A grandson of German immigrants, 2nd Lt. Jay Catherwood Hormel faced shifting loyalties when the U.S. joined World War I. But one German would soon become his ham-canning ally.
After the war, Hormel returned to southern Minnesota with a French bride he met while bicycling through her village. His 1922 wedding in England to Germaine Dubois “came as a complete surprise,” the Austin Daily Herald reported.
Four years after his wedding, the innovative heir and public relations whiz wooed another European to the prodigious pork processing plant his father opened in Austin, Minn., in the late 1800s.
Behind what had been enemy lines, Hormel met the owner of a small meatpacking business in Hamburg in 1926. Thomas Jorn, who invented a scheme for curing and sealing whole hams in cans, came to Austin to help Hormel launch a new line.
Rendering butchers unnecessary by selling canned meat directly to consumers, Hormel’s first canned ham hit the market in 1927. An only son, Jay was in the midst of taking over the family business as his retiring parents, George and Lillian, bolted to Beverly Hills, Calif., in the late 1920s. Despite the dawning Depression, Hormel employed nearly 4,500 workers in Austin in the 1930s — thanks to canned meat.
The company began to roll out canned soups and Dinty Moore Stew within a decade of that first canned ham. By 1937, Hormel was marketing little cans of spiced ham — mashed under the brand name Spam. The percentage of Americans eating canned meat jumped nearly fourfold, from 18 percent in 1937 to 70 percent in 1940. By 1946, Hormel was the nation’s largest independent meat processor.
Counting slaughtered hogs is one way to measure Hormel’s pork processing growth. In 1891, George Hormel killed 610 hogs. By 1924, that number swelled to 1 million. Today, the company's independent supplier in Austin processes nearly 20,000 pigs — a day — which adds up to more than 7 million annually.
But painting Hormel’s story strictly with numbers misses the unique flair Jay Hormel brought to the pork world. He was second generation — but second to none in a colorful back story.
Jay became one of the first Minnesotans to enlist when the U.S. entered the Great War in 1917. His wife-to-be lived in La Vernelle — a French farm village.
“My father … pedaled a bike through the centuries-old town and laid eyes on her,” their youngest of three sons, Jim Hormel, wrote. “She had brilliant green eyes, shiny dark hair, and a movie star’s wide, toothy smile.”
It was a bit of a mismatch. “Daddy wasn’t classically handsome, but he had a glint in his blue eyes and a sly half-smile that always left one wondering what private humor he was enjoying.”
Jay Hormel was 26 when he returned to postwar Austin and assumed more control at the plant. Germaine, 22, moved to Paris and worked in a millinery shop.
“With little or no explanation,” Jay boarded a ship in 1922 to find Germaine. “That was just like him,” their son said. “Impetuous and unpredictable.”
As was his wife. A fine French cook, Germaine was also a prankster. She would sometimes serve horse meat or canned dog food as appetizers to elite dinner guests.
Jay’s penchant for P.R. included hiring a 20-piece, Mexican song-and-dance troupe — the Hormel Chili Beaners — to promote the company’s cans of chili con carne. After World War II, he hired women who had served as typists and translators to become “Hormel Girls” — a military-style drum and bugle corps who staged a “quasi-patriotic marketing campaign,” according to a 2007 article (https://tinyurl.com/HormelGirls).
The roving band of female singers, dancers and musicians barnstormed in a caravan of glistening cars with the Hormel brand emblazoned in hunter green.
In the middle of the hype storm, Jay’s father died in 1946 at 85. His son’s marketing flourish first irked George in the 1920s, when the company spent $500,000 on promotions.
“ ‘A half million dollars!’ I exploded,” the elder Hormel wrote in his autobiography. “ ‘Why that’s a handsome year’s net profit. I can’t imagine myself spending my father’s money in any such fashion.”
In 1946, Life magazine reported: “Hormel and son disagreed increasingly on how to run a packinghouse.”
Jay’s marketing spending would nearly triple to $1.3 million by the 1950s as the Hormel Girls hosted a popular radio show before the rise of television. It all fizzled out when Jay Hormel died after a series of heart attacks in 1954 at 61.
“Get in there and pitch,” he once instructed his Hormel Girls. Jay Hormel was called a tyrant during a 1933 labor strike, which ended with a 52-week pay schedule.
“The idea that an employer is the lord and master of his own business is an antiquated notion,” he once told the Owatonna Rotary Club. “Give labor the fair treatment which is its right and labor’s right to organize will never harm you.”
When the next Hormel strike erupted in the 1980s, signs sprouted up in Austin, proclaiming, “Jay Hormel Cared.”
His legacy in Austin includes a 500-acre nature center bearing his name.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.