, Swift, Morris, Wilson, and Cudahy, all of whom operated primarily out of Chicago. With the construction of the Union Stockyards in 1865, south Chicago became the center of the meatpacking industry in the United States. By the early 1900s, the area of Chicago known as “Packingtown,” with its sprawling stockyards and high concentration of packing plants, was the largest industrial complex in the United States. According to estimates, 45,000 people worked in the city’s meatpacking industry.[20] Chicago’s rise to meatpacking prominence was due to several factors: its accessibility as a railway hub, its proximity to livestock raised on the Western plains, and the invention of the refrigerated railcar in 1868.[21] Refrigeration revolutionized the packing industry, making it possible to transport dressed livestock carcasses instead of live animals. This meant that animals could be slaughtered and processed in Chicago’s packing plants and that the carcasses could then be shipped via rail to butchers, meat markets, and other customers across the nation.

As a small, fledging meatpacker, Hormel could not even begin to compete in terms of market share with the Big Five, particularly because he did not own any refrigerated railcars until after the turn of the century. By 1890, the Chicago packers processed roughly 12 million head of livestock per year, making Hormel’s kill of 610 hogs in 1891-92, his first full year of operation, pale in comparison.[22] However, Hormel was in the vanguard of a shift in the meatpacking industry. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the industry moved away from the centralized model of terminal stockyards and processors in a single location (like Chicago) to a model of decentralized “direct buying.” In this model, small independent packers like Hormel located their operations in small Midwestern cities and purchased livestock directly from farmer-producers, thus eliminating the need for large terminal stockyards like the Union Stockyards.[23] Hormel was one of the first meatpackers to use the direct buying method, but others soon followed, including the Big Five (which became the Big Four in 1923), leading to Chicago’s eventual decline in importance in the meatpacking industry.[24]

George A. Hormel’s decision to specialize in pork packing was not a random or uninformed choice.[25] During his years operating the Friedrich and Hormel meat market, George kept careful records of each animal slaughtered, meticulously tracking every carcass and the pieces of meat sold from each. His data revealed that pork had the least waste, since unlike beef or mutton, the entire hog carcass could be used in some way. Pork, he realized, had the greatest profit potential. His rural location was also ideal, as he was close to the source of his supply: the farmers. As long as he could secure a steady and sufficient stream of hogs, he believed he could operate a successful packinghouse. To ensure a good supply, he reasoned: “farmers grow what they can sell … I can make it to their advantage to raise stock for me to buy.”[26] He also implemented an efficient disassembly process based on the plans of a small but profitable packinghouse he had toured in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although George Hormel could not compete directly with the big Chicago packers who dominated the industry, he developed research, preparation, and processing methods that enabled him to succeed and eventually thrive as a small, independent meatpacker.

His inability to compete directly with the Big Five, but still operate a profitable packinghouse, led Hormel to devise a business strategy that emphasized quality over quantity and innovation over imitation. Years of experience in the meat business provided Hormel with the knowledge necessary to develop and produce quality products. “Quality was our only defense against the competition we had to meet from the big packers,” he wrote. “I constantly hammered home the need for improving our working methods to the end that we could produce superior food while reducing costs.”[27] Reasoning that “by never ceasing to aim at perfection we should one day reach a quality-conscious group able and willing to pay for the best of anything,” Hormel saw an opportunity to create a niche market.[28] When he opened his packinghouse in 1891 he initially chose to produce and market top-quality sausage, the “one thing we could make with the limited means at our disposal.”[29] Sausage increased the profit earned on each hog because it utilized parts of the animal that would otherwise go to waste. Although he was eventually able to expand his line of quality meat products, at first he could only afford one – sausage. Still, it was enough for Hormel to give his business a solid footing during its initial years of operation.

When the financial crisis of 1893 propelled the United States into an economic recession, Hormel struggled to keep his new packinghouse alive. The Big Five packers began to aggressively invade Hormel’s sales territory (roughly speaking, the area within a 200-mile radius of Austin) by sending refrigerated “peddler cars” down all the branch railroad lines and selling fresh meat directly to small-town butchers and meat markets. Since Hormel did not have any refrigerated cars, he could not respond in kind, but he realized that he had to increase his sales volume in order to stay in business. With money borrowed from a friend, he opened two more meat markets (for a total of three) in Austin. He also worked to increase efficiency and eliminate all possible waste, which meant paying more attention to sausage development and production. Years later, when asked how he was able to keep his business afloat through this difficult period, Hormel replied, “I think it was the sausage.”[30]

Although Hormel had experience, practical business strategies, and a quality product, the demands of running a packinghouse nearly overwhelmed him. Times were tough, money was tight, and there were not enough hours in the day for him to accomplish everything that needed to be done. A fastidious and demanding boss, Hormel insisted on overseeing every aspect of the business: “Even a more plentiful supply of money would not have enabled me to delegate to others many of the jobs I took upon myself, for if I were to stop the leaks in this stage of our expanding program, I must keep an eye on everything. Competition among buyers and sellers was keen, profit margins small, and carelessness at any one of a dozen points would be fatal.”[31] Hormel did whatever needed to be done in the packinghouse: bought livestock, slaughtered animals, trimmed meat, graded the meat, harvested ice for the icehouse in the winter, kept the books, traveled to area towns to sell his products, even cleaned the hog pens when necessary. But Hormel could not operate an entire business single-handedly, so he sought out capable men and women to assist him.

The company’s first employee – and the one who worked as Hormel’s right-hand man from the very beginning – was a recently-arrived Danish immigrant named George Peterson.[32] As the need for more help grew, George Hormel turned to his family, preferring to hire workers from within his own kin network. Just as he had first turned to members of the familiar German-American community when he sought to start his own business – asking Gus Wollering to open a butcher supply shop with him, then operating a business with a fellow German-American –Hormel now sought employees from within the familiar confines of his own family. His second employee was his youngest brother Ben, who left Toledo to work for George in late 1891, when Ben was just fourteen years old. In 1893, two more brothers, Herman and John, left Toledo to work for George in Austin. A few years later, his cousin Jay Decker, the son of his uncle Jay Decker, came to work for him as well. His family’s assistance did not stop there, however. His father John George loaned George A. the money to expand his packinghouse in 1892, and in 1895 John George sold his business in Toledo and moved his family to Austin. From that point on, John George assisted his son by taking over the bookkeeping duties of the business. Although George A. remained the undisputed head of the company, the assistance of his family was vital – to the extent that a fiftieth anniversary souvenir publication about the history of Geo. A. Hormel and Company proclaimed that “any Hormel story should be a family story.”[33]

With the help of his father and three younger brothers, Hormel continued to expand his business.[34] The number of hogs slaughtered increased exponentially from 610 in his first full year of operation (1892) to 8,666 five years later (1897) and to 42,538 in his tenth year of operation (1902).[35] In 1896, the company employed eighteen (including George, his brothers, and cousin Jay) and grew to employ as many as 300 during periods of peak production in 1912.[36] As his brothers assumed managerial positions within the company, Hormel turned to the Austin community for additional workers. His general policy was to cultivate local talent and promote employees from within company ranks. “I was more concerned with developing the talents of the men we already had,” Hormel wrote in his memoir. “I wanted the country boys who came to work for us to be so good and efficient that when an opportunity arose, they, and not outside talent, would fill the better job. … Bright boys in our town would have no reason to go off to big cities in search of a future when economic success was possible right at home.”[37] Since the population of Austin consisted primarily of people of Anglo-Saxon, German, and Scandinavian descent, the workforce of Geo. A. Hormel and Company was largely homogeneous and overwhelmingly white from the start and remained so well into the twentieth century. In the mid-1930s, about 85 percent of the company’s workers were of Anglo-Saxon, German, or Scandinavian origin; very few were non-white.[38]

George Hormel’s creation of a homogeneous workforce in his plant likely stemmed from his observations of racial and ethnic divisions in the large packinghouses in Chicago’s Packingtown. In his famous 1906 novel The Jungle, author Upton Sinclair described the Big Five’s labor policy, noting that the big packers purposely employed “representative[s] of several races that … displaced each other in the stockyards,” each ethnic group employed for lower wages than the group it replaced. “In this way,” writes historian Wilson J. Warren, “the major packers created the ethnic succession that characterized the segmented social demographic history of Chicago’s packinghouse workers.”[39] While working in his uncle’s south Chicago meat market in the 1870s, young George witnessed the detrimental effects of ethnic rivalry firsthand:

Chicago packing house workmen were an ugly and dissatisfied lot, ripe for trouble and looking for it. Often their only contact with management was through some petty tyrant who originated whatever labor policy suited his temperament or convenience. On the job, they were the victims of labor discrimination based on race prejudice. In summer, when seasonal lay-offs took place, the first men to go usually belonged to a racial group which differed from the foreman’s. If he was a Swede or a German, he threw out the Poles and Russians. A Slav sub-boss delightedly bounced the Germans. Any White man paid off Negro workmen first. So that it didn’t really matter how hard a man worked to hold his job or how well qualified he was to retain it, in the end he lost it for factors beyond his control.[40]

Now an employer himself, George Hormel displayed concern for the welfare and fair treatment of both his packinghouse workers and his suppliers (the farmers). Regarding his suppliers, Hormel stressed the importance of paying fair market value and used two sets of scales to prevent inaccurate or dishonest weighing of livestock. For his plant workers, Hormel believed the best way to help his employees and promote social justice was not through government hand-outs or “share the wealth” programs, but by enabling the worker to help him (or her) self.[41] To this end, Hormel provided extensive job training for his employees, offered opportunities for career advancement, and promoted people on the basis of talent and job performance. A former employee recalled that when he applied for a job at the plant in 1906, a time when the company employed several hundred people, George “passed personally upon the qualifications of virtually every applicant for a position.” However, this same employee also indicated that Hormel’s actual hiring practices sometimes did not match his professed practice of hiring on the basis of merit, since he demonstrated a preference for “putting to work wherever he could the younger relatives of tried and true employes [sic].”[42] Although this accusation came from a disgruntled employee who was found guilty of embezzling over $1 million from Geo. A. Hormel and Company (as assistant comptroller, he had diverted company funds into his personal bank account), George Hormel had, in fact, hired family members as some of his very first employees, exhibiting a preference for keeping company jobs “in the family.”

Careful and consistent job performance by each employee was particularly important to George Hormel. He himself tried every job at the plant so that he could instruct others on the best and most efficient method of performing it: “As time passed, with the more I learned, the more convinced I became that before I could tell another man what to do and how to do it efficiently, I should have to find out for myself,” Hormel wrote. “This included learning to know the right from the wrong way to do even the disagreeable jobs around a packing house – and there are many of them.”[43] He had no tolerance for sloppy work, waste, or inefficiency, and any employee performing less-than-satisfactory work would likely receive a sharp rebuke from George himself. Many stories attest to the fact that no detail was too small to escape his notice:

One morning he walked into the cutting room and spotted a piece of fat lying on the floor. He stopped all work, rebuked the gang, and reminded them that any business that permitted such waste would surely fail. The men did not soon forget the lesson that carelessness was intolerable. It was not the amount of fat that bothered him; it was the principle involved – Waste. He wanted none of it.[44]

Another worker related a similar story: “One day, while walking through one of the departments, he [George] saw meat on the floor. He took the facsimile of a dollar bill out of his billfold and tore it up in front of the workers. When they looked at him astonished, he said: ‘You think I am crazy because I tear up a dollar bill. But this symbolizes what you do when you throw meat on the floor.’”[45]

Accounts like these attest to the fact that Hormel was a demanding employer. Every step of the meatpacking process was closely monitored and attention was called to any amount of waste. For years he personally trimmed the hams and bacon to make sure the job was done to his specifications. Even when he relinquished that task to others, he continued to split carcasses on the packinghouse floor until 1900. At that time, Hormel “took off [his] overalls, hung up the cleaver, and devoted [his] energies to management.”[46] Although he may have left the floor for an office job, Hormel’s supervision of every department in the plant never wavered. His management style gave him the reputation of being “something of a tyrant in the operation of his plant,” or to put it a bit more kindly, an “autocratic executive.”[47]

George Hormel’s autocratic approach, together with his concern for treating his workers fairly, made for a paternalistic leadership style best characterized as a “benevolent dictatorship.”[48] Although an exacting boss, Hormel maintained a good relationship with his employees because he was viewed as “one of them”: he worked on the floor for the first decade of the plant’s operation, lived in the community alongside his employees, married a local girl, attended the local Presbyterian church, periodically served on the Austin city council, and participated in community organizations such as the Masonic Lodge.[49] As the local newspaper stated after his death, “he was always just ‘George’ during his life in this city.”[50] He demonstrated his concern for his employees through his commitment to providing opportunities for advancement within the company and by encouraging his workers to develop their skills and talents in order to qualify for job promotions. When three employees, all members of the Minnesota National Guard, left in 1898 to fight in the Spanish-American War, Hormel gave each man ten dollars and the assurance of a job upon his return.[51] Likewise, during World War I, his company provided free garden plots, along with the services of a gardening instructor, to its employees and encouraged them to plant Liberty Gardens.

The friendly labor relations that prevailed in George’s plant were an anomaly in the meatpacking industry at that time. “Meatpacking had the most strikes of any industry in the United States between 1881 and 1905,” writes historian Wilson Warren, largely due to the fact that they were poorly paid and worked long hours.[52] After labor unions made significant inroads in the industry in the early 1900s, packinghouse workers gained better wages and shorter working hours. Although this wave of unionization did not immediately affect Geo. A. Hormel and Company, the higher wage levels and reduced working hours that became standard in the industry eventually made their way to Austin, Minnesota, during and after the First World War.

George’s decision to hang up the meat cleaver and trade in his overalls for a business suit in 1900 was prompted by the company’s continued growth in sales and production. “The business had now reached the stage where it could no longer be conducted as a one-man show if it were to go ahead,” he wrote in his memoir.[53] The company was officially incorporated in 1901, with authorized capital of $250,000 (approximately $6.62 million in 2010) consisting of 1,250 shares of preferred stock and 1,250 shares of common stock. Its net worth was $93,202.26 (approximately $2.47 million in 2010).[54] Three of the four officers appointed at that time were members of the Hormel family: George A. Hormel, president; Herman Hormel, vice president; Al Eberhart (sales manager), secretary; and John Hormel, treasurer. His brother Ben Hormel was named to the five-member board of directors (along with George, Herman, and John Hormel and Al Eberhart) in 1901; later additions to the board of directors (after it had expanded to nine members) included George’s sister Elizabeth Hormel, his wife Lillian Gleason Hormel, and Mrs. Lena Eberhart.[55] When his sister Emma Hormel and her husband Levi Fisher moved from Toledo to Austin in 1909, Levi received a position as a foreman at Geo. A. Hormel and Company.[56] Once again, George Hormel turned to his family first for assistance in the operation of his business.

The inclusion of three women on the board of directors attests to George Hormel’s willingness to utilize the talents of women in his company. In his memoir, George praised the two most important women in his life – his mother Susan and his wife Lillian – for their strength, reliability, and household management skills. He also wrote of his wife’s contributions to his business in its early years, how she helped him figure the payroll, keep the books, and do the billing, among other things. When the demands of operating his own company threatened to overwhelm him, he credited Lillian’s support and assistance for seeing him through: “How much men owe to such women at times of great crisis in their fortunes is hard to estimate.”[57] George employed women outside of his family circle as well. He hired a woman named Ida Olson to work in the meat market shortly after he dissolved his partnership with Friedrich in 1891. He employed women in his packing plant as early as 1892, the year that Elizabeth and Maude Canavan were hired on a temporary basis to “canvas hams” (cover hams with a canvas). In 1898, when a woman named Miss Harroun began her work as a stenographer she became the company’s first female office employee; by 1933 three hundred women worked at the packing plant.[58]

An infusion of cash in 1903, the result of selling part of the business to fellow meatpacker John Morrell & Company, made additional plant expansion possible as well as the installation of new equipment. The number of hogs slaughtered increased from 42,538 in 1902 to 134,822 in 1905.[59] Although this was not close to the number of animals processed by the Chicago packers – in 1903, G.F. Swift Company slaughtered over 4 million hogs, while Armour and Company slaughtered over 3 million that year – Hormel was making larger inroads into the meatpacking industry.[60] George had acquired several refrigerated railcars and enlarged his regional sales territory shortly after the turn of the century. Now he expanded his territory outside the Midwest by opening a number of new distribution centers, including ones in Minneapolis, Chicago, San Antonio, and Atlanta. George later recalled his sense of satisfaction when he shipped the first carload of Hormel meat to Chicago, the home turf of the Big Five packers, in a railcar labeled “Hormel, Austin, Minnesota.”[61] In 1905, the company also began exporting products to Europe. Annual sales climbed from $710,795 in 1902 (approximately $18.6 million in 2010) to $5 million in 1912 (approximately $116 million in 2010). By the outbreak of World War I, Geo. A. Hormel and Company slaughtered over 300,000 hogs annually.[62] In fact, over the years, the company had become one of the largest independent meatpackers in the Midwest. The demands of World War I prompted Hormel to again increase production and hire additional workers; by 1921, the first year official employment figures are available, the company employed 1,020 people.[63]

The company’s exponential growth hampered George’s ability to personally supervise every department and maintain a friendly, close relationship with his labor force. Since he had assumed a managerial role in 1900 and no longer worked on the packinghouse floor, other men took over supervisory positions in each department. Yet George still maintained a large measure of control over the plant’s packing operations:

As the business reached proportions where it is very easy for management to lose contact with the production end, I was careful to see that I was not engulfed with executive duties which kept me out of the plant. … Every day I made the rounds of every department. Management, for the worker, isn’t the front office, it’s the foreman. I met with them daily.[64]

However, in 1921 when assistant comptroller Cy Thomson was discovered to have embezzled over $1 million from the company (more than $12.2 million in 2010), George partly blamed his own lack of oversight: “The smallest detail had received my personal scrutiny and the men I had trained to act as my eyes and ears had been drilled to question … any deviation in expected results or procedures. Now the ruin of the business had been brought about because I had not questioned sufficiently what I had not understood in another department of its activities.”[65] Although the business was not ruined, it was a close call for Hormel, and he responded by firing many of his top executives and replacing them with younger men who could bring new energy and fresh ideas to his company. His brothers, however, retained their executive positions. He also gave his twenty-six-year-old son Jay C. Hormel, recently returned from his service in World War I, more control over the daily operations of the company.[66]

A second consequence of the company’s rapid growth after the turn of the century was the breakdown in the peaceful labor relations George Hormel had enjoyed during the company’s early years. George blamed the war for releasing “energies and ideas which would profoundly affect American life,” particularly the idea of higher wages and shorter workdays – something that workers across the nation demanded during and immediately after the war.[67] Another reason for the breakdown may have been Hormel’s growing distance from his workers. At first, his employees viewed him as “one of us,” but when he left the packinghouse floor to take a managerial role he lost his daily personal contact with the rank-and-file laborers and his identification as one of them.[68]

The first indication of dissatisfaction among his workers came in 1915, when a small group of employees sought to establish a collective bargaining agreement with the company.[69] In 1917, nearly 100 butchers walked off the job, demanding higher wages and the assurance of steady work (meatpacking was seasonal work – employees had full employment and worked long hours during the fall and winter, shorter hours or none at all during the slow seasons of spring and summer).[70] For his part, Hormel sensed the political winds shifting in a pro-labor direction and agreed to some concessions. From his recounting of these years in his memoir, it seems that Hormel met his workers’ demands not so much out of a sense of fairness or a concern for workers’ rights, but because he feared that not doing so would result in increased outside (primarily labor union) or government interference in the operation of his business:

While I underwent no change of heart which made me more willing than I ever had been to subject our business to outside control, either through government or organized labor, I became increasingly sure that unless I could develop the same kind of leadership in this situation as I had during the formative years of the business, such interference was inevitable. Higher wages and shorter hours were here to stay. Full employment was part of the industrial formula as much as skill and production know how. From now on, if they wished to retain independence of action, it was up to the leaders of industry to recognize the overall nature of the new business picture….[71]

Despite these changes in labor relations, Geo. A. Hormel and Company continued to expand after the war. In 1924, the company reached a significant milestone in the meatpacking industry when it slaughtered 1 million hogs annually. Exports to Europe accounted for one-third of the company’s total sales in 1924, but increasing restrictions in the export market and a decline in international sales prompted the company to expand its domestic market.[72] George’s son Jay conceived the idea of increasing sales through the use of automobiles called “sausage trucks.” Each truck traveled a predetermined route, selling and delivering Hormel products to customers on the spot (as compared to taking orders for delivery at a later date).[73] Expansion also took the form of new product development. Hormel’s business strategy of “innovation, not imitation,” which he implemented from his first years as an independent meatpacker, continued to guide him. Hormel developed a new product, “Hormel’s Sugar-Cured Pig Back Bacon” (a cured pork loin product similar to Canadian bacon), in the late 1890s, introduced the popular Dairy Brand line of hams and bacon in 1903 (“cured by a special process discovered by Mr. Hormel after a quarter of a century of experimenting” boasted a local newspaper[74]), and added a new line of dry sausages in 1915.

New product development increased substantially after George’s son Jay returned from the war and was given greater control of the company. While George was a pragmatic leader who concentrated on product quality and plant efficiency, Jay was an “idea man” who envisioned new products, new distribution methods (the sausage trucks were his idea), new sales techniques, and new marketing strategies. In particular, Jay focused on products that could be marketed and sold directly to the consumer: ready-to-eat foods that did not need to be handled by a butcher. An idea to can wieners and sauerkraut led him to try canning ham, but years of experimentation by the company’s new research and development team did not produce a satisfactory product. While traveling in Europe in 1926, Jay met with Paul Jörn on the recommendation of a friend. The owner of a small meat processing plant in Hamburg, Germany, Jörn had devised a method of curing and sealing whole hams in cans. Jay convinced the German businessman to come to Austin to assist in the development of canned ham. With Jörn’s help, Geo. A. Hormel and Company introduced HORMEL® FLAVOR SEALED™ ham, the nation’s first canned whole ham, in February 1927.[75]

The development of canned ham launched Geo. A. Hormel and Company onto the national food scene and led to more new FLAVOR SEALED™ products in quick succession: spiced canned ham in 1927 and canned whole chicken in 1929. Jay promoted sales of these new products with unprecedented expenditures on marketing and promotion. George recalled his outrage when Jay informed him that he had spent $500,000 (equivalent to $6.28 million in 2010 US dollars) on advertising: “’A half million dollars!’ I exploded. ‘Why that’s a handsome year’s net profit. I can’t imagine myself spending my father’s money in any such fashion.’”[76] The incident highlighted the different management styles of father and son. “Although devoted to each other,” a reporter for Life magazine wrote in 1946, “Hormel and son disagreed increasingly on how to run a packinghouse.”[77] George decided it was time to retire and hand the reins over to Jay. Yet for a micromanager like George, it was difficult to relinquish control. “I felt that if I left the business it would go to pot, but if I did not leave it, I would not last long,” he explained.[78] In 1927, George appointed Jay as acting president of the company and, knowing that he could not remain in Austin and stay away from the plant, moved with his wife Lillian to Beverly Hills, California, where they had often vacationed.[79] In 1929, Jay assumed full control of Geo. A. Hormel and Company when he was elected president; George became chairman of the board of directors. His brothers retired from their positions over the course of the following decade: Herman in 1934, John in 1936, and Ben in 1941.

As president of Geo. A. Hormel and Company, Jay Hormel continued to focus on the development of convenient, ready-to-eat products. In 1932, the company introduced a line of canned soups, followed by DINTY MOORE® Stew and HORMEL® Chili in 1935. But Jay’s biggest success came in 1937, when he introduced what became the company’s most famous creation: SPAM® product. National advertising campaigns introduced these new items to the American consumer. A female song-and-dance troupe called the Hormel Chili Beaners traveled around the Midwest to publicize HORMEL® Chili. Hormel contracted with George Burns and Gracie Allen in 1940 to advertise SPAM® product on the radio, and in 1945 he organized the Hormel Girls to produce radio broadcasts and travel around the country performing musical numbers and promoting Hormel products.[80]

George Hormel’s absence did not mean that he was no longer involved in the company he had built into the Midwest’s largest independent meatpacker, a company that employed over 4,000 people in 1940 and processed over 1 million hogs annually.[81] George remained actively involved in his company’s operations. A journalist from Life magazine reported in March 1946 (a few months prior to George’s death) that “today the eighty-five-year-old chairman of the board sits in his Beverly Hills office, studies minute weekly reports of the business and writes back specific suggestions on new equipment and hog-killing schedules.”[82] On his regular trips back to Austin, he insisted on inspecting operations in the meatpacking plant. An employee observed, “When George A. gets here he doesn’t spend any time in the offices. He’ll say, ‘Come on, put on your white coat and let’s get out to the plant.’”[83]

His ongoing concern for his company was matched by his concern for the welfare of both his workers and workers throughout the nation. The paternalistic concern he exhibited for his employees extended to all Americans suffering from the effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s. George advocated the adoption of unemployment relief and a federal pension for retired workers. He first outlined his plan in a paper submitted to a presidential commission in 1931 and in various letters and proposals sent to U.S. Senators and Congressmen several years later. He believed that the record unemployment levels in the United States could be alleviated by the adoption of the six-hour workday and by raising the minimum wage to five dollars per hour for men and four dollars for women.[84]

George Hormel also supported his son’s implementation (albeit reluctantly at first) of the Hormel Plan in the 1930s, a contract that provided employees of Geo. A. Hormel and Company a guaranteed yearly payment of fifty-two checks, with no involuntary layoffs and no overtime pay. Jay introduced the Hormel Plan not only because he had inherited his father’s paternalistic attitude toward his employees, but also because he believed it was good for business. The meatpacking industry experienced a high rate of employee turnover due to the demanding nature of the work, which was exacerbated by seasonal rushes and layoffs. Jay aimed to reduce the company’s turnover rate and seasonal fluctuations and to maintain a steady, skilled workforce with the incentives provided by the Hormel Plan (which eventually included a profit-sharing plan as well).[85]

When he was not busy studying weekly business reports or devising proposals for the alleviation of unemployment, George Hormel spent much of his retirement writing. He recorded his ideas for improving the U.S. economy in an unpublished treatise entitled “The Book of Economics,” which is now housed in the archives of Hormel Foods. He also penned an unpublished autobiography called “The Open Road.” He died on June 5, 1946, after suffering a stroke two days earlier. His body was returned to Austin for burial next to his wife Lillian, who had passed away just two months before him. His New York Times obituary noted he was “the son of immigrant parents, [who] built his packing house chain from a small country meat market at Austin.”[86]

Social Status

Family and community were important to George A. Hormel, and both were essential to his success as a businessman. George credited his family for the skills, knowledge, habits, and values that enabled him to succeed as an entrepreneur. He also relied on the cooperation and assistance of his kin network in the operation of his growing company. Likewise, George recognized the importance of local support in his efforts to establish and then expand his business. Rather than limit himself to the confines of the German-American community, Hormel fully integrated himself into Austin society and made a sincere effort to be a good corporate citizen.

By all accounts, the home of John George and Susan Hormel was a happy and loving one. Both George A. and his brother Henry William Hormel, a Presbyterian minister who wrote a memoir of the Hormel family, described their childhood in Toledo, Ohio, in glowing terms.[87] The brothers credited their parents for the habits and values that contributed to their later success: hard work, efficiency, thrift, and piety. From his mother in particular, George A. learned the importance of doing a job right the first time. He recalled that as a boy of seven, it was his job to polish the family’s shoes on Saturdays. His mother would inspect each shoe before he was allowed to go out and play and would instruct him to do the job over again if the shoes did not pass her inspection:

“Nein!” she would say, “No, George, this will not do. Forna ist huey and hinter ist fuey!” And no matter how I cried, “if in front they were fine but in back they were phooey,” I did them over…. Eventually, I learned, as she intended that I should, that it was quicker and easier to do the chore properly the first time. This lesson, learned the hard way, many times since has proved a gold mine to me, for it established the habit early in life of doing a task as best I could when it was first given me to do.[88]

George also credits his mother and her brother, Jay Decker, for teaching him the value of order and cleanliness. George learned their importance during the years he spent in his uncle’s Chicago meat market:

I learned things working for my uncle I might otherwise never have learned so thoroughly. Like my mother, he had a passion for cleanliness and order, qualities not common in the food processing business of his time. … [E]verything about his business had to be as clean as he was. …To keep the premises clean was one of my jobs, and a scrap of trimming or crotch fat on the floor was an open invitation to a row. My uncle’s objection to dirt was not solely on aesthetic grounds. “Keep the place and everything in it clean,” he would say, “and you won’t lose money by spoilage. Clean food doesn’t spoil in a hurry, dirty food spoils while you’re looking at it.”[89]

The years George spent working at his father’s tannery and his uncle’s meat market familiarized him with the idea of entrepreneurship and the dedication, vision, and skills needed to operate a business. The variety of jobs he held as a boy and then as a young man provided George with a broad range of skills and experiences that he could use as a business owner. But it was the time spent operating his own meat market in Austin that taught George, as he termed it, “the profit side of a retail meat business” and how to run a successful company.[90]

Besides the knowledge, skills, values, and habits he learned from his family, George also relied heavily on his family’s assistance in the start-up and operation of his packinghouse. Three of his brothers and his parents moved to Austin to work in various capacities in his fledgling company, as did other family members, including a cousin and a brother-in-law. His father loaned him the money to expand the packing plant in 1892, and in 1895 he purchased the company’s first delivery wagon.[91] George’s wife also played a vital supportive role during the company’s initial years.

George and his wife, Lillian Belle Gleason, were married on February 24, 1892. Lillian was a teacher and the organist at the Presbyterian church that George attended in Austin. As George struggled to launch Geo. A. Hormel and Company, Lillian spent many evenings of her early married life helping her husband with paperwork, creating price lists, figuring the payroll, addressing circulars, and writing letters.[92] Later on, after company employees had taken over these tasks, Lillian continued to play an important role by developing recipes for Hormel Foods products, hosting the company’s annual stockholders’ meeting in her home, and serving on the company’s board of directors from 1907-1914.[93]

Despite his heavy reliance on his kin network in the operation of his company, George realized early in his entrepreneurial career that community support was vital to the success of a business in a small Midwestern city. Once he determined that Austin was the right location and provided the best opportunity for starting a business, George immediately joined the local social scene. He first connected with the local German-American community through his business partnership with Albrecht Friedrich and by participating in the activities of Austin’s Turnverein, a German-American athletic club.[94] However, he did not limit himself to his own ethnic group; rather, he sought out a larger circle of friends and social connections. He joined the Masonic Lodge, became a member of the local Presbyterian church, played on a baseball team, and helped start an informal men’s club known as the Bachelors, “a group of young blades who organized sleigh rides, bicycle tours, balls, and oyster suppers.”[95] In February 1890, while visiting his son in Austin, John George remarked on George A.’s social life in a letter to the Hormel family back in Toledo: “I think he is getting along all right and doing well[;] he has lots of Friends and they all seem to think a great deal of him[;] they are either Lawyers or Doctors and about his own age and Batchelors [sic].”[96] By all accounts, George A. Hormel was a popular and well-liked man in Austin with a large circle of friends, and this helped ensure general community support for his business ventures, first the Friedrich and Hormel meat market and then his packinghouse. A few days prior to the opening of his meat plant in November 1891, a local newspaper reported: “George A. Hormel & Co. will open a new packing house and retail meat market …. At his packing plant new improvements are being made and they will commence packing next Monday. Mr. Hormel has a large number of friends in Austin who will be glad to welcome him to the ranks of business men of Austin and wish him success.”[97]

Lillian (Gleason) Hormel’s local roots also helped George connect with the community. Lillian was the daughter of Henry and Jane Gleason, New England farmers who had moved to Minnesota in the 1860s. Until George’s retirement in 1927, George and Lillian Hormel lived in Austin their entire married life. During his residency there, George served several terms on the Austin city council. He garnered additional community support through his philanthropic activities, which included donating bricks for the construction of the Central Presbyterian Church in 1906, gifting his house to the local YWCA chapter upon his retirement and relocation to Beverley Hills, and establishing the Hormel Foundation (along with his son Jay) in 1941. Among other things, the foundation provided (and continues to provide) financial assistance to local charitable, educational, and scientific organizations.

George Hormel’s involvement in and contributions to his adopted hometown, his willingness to live and work alongside his plant employees, and his policy of employing and promoting local talent whenever possible was generally appreciated by Austin’s citizens. The feeling of appreciation was mutual. In his autobiography, George partially credited the people of Austin for his success as a meatpacker. Although meatpacking was considered dirty and undesirable work, George claimed that the people of Austin did not consider it so:

Another factor which influenced the worker … was the opinion of others toward his job. This meant how his family, his co-workers, his superiors, and his community regarded his means of livelihood. When what a man does for a living … determines his social standing, then he isn’t “as good as the other fellow,” and he knows it. … [I]t is the cause of much deep-seated dissatisfaction, the real reason for much so-called labor unrest. For the fact that neither in the business nor in the town did this kind of job snobbishness gain a foothold, I take some of the credit, most of it belongs to the people of Austin.[98]

The city, in turn, attributed some of its own success to the success of Geo. A. Hormel and Company, acknowledging at Hormel’s death that “the growth of Austin is tied in with the establishment of this business.”[99] Although he was a demanding employer with a reputation for “a quick, explosive temper and a caustic tongue,” his policies and actions convinced his employees of his genuine concern for their welfare.[100] His reputation as a paternalistic businessman who cared about his workers and the community has remained generally intact despite the ebb and flow of his company’s relationship with its employees and the Austin community. Labor relations at Geo. A. Hormel and Company deteriorated after son Jay assumed full control in 1929. Jay characterized his leadership style as a “benevolent dictatorship” but employees called it “sheer tyranny.”[101] Dissatisfaction increased and a union was formed, culminating in a labor strike in November 1933. The result of the strike was the company’s recognition of union bargaining rights and the full implementation of the Hormel Plan (prior to that time, it had been applied to only a few departments). The Hormel Plan restored stable labor relations in the company, a state of affairs that generally lasted until the Hormel Strike of 1985-86. By that time, however, employees and the larger Austin community had largely forgotten the negative features and recalled only the positive aspects of the paternalism exhibited by both father and son. During the 1985-86 strike, signs posted around Austin stated, “Jay Hormel Cared.”[102]


George Albert Hormel, the son of German immigrants, used the knowledge, skills, and values he learned from his family to succeed as an independent meatpacker in an industry dominated by corporate giants. Hormel’s close attention to efficiency, frugality, and innovation, as well as his insistence on quality contributed to the success of his company, enabling it to not only survive in the face of severe competition, but to become one of the largest independent meatpackers in the Midwest. Hormel relied heavily on the assistance of his German-American family in the operation of his business. George Hormel was an autocratic executive who liked to maintain control over every aspect of the production process, but, as his corporation grew in size, he realized that he needed to delegate authority, so he turned to people he knew and trusted the most: his family. Although George remained the undisputed head of Geo. A. Hormel and Company, the assistance of his kin network was vital to the success of his business.

In addition to his family, George Hormel sought the support of the German-American community early in his entrepreneurial career. When he first expressed interest in starting his own business, Hormel turned to the German-American network for assistance. When his friend Gus Wollering declined his offer to open a store together, he formed a business partnership with another German acquaintance and opened a meat market in Austin. However, Hormel did not limit himself to the German-American community. Rather, he immediately became part of the wider social scene in Austin, likely realizing that widespread support was vital to the success of his new business. His active involvement in and contributions to the city of Austin were rewarded; its citizens embraced him as one of their own and, over time, expressed pride in the fact that Austin was the home of the Geo. A. Hormel and Company.


[1] Austin Daily Herald (Austin, MN), June 6, 1946.

[2] Austin Daily Herald, June 11, 1946.

[3] Wilson J. Warren, Tied to the Great Packing Machine: The Midwest and Meatpacking (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2007), 83.

[4] Charity J. Lifka, Corporate Archives, Hormel Foods, e-mail message to author, February 22, 2012.

[5] Richard Dougherty, In Quest of Quality: Hormel’s First 75 Years (Austin, MN: Geo. A. Hormel & Co., 1966), 251.

[6] Doniver Lund, The Hormel Legacy: 100 Years of Quality (Austin, MN: Geo. A. Hormel & Company, 1991), 101-03.

[7] All current values (in 2010 USD) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[8] Stephen E. Rowe, “In Henry’s Footsteps: A New Look at Our Hormel Family History,” TMs, Archives of Hormel Foods, Austin, Minnesota. Document courtesy of Hormel Foods.

[9] The exact date of the Hormel family’s immigration is uncertain. William Henry Hormel, brother of George A. Hormel, cited 1833 as the year the family immigrated in his unpublished manuscript “One Generation under the American Flag,” TMs, Archives of Hormel Foods, Austin, Minnesota. However, recent research on the Hormel family conducted by Stephen E. Rowe, great-grandson of Ben Hormel (George A.’s brother), indicates that the year may have been 1834. Historic documents courtesy of Hormel Foods.

[10] David A. Gerber, The Making of American Pluralism, Buffalo, New York, 1825-60 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 183-84. He also notes that German families generally did not hesitate to pull their children out of school in order to work.

[11] George A. Hormel, “The Open Road,” TMs, Collection of the Mower County Historical Society, Austin, Minnesota, 20. “The Open Road” is Hormel’s unpublished memoir. A slightly different version of his memoir also exists. Entitled “Three Men and A Business,” it is more readily available than “The Open Road.” However, “Three Men and a Business” was edited and altered by an unknown source, so I have chosen to refer only to the original “Open Road” version. Although the memoir is a biased source that presents George A. Hormel’s actions and motivations in a generally (and perhaps excessively) positive light, it provides helpful information about events in his life, reasons for his actions, and commentary about his motivations. Therefore, I refer to “The Open Road,” cautiously and try to balance George’s personal recollections with information from external sources.

[12] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 29.

[13] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 230.

[14] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 37.

[15] Louise Carroll Wade, Chicago’s Pride: The Stockyards, Packingtown, and Environs in the Nineteenth Century (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 120.

[16] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 134.

[17] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 136.

[18] Information from a series of letters exchanged between George A. Hormel, Iowa, and Gus Wollering, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in November 1885. Hormel Family Collection, Archives of Hormel Foods, Austin, Minnesota. Historic documents courtesy of Hormel Foods.

[19] George A. Hormel, Stuart, Iowa, to Susanna Hormel, Toledo, Ohio, August 14, 1887. Hormel Family Collection, Archives of Hormel Foods, Austin, Minnesota. Underlining in the original. Historic document courtesy of Hormel Foods.

[20] Warren, Tied to the Great Packing Machine, 29-35.

[21] George H. Hammond is credited with developing the first rudimentary refrigerated railcar in 1868, which was later improved by Gustavus Swift in the late 1870s.

[22] Louise Carroll Wade, Chicago’s Pride, 177. In his first year of operation (1891-92) Hormel’s sales totaled $220,000 (Hormel, “The Open Road,” 155). In contrast, Swift and Company had $90 million in sales in 1892; Armour and Company claimed $110 million in sales in 1893 (Wade, Chicago’s Pride, 203).

[23] I have employed Wilson J. Warren’s term “direct buying” for the decentralized model of operation that came to dominate the meatpacking industry in the early to mid-twentieth century. See Warren,Tied to the Great Packing Machine, 17-23.

[24] In 1923, a subsidiary of Armour & Company acquired Morris & Company, reducing the Big Five to the Big Four. The shift of the meatpacking industry away from Chicago to smaller Midwestern cities was so complete that the Union Stockyards closed altogether in 1971.

[25] Geo. A. Hormel and Company did process other types of meat, including beef, poultry, and mutton (for a short time), but specialized in pork packing.

[26] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 145-46.

[27] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 159.

[28] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 159.

[29] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 160.

[30] Richard Dougherty, In Quest of Quality, 48. In his autobiography, Hormel writes that his business was not a casualty of the panic of 1893 and explains that this was “undoubtedly due to our emphasis on quality and to the fact that we converted raw material which otherwise would have been wasted into quality sausage” (163).

[31] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 157.

[32] According to the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, Peterson immigrated to the U.S. in 1885.

[33] “Squeal: The Hormel News-Magazine,” 50th Anniversary Souvenir, Vol. XVI, No. 10, November 1941, 31.

[34] His father’s help was short-lived, however, as John George died in May 1896.

[35] Eugene Whitmore, “First Steps in Sales Expansion,” Part 2 of the series “The Packer Who Dared to be Different: The Story of the George A. Hormel Company, Austin, Minnesota,” American Business (November 1935), 33.

[36] “Squeal: The Hormel News-Magazine,” 50th Anniversary Souvenir, 16.

[37] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 204.

[38] Warren, Tied to the Great Packing Machine, 51, 64. Statistics on the racial composition of Hormel Foods’ workforce found on page 64. See also Daniel Nelson, Farm and Factory: Workers in the Midwest, 1880-1990 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995), 96-97.

[39] Warren, Tied to the Great Packing Machine, 49. Quote from Upton Sinclair also on this page.

[40] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 76.

[41] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 100-01.

[42] Quotes from an unpublished, undated manuscript written by Ransome “Cy” Thomson and located in the collections of the Mower County Historical Society, Austin, Minnesota. Thomson worked for the Hormel Company from 1908 to 1921, rising to the position of assistant comptroller; he was in charge of the company’s general ledger. In 1921, company executives discovered that Thomson had embezzled over $1 million from the company. He was charged with fraud, pled guilty, and was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in the Minnesota State Prison. See Dougherty, In Quest of Quality, 90-103; see page 72 for the employment figures.

[43] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 168.

[44] Dougherty, In Quest of Quality, 49. Italics in the original.

[45] Fred H. Blum, Toward a Democratic Work Process: The Hormel Packinghouse Workers’ Experiment (New York, NY: Harper & Bros., 1953), 4.

[46] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 199.

[47] Richard J. Arnould, “George Albert Hormel,” in Dictionary of American Biography, sup. 4, 1946-1950 (New York, NY: Scribner & Sons, 1974), 396.

[48] Larry D. Engelmann, “We Were the Poor People: The Hormel Strike of 1933,” Labor History, Volume 15 (Fall 1974): 485.

[49] Engelmann, “We Were the Poor People,” 484-85.

[50] Austin Daily Herald, June 6, 1946.

[51] Dougherty, In Quest of Quality, 58.

[52] Warren, Tied to the Great Packing Machine, 33.

[53] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 199. There is some discrepancy regarding the exact year that George Hormel quit working on the packinghouse floor to assume an exclusively managerial role in the company. The company history timeline in “Squeal: The Hormel News-Magazine, 50th Anniversary Souvenir” lists 1899 as the year he did so, as does Richard Dougherty in In Quest of Quality (59). Engelmann, author of “We Were the Poor People,” identifies 1901 as the year. My reading of Hormel’s autobiography leads me to believe the actual year was 1900, as he writes: “I was forty that year. … So I took off my overalls, hung up the cleaver, and devoted my energies to management.” George A. Hormel turned forty in 1900.

[54] Dougherty, In Quest of Quality, 63.

[55] Dougherty, In Quest of Quality, 63, and “Squeal: The Hormel News-Magazine,” 50th Anniversary Souvenir, 15. The women joined the board in 1907. Elizabeth served as a director until 1911, while both Lena Eberhart and Lillian Gleason Hormel served until 1914.

[56] Stephen E. Rowe, “In Henry’s Footsteps.” Document courtesy of Hormel Foods. He was listed as a foreman in the 1910 U.S. Federal Census.

[57] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 162. For his mother’s household managerial abilities, see pp. 81-82; for a discussion of his wife’s support, see pp. 151, 162.

[58] Information on Hormel’s female employees from “Squeal: The Hormel News-Magazine,” 50th Anniversary Souvenir, 6 & 10, and Roger Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!” A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930-90 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 41.

[59] “Squeal: The Hormel News-Magazine,” 50th Anniversary Souvenir, 14.

[60] Gary Fields, “Communications, Innovation, and Territory: The Production Network of Swift Meat Packing and the Creation of a National US Market,” Journal of Historical Geography 29 (2003), 610.

[61] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 236.

[62] Statistics from Dougherty, In Quest of Quality, 65, and “Squeal: The Hormel News-Magazine,” 50th Anniversary Souvenir, 15-17.

[63] “Squeal: The Hormel News-Magazine,” 50th Anniversary Souvenir, 20.

[64] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 233, 259.

[65] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 247.

[66] Engelmann, “We Were the Poor People,” 485.

[67] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 243.

[68] Engelmann, “We Were the Poor People,” 485.

[69] Engelmann, “We Were the Poor People,” 485.

[70] Dougherty, In Quest of Quality, 81.

[71] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 247.

[72] Figures from “Squeal: The Hormel News-Magazine,” 50th Anniversary Souvenir, 20.

[73] Dougherty, In Quest of Quality, 129-30.

[74] Quoted in Dougherty, In Quest of Quality, 69.

[75] “The Name is HOR-mel,” Fortune, October 1937, 136. See also Dougherty, In Quest of Quality, 117-19. Paul Jörn’s surname is variously spelled as “Jorn” and “Joern.”

[76] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 274.

[77] Frances Levison, “The Spam Man,” Life, March 11, 1946, 65. See also Dave Hage and Paul Klauda, No Retreat, No Surrender: Labor’s War at Hormel (New York, NY: William Morrow & Co., 1989), 42-43.

[78] Levison,“The Spam Man,” 65.

[79] Doniver Lund, The Hormel Legacy: 100 Years of Quality, 49.

[80] Doniver Lund, The Hormel Legacy: 100 Years of Quality, 54-81.

[81] “Squeal: The Hormel News-Magazine,” 50th Anniversary Souvenir, 27.

[82] Levison, “The Spam Man,” 65.

[83] Quote from Levison, “The Spam Man,” 65.

[84] “Congressional Record Prints George A. Hormel’s Scheme for Relief of Unemployed,” Austin Daily Herald, April 10, 1933.

[85] See Engelmann, “We Were the Poor People,” 487-88; “The Name is HOR-mel,” 138; Eugene Whitmore, “Hormel’s Fight to Maintain Steady Employment,” Part 6 of the series “The Packer Who Dared to be Different: The Story of the George A. Hormel Company, Austin, Minnesota,” American Business (November 1935).

[86] “George A. Hormel, Packer, 85, is Dead,” New York Times, June 6, 1946.

[87] William Henry Hormel, “One Generation under the American Flag,” TMs, Archives of Hormel Foods, Austin, Minnesota, see in particular pp. 20-23, 59-77. Historic document courtesy of Hormel Foods.

[88] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 10.

[89] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 37-38.

[90] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 145.

[91] Dougherty, In Quest of Quality, 53.

[92] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 157.

[93] Information on Lillian Belle Hormel’s service on the board of directors and her development of recipes from “Squeal: The Hormel News-Magazine,” 50th Anniversary Souvenir, 15-17. Her role as hostess of the annual stockholders’ meeting comes from Gertrude Ellis Skinner, “A Tribute,” Austin Daily Herald, March 25, 1946. Skinner was a close friend of Lillian’s who wrote and published this article in the local newspaper shortly after Lillian’s death.

[94] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 144. Hormel writes that Austin’s population at the time was a mix of ethnicities, with Germans and Scandinavians predominant (215).

[95] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 143.

[96] John George Hormel, Austin, Minnesota, to the Hormel family, Toledo, Ohio, February 15, 1890. Hormel Family Collection, Archives of Hormel Foods, Austin, Minnesota. Historic document courtesy of Hormel Foods. I have made no corrections to the original.

[97] Austin Register (Austin, MN), November 6, 1891.

[98] Hormel, “The Open Road,” 209-10.

[99] Austin Daily Herald, June 6, 1946.

[100] Quote from Hormel, “The Open Road,” 210; Engelmann, “We Were the Poor People,” 484.

[101] Blum, Toward a Democratic Work Process, 4-5. Roger Horowitz writes that until the formation of the Independent Union of All Workers in 1933, the Hormel family exercised absolute control over the company (Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!,” 36).

[102] Peter Rachleff, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1993), 27.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title George A. Hormel
  • Coverage 1860-1946
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date April 23, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018