Midwest Business Turned Global Conglomerate: The Local Roots of Cargill


Image from HHM Collections

This simple Cargill feed sack in the collection at Hennepin History Museum represents the success story of a local business. Today, Cargill is the largest privately held corporation in the United States, but the conglomerate traces its roots to the Midwest. The Minnetonka-based corporation still buys, sells, and distributes grain just as they did in the beginning. However, in the second half of the twentieth century, Cargill became heavily diversified and expanded into the global market. Given Cargill’s long history, which now spans over 150 years, it is important to remember the company’s origins. 

In 1865, William W. Cargill founded his company when he purchased a grain warehouse in Iowa. In 1870, after Cargill’s brothers had joined the business, he moved his headquarters to Albert Lea, Minnesota. Just five years later, Cargill moved again to La Crosse, Wisconsin. By 1885, Cargill operated over 100 grain elevators around the Midwest. In 1890, Cargill Elevator Company was incorporated in Minneapolis, and by 1912 all of Cargill’s enterprises would be consolidated under that name. 

The Cargill family was one of the earliest to recognize the potential for a wheat economy in the region. They also saw the importance of international export very early on. In 1878, they exported 80,000 bushels of wheat to England. This transaction was considered the first significant export of grain from Minnesota. 

Today, Cargill operates in over seventy countries worldwide. Their portfolio has expanded to include a wide array of products and services, although their focus remains in agricultural commodities. Despite continuous growth and transformation, Cargill it is still a family business. For 115 of their 150-year history, a Cargill descendant has been in charge, and today the family owns 90% of the business. The company remains proud of its modest beginnings in the Midwest which created the foundation for immense success.  


Written by Alyssa Thiede 


Brown, Curt. “Digging Up Food Giant’s Humble Roots,” Star Tribune, February 22, 2015. Star Tribune Archive. 

Larson, Don. Land of the Giants: A History of Minnesota Business. Minneapolis: Dorn Books, 1979. 

Work, John L. Cargill Beginnings…an Account of Early Years. Minneapolis: Cargill, Inc., 1965. 


This publication was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee.


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