Worthington 150: Stubborn Swede with social conscience built up region’s largest industry
E. O. Olson was a prominent figure in Worthington's history
WORTHINGTON — “Luck and Pluck.” The story of Worthington’s E. O. Olson is a real-life tale. It is the story of the phenomenal growth of a local industry — a 200,000-pound output the first year to millions of pounds of foodstuffs annually — as the “poor boy triumphed in the face of numerous obstacles.”
A shrewd, stubborn Swede, tall in stature, “Creamery Olson,” as he became known, was left fatherless at the age of 7.
His father, a Swedish emigrant who had homesteaded near Grandy, Minnesota in 1869, died in 1885, leaving his wife and several small children in hard financial straits. School was two and one-half miles away and the youngsters could attend only in the fall and spring months. Bad roads and cold weather kept them at home in the winter.
Their main source of living depended on the little income they earned from their few cows. Ten years later, after the death of their mother, the children were “farmed out.”
In 1898, young Erick became a helper in the Grandy creamery, remaining there two and a half years.
He then attended dairy school at St. Peter, after which Professor Haesker helped him get a job as a buttermaker at Grove Lake.
From there he went to Brooten, where he was a buttermaker and where he and Bella G. Pladson were married Dec. 21, 1908.
Next, he became buttermaker and part owner of the Sunburg creamery, south of Brooten, and then he became renter and full owner of the Swift Falls Creamery northwest of Sunburg. He built a new creamery at Swift Falls but sold both this and his interest at Sunburg in 1911 and rented a creamery at Adrian, his first venture in southwest Minnesota.
After more than a year of successful operation of the Adrian creamery, Olson left there, purchasing the privately-owned Worthington Creamery and Produce Co. plant at Worthington from William Burchard for $3,100. He made only butter and ice cream at first.
Three years later the first plant was outgrown and, in 1915, Olson built a brick structure at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street.
Who could have guessed that his modest start would mushroom into a mammoth industry and produce the city’s most highly-respected benefactor?
During the heavy poultry-dressing season in 1915, the local creamery was paying 25 cents for hens four pounds and over, 23 cents for those under four pounds, 30 cents for spring chickens two pounds and over, 15 cents for old roosters and ducks and 10 cents for geese.
At the same time, eggs brought 43 cents, going up to 63 cents in the winter. By Jan. 1, 1919, business had developed into a “mammoth industry with a handsome annual payroll.”
Millions of pounds of poultry were purchased and prepared for market in cities throughout the nation, with a big share going to New York and eastern markets. With an average weight of four pounds per bird, 250,000 foul went through the local plant per year.
In the seven months preceding 1919, the average monthly payroll was $1,000, with an annual payroll budget of $40,000.
Weekly ads informed the public that Worthington Creamery & Produce paid the highest cash price for eggs, sold cracked eggs for half price, offered free buttermilk — for “health and longevity” — left over from the heavy feeding season.
Furthermore, women could earn from $20 to $30 per week for picking chickens, $18 weekly as butter wrappers, and $20 as poultry packers.
By 1920, the plant at Fourth and Ninth had become too small. That spring, construction of a “mammoth fireproof building” was begun on Second Avenue, with Omaha railway trackage.
The new building, later site of the present Campbell Soup Co. sprawling complex, offered 35,000 square feet of floor space — three times that on Fourth Avenue.
Sam Swanson was contractor for the two-story brick and concrete building, which included a high basement. Plans also included poultry-receiving rooms on the first floor; a cold-storage area with 10-carload capacity — of 10,00 pounds of butter, 15,000 dozen eggs and 10,000 pounds of dressed poultry. A poultry-feeding plant with a 40,000-head fowl capacity would be located on the second floor. This required special sanitary engineering. Sunshine and fresh air were needed and birds were to be penned in the latest steel “batteries.”
At this time, the plant employed 20 men and 30 women, and was headquarters for 28 stations within a 50-mile radius of Worthington, doing an annual business of well over $1 million.
In the new and continually expanding plant, Frank E. Mixa and R. W. Olson managed the new hatchery operation. R.W. Bergstrom, Nick Hand and R.W. Hoxie are but a few of the names long associated with Worthington Creamery & Produce.
Hoxie was with the creamery before railroad cars were refrigerated. Poultry had to be shipped live to Chicago and New York and he traveled right in the cars with it, making sales at stops along the way.
By 1936, more than 600 cars of processed dairy and poultry products were shipped by rail and 300 cars of raw materials arrived during the year.
At this time, the “Worthmore” label was used on products. Tom Hauge oversaw buttermaking; R. H. Sampe, cheese production, and Fred Hyke, ice cream.
Christmas parties for employees began in December 1939, with more than 1,000 attending the first party at the local Armory.
E.O. Olson’s daughter said it was impossible to estimate the number of employees he had, and the impact their earnings made on the local community. Suffice it to say, it was substantial.
After E.O. Olson’s retirement in 1944, when he sold the entire business to C. A. Swanson and Sons, Olson still “sat in the driver’s seat” community-wise.
Quietly and behind the scenes — many of his acts are unknown to the general public because he wanted it that way — he put money to work on behalf of the community where he had made his fortune.
His main interests were an ample water supply for Worthington, better recreational facilities for its citizens, and a YMCA to build better young people.