• Known for wearing many hats, W. W. Cargill establishes his grain business and also serves as a country coroner, silver miner and railroad operator.
  • In 1875, W. W. moves his family to La Crosse, Wisconsin, a strategic choice that extends his business across the neighboring states of Iowa and Minnesota.

Portrait of a leader: W. W. Cargill

The founder of Cargill and the company’s namesake, W. W. Cargill, is remembered for his wide range of interests and entrepreneurial enthusiasm.

With nearly 70 business divisions across 67 countries, the Cargill that exists today is vast in scope, working across diverse markets to nourish the world. But the current network of more than 145,000 employees all began back in 1865 as a single man: William Wallace Cargill. Known as W. W., the company’s founder was a quintessential nineteenth-century businessman, driven by his varied interests and a determined, entrepreneurial spirit—traits that still define Cargill 150 years later.

Duncan MacMillan, W. W.’s great-grandson, describes him in his historical writings as “gifted with an inventive, creative mind and endless, restless energy…continually striking out in new directions.”

The first of those many directions was grain trade. After establishing the company’s first grain storage warehouse in 1865 in the small town of Conover, Iowa, W. W. moved to Albert Lea, Minnesota, where, in addition to expanding his grain business, he served as the county coroner for three years. At the time, a coroner was not typically a medical doctor, but rather performed a judicial role in criminal matters.

By 1875, W. W. had moved again, settling his family in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which served as a hub for regional commerce. There he associated with a variety of clubs and organizations that reflected his diverse interests, such as the Masonic fraternity, the La Crosse Club, and the La Crosse Board of Trade. He contributed to his community, donating to his local church, and in February of 1907, gave US $25,000 to fund the construction of a new headquarters for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). W. W. also made a major grant to a college in Albert Lea, a symbol of his appreciation for the city and the role it had played in his success.

Cargill Methodist ChurchShowing his philanthropic side: W. W. donates US $10,000 to construct the Cargill Methodist Church in Janesville, Wisconsin, built in memory of his parents.

Moving from town to town to pursue new opportunities, W. W.’s consistent character and charisma enabled him to secure the trust of businessmen and financiers across the American Midwest. These relationships served him well, enabling him to continue growing his business—even during severe economic downturns.

Cargill’s first leader had a vision for transforming the American frontier through innovative ideas, a mindset that would continue to influence the company as its endeavors expanded to serving customers and industries beyond grain.