Businesses have been at the center of Minnesota history. The largest Minnesota businesses moved from furs and trapping in the eighteenth century to commercial farming, milling, and mining in the nineteenth century and finally to retail and high-technology concerns in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The state, however, has developed a diversity of businesses. Sprawling global trading firms have been integrated into pre-existing, highly localized exchanges. Large and small farms, industrial manufacturing, and big-box retailers coexist as important nodes in the state's economy. Each firm, each exchange, reflects the social relations, values, and policies of the world around it.
Businesses also helped to shape that world. Their shifting fortunes determined everything from where railroad track was laid to the fates of workers and of neighborhood residents. We can look to firms to see Minnesotans adopting new technologies and new ideas, as well as tackling questions about wealth and power.
The history of business in Minnesota reveals the importance of political and social support to its economy, and the efforts of Minnesotans to create resilient infrastuctures that weather these changes.
The Minnesota Historical Society has in its collections a string of vibrant red beads, each with a deep green center. These striking objects were used in the fur trade sometime in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although they are only three quarters of an inch long, the beads and others like them were crucial to the fur trade. They were often offered by clerks or traders in partial exchange for furs procured by indigenous people.
The beads and the furs for which they were given required a far-flung network of people and systems; ships and sailors transported them to and from Europe. To get to and from ships, goods were slowly carried back and forth across the rivers of eastern North America, sometimes by voyageurs employed by firms, sometimes by independent coureurs des bois. All of the traders, clerks, and voyageurs were licensed by, or entered into some kind of agreement with, fur trading firms. Firms' entry into North America was conditioned by imperial and indigenous laws, regulations, and politics. Finally, trade happened among people who shared a family tie, political alliance, or ties of credit.
More than straightforward exchange, traded beads reveal business rooted in ties of financial indebtedness, community, and, often, kinship. These were shaped by laws, regulations, and politics. A humble trading post, then, was a place where all of these relations were enacted and made meaningful in everyday life. It was a place that revealed not only how the fur trade worked, but also how other systems—of power, of kinship, of credit—operated.
As the fur trade makes clear, trade and commerce were woven through the Upper Great Lakes region long before Minnesota was a territory or the United States a nation. Indeed, even before Europeans appeared to trade furs, indigenous peoples traded goods across the continent, encountering and using goods from thousands of miles away. And of course who traded, what was desirable, and which currency or other medium was used changed dramatically over the course of the state's history.
The story of the fur trade is only one moment in the longer history of Minnesota business. However, it is a good introduction to the state's history because it illustrates the significance of business to laws, regulations, and social systems in Minnesota. Business involves enterprises that are very large (like transatlantic trading companies) and very small (such as self-employed carriers of goods). It can also involve institutions not always called businesses, such as Indian craft economies and small-scale family production.
In all of these sites, we can see that business itself mattered to everyday social relations, to economic strategizing, to political structures, and to economies as a whole. The fur trade reveals the broad significance of businesses to the people of Minnesota. Regardless of their size, businesses stood at the center of the systems at work in their world.
Minnesota Territory is distinctive for the centrality of large-scale commercial activity to its early history. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Hudson's Bay Company and the Northwest Company traded in the upper Great Lakes. They were joined by the American Fur Company in 1816. The American Fur Company's presence in the region in the early nineteenth century proved a harbinger of more organized business activity. Lumber was an important draw for ambitious investors by the late 1830s and assumed "gigantic proportions" during and after the Civil War. The largest holdings of lumber barons stretched into tens of thousands of acres by the mid-1850s.
Very large enterprises also shaped agriculture in the state. Beginning in the 1870s, large "bonanza" farms in the Red River Valley relied on wage labor and mechanized, systematized production. They brought investors, farm managers, new technology, and hundreds of workers to the state. Rural families, whether producing wheat to sell or engaging in subsistence agriculture, often relied on this sort of periodic wage labor to support themselves. Even the most rural Minnesota farmers, then, saw their futures entwined with commerce and business.
By the mid-nineteenth century, in a sharp departure from the days of the fur trade, most Euro-Americans saw Indian removal and the availability of land for white migration into the state as crucial requirements for the expansion of commerce. Governors, members of the territorial and state legislatures, and eventually federal lawmakers came to agree. Whether politicians considered it an unfortunate inevitability or a positive change, most worked to open the state to white immigration, migration, and land ownership.
Beginning with a series of treaties in 1837 and 1838, and most famously with the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in 1851, they succeeded. The promise of open land and its much-vaunted commercial possibilities brought a dramatic surge in population—from 6,077 in 1850 to nearly 25,000 in 1854.
In the dramatic demographic and political transformations of the mid-1800s, lumber and grain milling emerged as particularly profitable, especially to some lucky early entrants. A few entrepreneurs found enormous financial success, as well as social and political influence. These facilitated their milling enterprises and reflected the increasingly vital economic role of milling. For instance, Frederick Weyerhaeuser, using capital amassed in small mills in Illinois and Wisconsin, established a lumber empire based in St. Paul that reached through much of northern Minnesota, western Wisconsin, and into the Pacific Northwest. When lumber disappeared from northern forests, he diversified into paper production and wood products.
The Washburn family quickly assembled diversified holdings in lumber, land, saw mills, fuel, and waterpower. They were joined by a few other families—most prominently the Pillsburys—in using new techniques and new equipment to process "spring wheat" into the most popular kind of baking flour.
These millers tied Minnesota to markets both nearby and abroad. Minnesota was one of the nation's most important sources of milled lumber through the peak of production in 1905. The city of Minneapolis went from milling almost no wheat in 1870 to becoming the nation's leading source of flour between 1880 and the 1930s. Indeed, wheat that was milled in the city or bought and sold through its famous grain exchange traveled all over the world.
Although Minnesota business changed over time, becoming more industrial and more mechanized, important historical figures and their social networks maintained their importance. The story of Norman Kittson encapsulates the way that powerful individuals shaped industrialization and commercialization.
Kittson came to Minnesota in 1834, first as an employee of the American Fur Company and then as a clerk with the storekeeper at Fort Snelling. As it became clear that the land itself was valuable, Kittson found work as a land surveyor. Ever entrepreneurial, he also operated trading posts and harvested lumber on land he surveyed. He then moved on to a position with the Hudson's Bay Company, using proceeds to finance real estate investments in and around Minneapolis and Saint Paul, to speculate in the hinterland, and to take over the lucrative steamboat lines that connected them.
Through his presence in storage and transportation, Kittson entered politics, eventually becoming mayor of S. Paul. He made important social contacts as well as enormous amounts of money. In 1877 he joined with two other investors and James J. Hill, then an ambitious proprietor of steamboat, shipping, and fuel firms, to buy the assets of the defunct Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad. Calling themselves "the Associates," they laid thousands of miles of track in a railroad system that shipped other men's grains and lumber from coast to coast. In the course of one man's life, the state was transformed from an outpost of the national economy to a crucial node in a growing empire built around agriculture and railroads.
The state's move towards industrial firms that relied on extracting natural resources continued into the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Beginning in the 1860s, mineral prospectors ventured into the state, lured by rumors of gold on the shores of Lake Vermillion in northeastern Minnesota. They didn't find gold, but over time investigators identified three deposits of iron ore. Mining began on the Vermillion range in 1884 and by 1892 had expanded into the exceptionally large Mesabi. In 1911, the last of the large veins was tapped and ore was exported from the Cuyuna range.
Ore deposits and the towns that grew up around them collectively became known as the Iron Range. The first miners were independent and the Cuyuna range remained largely mined by locally owned firms. However, ownership of mines in the Vermillion and Mesabi ranges quickly became concentrated in a few large national corporations, especially U.S. Steel, the Reserve Mining Company, and Bethlehem Steel.
Ore from the range transformed the fortunes of the region. It pushed forward the national profile of the state and became crucial to mechanization and construction across the nation. Between 1900 and 1980, the Mesabi range alone provided 60 percent of the ore mined in the U.S. At its peak, the range supplied 90 percent of all ore used by the nation's steel industry. What had been a sparsely populated, rural, seemingly unforgiving landscape in the early part of the state's history was home to nearly 24,000 people by 1900 and over 100,000 by 1920. Mining companies and the people they employed created new towns nearly overnight. Their ore mining, processing, and shipping sustained bustling shipyards and local economies in towns like Two Harbors and Duluth.
Iron ore not only brought enormous wealth but also great uncertainty to the region. Mining towns' well being was notoriously unstable; they were almost entirely dependent on the fortunes of steel and mining and a few large mines and their firms. Iron ore itself, of course, was a finite resource. All Minnesotans understood that the ore, and by extension the ore-based mining economy, were not going to last forever. Efforts by local and state political authorities to plan for new sorts of businesses are important features of Iron Range business history.
These efforts yielded several results. E.W. Davis at the University of Minnesota developed a process for extracting iron ore from taconite, a rock that had been considered unusable by the steel industry. As the original high-quality iron ore became depleted, new mining and steel operations around taconite extraction became the goal of state and local officials.
A 1964 constitutional amendment exempting taconite firms from increased taxes for twenty-five years was the result of officials' efforts. The amendment, supported on the Range and elsewhere, marked a transformation of political culture. Corporations had previously been taxed at relatively high rates. Municipalities used proceeds to build schools, pay for public amenities, and sustain an exceptionally high quality of life even in remote towns like Hibbing. The amendment's passage and the move away from business taxation points to the growing sense that government had to accommodate large businesses, rather than vice versa.
Taconite mining was not the only strategy for economic stability. The state's Iron Range Resources Redevelopment Board (the IRRRB), established in 1941, funded projects to reframe the Range as a tourist destination, to spur lumber and wood products industries, and to encourage agriculture where possible. Tourism, and especially historical tourism, emerged as a focus for local economies and the cultural life of many residents.
In spite of these efforts, both the population and the economy of the Range declined precipitously in the 1980s. (At the recession's lowest point, one researcher estimated that an average of thirty-one people per day left the counties of St. Louis, Itasca, and Lake to look for work elsewhere.) Although taconite continues to be mined in the region in the 2010s, and although recreation and travel have given rise to many small local businesses, a cycle of optimistic expansion and dramatic retrenchment continues to define economic life on the Range. Twenty-first century controversy about the mining of "frac sand" in northern Minnesota is part of larger debates about what sorts of businesses and what ways of life the Range can sustain.
Elsewhere, other industries that had seemed like mainstays of the economy also fell on hard times in the twentieth century. Lumber production peaked in 1905 with the sale of over two billion feet of lumber. By 1914, however, production was only half of that. It fell to nearly nothing in ensuing decades.
Flour mills remained vital to the state for a longer time, diversifying into processed foods and other commodities (e.g., the many varieties of Gold Medal flour and the elaborate manufacturing, testing, and developing operations of General Mills, Inc). Actual flour milling, however, fell dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s. The Washburn A Mill closed in 1965 and was gutted by fire in 1991. By that point, it had been named an official historic landmark, but one that was standing empty. As in the Range, historical tourism offered a partial answer; the mill building re-opened in 2002 as the site for the Minnesota Historical Society's Mill City Museum.
It is easy, in many ways, to see Minnesota business as a history of big business. Large corporations seemed to dominate whole economic sectors, even if that domination proved finite. In these areas, business tended to be standardized, large-scale, and centrally controlled by a few corporations. Agriculture, while bearing out some of these characteristics, tells a more complicated story.
Agriculture in Minnesota grew more diverse over time. The bonanza farms of the 1870s and 1880s gave way to a mix of dairy, meat, and diverse vegetable and grain production. Minnesota agriculture remained embedded in commerce and trade. Wheat farmers depended on sales to grain merchants and mills. Operators of dairy farms sought ways to get perishable butter and milk to urban markets. Livestock producers used new feeds and grazing techniques to grow the kinds of animals most desirable to commercial processors. Farmers of corn, soy, and vegetables worked to take advantage of shifting commercial uses for their products. By the late twentieth century, some of the state's largest businesses—Cargill, Hormel, General Mills—dealt with food and commodity crops.
For all their importance to conventional industry, however, farmers themselves occupy a unique position in business history. They acted both as producers and as workers who sought more control over their economic lives. Farmers' efforts to secure control over the prices and terms of their transactions led to cooperatively owned grain elevators, dairies, warehouses, and processing plants and stores.
Co-ops were built on the Scandinavian heritage of much of Minnesota as well as a long history of agricultural protest among Minnesotans. Beginning with the Minnesota Grange in 1869, co-ops proved remarkably successful. In the years before World War I, 671 cooperative creameries operated in the state, accounting for half of all cooperative creameries in the nation. Co-ops became some of the state's largest businesses—Land O'Lakes is an example-and also some of its smallest (this was particularly true of rural consumer cooperatives).
Today, consumer cooperative stores populate the food retail landscape alongside larger national and regional chains of stores. Agricultural marketing co-ops continue to shape how grain is bought and sold. Co-ops remain a distinctive type of firm, promising democratic control while also adopting, adapting, and modifying the strategies of privately held firms.
Over the course of the twentieth century, farmers struggled to make sense of the increasing prevalence of mechanical equipment, fertilizer that required significant capital investments, and commercial suppliers. These "inputs" did increase production, but in spite of promises, they did not result in wealthier farmers. Indeed, the 1980s farm crisis hit Minnesota especially hard, with land values falling from $1,281 per acre in 1981 to $609 in 1986.
Minnesota's agricultural sector remains a diverse landscape. It is home to some of the state's (and the nation's) largest and most conventional agricultural businesses, as well as moderately-sized, family-operated farms. It supports one of the nation's most successful movements towards small farms and alternative agriculture. Minnesota farmers continue to negotiate the many forms of commerce that permeate the food system.
While the manufacturing sector contracted, and as even agriculture assumed dependence on technology and far-flung retail markets, new areas of the economy and new kinds of businesses became increasingly important. High-technology, medical-device, and retail firms emerged as important Minnesota businesses in the late twentieth century.
Beginning in the early 1900s, high-technology research firms emerged as a vital sector in the state's business landscape. In the first half of the twentieth century new firms like Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (later 3M) and Minneapolis Heat Controls (later Honeywell) invested in research and development of specialized goods that industrial manufacturers required. The goods designed for these other firms—adhesives and coated surfaces in the case of 3M and specialized controls in the case of Honeywell—gradually found consumer applications as well. In the 2010s, both firms also design prominent consumer brands.
3M and Honeywell, however, were only the beginning. The state's high-technology sector boomed in the years after World War II. Small firms like Engineering Research Associates (ERA) and Medtronic developed products and personnel who in turn expanded the range of Minnesota business. ERA, founded in 1946, grew out of efforts to keep together Navy researchers who had begun to develop advanced code-breaking equipment—the forerunners of super computers. ERA disappeared in a 1952 merger, but the firm's employees and discoveries spread to new Minnesota computing firms like Sperry Univac and Control Data.
Another firm that took advantage of the need for specialized electronics, Medtronic, began in 1949 as a repair shop for medical equipment. It quickly expanded into manufacturing delicate medical equipment—particularly pacemakers and cardiac devices. Drawing on specialized research and students at the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic, firms like Medtronic both fed and depended on vital local networks of highly educated researchers and appealing communities. Although not all firms succeeded over the long term, and although many firms faced restructuring in the 1980s and again after the 2008 market crash, these high-tech, research-driven firms continue to exert significant force on the Minnesota economy and to support many of the white-collar jobs in the region.
The twentieth century also saw the growth of large, Minnesota-based, mass retailers. The most powerful example of the large capital and profound effects of individual retail businesses is the Dayton Corporation. Begun as a dry-goods store in 1902 by George Draper Dayton, Dayton's department store became a symbol of Minneapolis's downtown. It was a fixture in local shopping—the place where families would buy fashionable goods for dances, weddings, and other rites of passage.
Dayton himself laid the groundwork for powerful family leadership of the firm (which was managed by the family until 1978) and for a familial presence in local politics and commercial life. The firm began to open "branch" stores in the post-World War II period and emerged as a leading force in upper-Midwest retail in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In 1956, Dayton's financed and oversaw construction of the nation's first indoor mall, Southdale, in Edina.
Mall construction and retail investment of the kind Dayton's pioneered increased over time. The Mall of America, which opened in Bloomington thirty-six years after Southdale, was built not by a large, established retailer but through complicated financing from national pension funds, international mall development corporations, banks, and the City of Bloomington. All of these investors made malls, or at least the promise of large-scale and sustained consumer spending, critical to cities' economic success and the fortunes of investors both small and large—even those who had never been to the mall.
In a sign of the growth and transformed retail landscape, Dayton's, once the iconic department store, fell on hard times in the latter decades of the twentieth century and was taken over by its rival, Marshall Field and Company. Both sets of stores eventually merged with Federated Department Stores and were rebranded as part of the Macy's chain. Meanwhile, Target stores, begun as an experiment in diversification by Dayton's, quickly overshadowed their more stately retail ancestors. In 2000 the Dayton-Hudson Corporation renamed itself Target Corporation, signaling that small-scale individual purchases like toiletries, aspirin, and socks had become the focus of big business.
Indeed, retail was big business even when the firms controlling it were not themselves big. It is vital to remember, for all the talk of large chains and malls, that most retailers in Minnesota were, and remain, small by all measures. These firms are crucial sites for peoples' interaction with national and international commodities, and with the economy as a whole.
Small firms have brought food into urban neighborhoods and carried goods and people out of them. (Greyhound bus lines, for example, began as a small operation that drove workers in the Iron Range to the sites of mines.) Local coffee houses, bars, and restaurants have been important sites of culture, sociability, and political resistance. Feminist coffeehouses in the Twin Cities were crucial spaces in the women's liberation movement of the 1970s. And of course, tiny and sometimes sporadic enterprises—craft-making, tailoring, home production of commercially sold food—undergird many Minnesotans' economic worlds. Indeed, retail is the kind of business many Minnesotans encounter most frequently.
Retail spaces make especially clear how important social control and social relations were to businesses' everyday operation. For instance, Southdale was designed not only to bring a variety of retailers within easy reach of suburban shoppers but also to provide those shoppers with stable temperatures, unified décor, convenient walking and parking options, and security guards able to limit theft and preserve order. The Mall of America, like many contemporary malls, works to supervise groups that congregate in common areas and imposes curfews on teenagers who shop there. Of course, neighborhood stores can be sites of surveillance and sometimes resentment as much as solidarity. In all these cases, businesses have worked to control consumption as well as to encourage it.
Controlling business spaces and the people who populate them has not been an issue only for retailers. Large iron and steel firms like U.S. Steel built model towns on the Iron Range (most famously Morgan Park, now a neighborhood in the city of Duluth) to try to "Americanize" workers and to head off union organizing on the range—an effort that failed.
Similarly, beginning in the 1910s, the Minneapolis Civic and Commerce Association and later the Citizens Alliance combined the efforts of millers, large retailers, and manufacturers to keep unions out of Minneapolis. Members marshaled local police, city council members, state militias, the National Guard, "volunteer" citizen patrols, and their own private detectives in (again, ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to prevent socialist, non-partisan, and labor groups from organizing in the city.
Businesses continued to be sites where the state and property owners imposed political and social agendas. In the late twentieth century, new immigrants from Asia, Africa, Mexico, and Central America revitalized small business districts in Minnesota's towns and cities and worked to sustain ethnic identities. In the early twenty-first century, the federal government routinely conducts well-publicized immigration raids on Minnesota meatpacking and janitorial firms and in communities where employees live.
The tensions and instabilities of businesses, and of efforts to govern what happens inside and outside of them, point to a large, important theme. All businesses are transient, their operations shaped by the politics, economies, and social systems of their time. The changes wrought by Norman Kittson, C. C. Washburn, and Frederick Weyerhaeuser reflect their own ingenuity and resources, as well as Minnesota's natural resources. But they also expose social practices and political realities that made it easier for white men to achieve wealth than for people of color and white women. A pattern of boom, building, and bust, of frequent lobbying, strategizing, and ongoing efforts to shape spaces of work, play, and purchase, has characterized Minnesota business from the state's territorial period to the present.
For all of its seeming orderliness, then, business remains as disorderly and unpredictable as the society on which it is based. It is the job of the historian to ask why particular firms succeeded and not to assume that technology or wealth or entrepreneurial drive alone can explain success. What social systems, cultural shifts, and political structures enabled some strategies to work, and others to fade away? Historical analysis offers the opportunity to see the structural significance of firms regardless of their life span. What migration patterns, gender systems, and political cultures are at play in a local restaurant? What zoning law was resisted in a large manufacturer's decision to expand? Seen this way, business history reveals vital, unstable, and charged sites at the center of American life.
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Commerce predated Euro-American firms in Minnesota.
Early firms were grouped around extractive and agricultural industries, especially lumber and wheat production.
Businesses depended on political change, including efforts to open land to white migration and immigration.
Entrepreneurs diversified their interests, but ownership of the largest firms remained concentrated in a few hands.
Iron Range towns were crucial suppliers of ore, but also developed many strategies to deal with their dependence on mining and mining companies.
Agriculture in Minnesota has always been enmeshed in commerce and industry, but it has encompassed a mix of kinds of businesses: cooperatives of all sizes, large private firms, and, more recently, self-consciously small, alternative farms.
High-tech firms assumed new importance in the twentieth century, drawing from and contributing to Minnesota's educational and medical infrastructure.
Retail firms became increasingly influential in shaping the state—as investors, as operators of large chains, and as crucial sites of everyday life for many Minnesotans.
Firms sought control over labor practices, consumer behavior, and policies relevant to their business.
Business firms reflect the laws, values, and struggles of their time and place. Their success and failure have much to say about the society in which they operate.
Ancient Lake Superior people begin to use shells obtained through trade networks originating in the Gulf of Mexico, suggesting that trade among indigenous Americans predates the arrival of Europeans.
A treaty with the Ojibwe cedes much of northeastern Minnesota and the St. Croix Valley, allowing whites to commercially harvest Minnesota's lumber.
Marine Lumber Company, the first in Minnesota, is established on unsurveyed lands.
The Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota open millions of acres to white migration into Minnesota Territory and results in the forced migration of Dakota people further west.
The first "patent flour" is produced at the Washburn B and Pillsbury mills. The middlings purifier and new roller mill processes allow Minnesota millers to use spring wheat, rather than eastern winter wheat, to produce attractive flour.
The banker J. P. Morgan creates U.S. Steel, prompting John Rockefeller to sell his Iron Range mines to the new firm and consolidating the firm's influence on Minnesota's iron mining economy.
Dayton's Dry Goods Store opens, creating a cultural landmark and a nationally influential retailer.
Engineering Research Associates, which jumpstarts computer research in Minnesota and beyond, is founded by William Norris in St. Paul.
An amendment to the Minnesota constitution releases taconite producers from paying any tax increases for the next twenty-five years and points to a new unwillingness to tax businesses that are central to local economies.
The Iron Range Interpretive Center, designed to encourage tourism and celebrate the heritage of the Iron Range, opens.
Historic Washburn A Mill, long closed, is nearly destroyed by fire. It reopens as Mill City Museum in 2003.
The Mall of America opens in Bloomington.
Mercado Central, a cooperative of Mexican-American entrepreneurs, opens on Lake Street in Minneapolis. The market is emblematic of the contributions of recent immigrants to a resurgence of small businesses in Minnesota.