Jennie-O founder Earl B. Olson dead at 91
WILLMAR -- Earl B. Olson, who turned a small turkey-raising operation into the giant known as Jennie-O Foods, died Monday at his home. He was 91. Olson was an icon both in Willmar and in the turkey processing industry. Jennie-O is one of the larg...
WILLMAR -- Earl B. Olson, who turned a small turkey-raising operation into the giant known as Jennie-O Foods, died Monday at his home. He was 91.
Olson was an icon both in Willmar and in the turkey processing industry.
Jennie-O is one of the largest turkey growers and processors in the world. With nine processing plants in Minnesota and Wisconsin, along with feed mills, breeder and grower farms and hatcheries, the company is one of the region's largest private employers.
Olson was also a philanthropist who over the years donated millions of dollars to community projects.
"Jennie-O, Willmar, west-central Minnesota and the state of Minnesota lost a giant of a man today," Mayor Les Heitke said Monday night.
Olson's influence in the business world, entrepreneurial and philanthropical leadership have led to countless stories around the community Heitke continued. And even after bringing Jennie-O to the world market, "he also shared the resources he acquired," Heitke said.
Survivors include five children. Olson's wife, Dorothy, died in 2000 at age 85.
Olson's son, Jeff Olson of Spicer, said Monday that his father died at home after an 18-month battle with prostate cancer.
"He remained very active through all his cancer treatments. He was very active up until the last two weeks," he said. "My father was a strong fighter."
As recently as last month, Earl Olson attended a grand opening of the Willmar Bremer Bank's new building, Jeff Olson said. He also flew to Florida and Arizona in the past couple of months to visit relatives.
"He enjoyed everything he did," Jeff Olson said of his father. "He enjoyed life and he tried to give to good causes."
Funeral arrangements are being finalized with the Harvey Anderson Funeral Home of Willmar.
Olson's start in the turkey business was almost legendary. He grew up on a small farm near Murdock and at age 17 landed his first job at the Murdock Cooperative Creamery. Within a year he took the position of manager of the Swift Falls Creamery.
Seeing a business opportunity in collecting milk and eggs from the creamery members, he acquired a delivery truck. Before long he also was selling seed corn and livestock feed and buying poultry, turkeys and other livestock.
After being scalded in a creamery accident in 1938, Olson decided to use an insurance settlement to concentrate on the turkey business.
He bought his first turkey processing plant in Willmar in 1949. That fall, the company processed 1.5 million pounds of turkeys.
Olson was a pioneer in vertical integration. By acquiring hatcheries, farms and feed mills, his company was able to control its processes from the egg to the finished product.
Jennie-O Foods -- named after the Olsons' daughter -- was one of the first to introduce the concept of pan-roasted gravy. It was also one of the first to develop a turkey hot dog.
The company was sold in 1986 to Hormel Foods. It expanded further in 2001 with the acquisition of The Turkey Store of Barron, Wis.
Today the company employs 7,000 people throughout the United States and produces more than 1,500 items that are marketed in the U.S. and overseas under the Jennie-O Turkey Store brand.
Even after Jennie-O was sold to Hormel, Olson continued to visit the office most days. He was also on the Hormel board of directors for 11 years.
He was a past president of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, a past director of the National Turkey Federation and a past member of the World Poultry Congress. In 1978 he was inducted into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame.
Olson left an equal legacy in his philanthropic and community involvement.
He provided $1.5 million in seed money to establish the Kandiyohi County Area Family YMCA. The Olson family gave a $1.2 million grant in honor of Olson's wife to build the Dorothy A. Olson Aquatic Center in Willmar.
One of the family's most recent gifts, a $100,000 matching pledge, is helping fund an addition to Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center near Spicer.
Over the years Olson was active in the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, Vinje Lutheran Church and the Boy Scouts Viking Council. He was a longtime board member of Bremer Bank in Willmar and a past director for Concordia College and for Southwest State University.
In 2002 he received an honorary doctorate from Gustavus Adolphus College.