Just half a decade after a tiny community became the city of Mandan, a child was born in the eastern part of Dakota Territory. Unknown to most of the county’s residents for nearly 30 years, this child would eventually grow up to be a man who would reach recognition throughout the country, and found one of the iconic businesses of the city he eventually called home: he would give birth to Cloverdale Foods Co.
Having been born on May 9, 1886, Russell would find his path leading him away from his birth home in Grand Forks and towards Dickinson. While he would eventually leave the city to finish his schooling at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University) in Fargo, it was in Dickinson that a new chapter of his life was set to begin.
Meeting Cora Walton, who was a daughter of western pioneers, Russell would find a wife and partner. Married on June 22, 1909, the two would move out of state for a short time, but ended up finding their way back to the state. Settling in Glen Ullin in 1913, Russell was introduced to the dairy business, having been employed by the Hess Creamery Company.
Believing that North Dakota would become a principal area for the developing dairy industry, Russell began looking for a suitable area to establish his own dairy and produce business. Seeing that Mandan was a growing town, and a division point for the North Pacific Railroad, the choice was simple.
Finding a location would prove to be the easier portion of the process. Gaining the necessary funding for the venture was what Russell would have to focus on.
Taking a trip to Mandan in 1914, Russell would begin the discussions with the Mandan Commercial Club (a forerunner to the Chamber of Commerce). Gaining the attention and interest of W.A. Lanternman, a local banker, as well as Theodore Cummins, financial backing was secured.
Beginning the work on organizing the corporation, Lanternman would be established as the president, while Russell became the secretary-treasurer and appointed manager. Henry Schulte, a friend of Russell, would also move his family from Glen Ullin to Mandan, having been named buttermaker and creamery manager.
Cloverdale, at that time known as the Mandan Creamery and Produce Company, would capitalize with $50,000. Another $12,000 in stock would be purchased before the companies formal organization on Feb. 4, 1915. Just 11 days later, on Feb. 15, the Mandan Creamery would begin operation in the two-story Ronco building, on the corner of West Main Street and Fourth Ave. N.W.
By March 20, the first cream and eggs were purchased there. Business would become brisk in that first week, with 1,000 pounds of butter churned on March 22, and 24,000 dozen eggs bought during that time.
During those first years, the concentration of Mandan Creamery was on butter and eggs. Farmers would bring their cream cans in by wagon. It wasn’t uncommon in those early years to see rows of empty cans along the east side of the building.
One aspect that allowed the company to quickly expand was the use of the railroad.
“We persuaded the farmers to use the railroad. There was no middleman. That’s what helped to build up the business. Cream came in from as far away as Livingston, Mont.,” Walton Russell said in an interview with the Bismarck Tribune in 1988.
For the first 15 years, a 30- by 50-foot storage house, that was built behind the main building, provided ice for the coolers, while shipping the butter on the railroad. The ice was harvested from the Missouri River. Mechanical refrigeration would replace that process in 1930.
Expansion and change
After five years of working the business together, Schulte purchased the ice cream department, starting the Purity Dairy Company. At the same time, Mandan Creamery began extending its operations.
While Mandan Creamery had already begun with poultry, the 1920s saw a huge growth in that arena, and established a new industry in North Dakota.
By 1921, the Mandan Creamery would take over the entire Ronco building. Offices were moved into the center section, while the west section was used for poultry dressing. On the second flood, live poultry was fed in cages.
However, one building was no longer able to contain the entire operation. In 1922, a Dickinson plant, was converted to process Grade A milk as well as produce ice cream. It was here that the Cloverdale name was born. There was now a Cloverdale Foods Co., a division of Mandan Creamery.
It was back in Mandan that a massive expansion was being worked on though. Starting a new industry in North Dakota, Mandan Creamery began a large scale turkey operation in 1926. While being seasonal, starting around Nov. 1 of each year, and extending through Christmas, between three to four million pounds of turkey would be marketed as “Mandan Turkey.”
While Maryland and Virginia were considered to be the producing areas of turkeys and other large birds, North Dakota, with it’s “Mandan Turkey,” would make a great impression on those in the east. What started as one freight carload of dressed turkeys being transported to the larger cities a year would boom into 100 cars a year. Mandan Creamery would end up leasing 25 freight cars, each painted yellow with a running turkey painted in black on the side, to carry their product.
With a poultry operation having tremendous success, the core of the business was not forgotten. Butter production had continued to steadily climb. By 1930, three million pounds was being produced per year. Continuing to climb over the decades, production would reach to 12 million pounds in the 1960s. Mandan Creamery would become known as the world’s largest sweet-cream manufacturing plant under one roof.
The 1930s also saw a great deal more of expansion from Mandan Creamery. Having already established a plant in Dickinson, the company sought to add another one. Minot was the chosen location, and Mandan Creamery had a new plant in 1930.
At home, additions were being built onto their original building. In 1934, an expansion was added to the west side, which housed the growing butter and egg operations. Three years later, in 1937, an extra addition was added to the north side of the building.
However, the major expansion, that would end up having a great impact on the company as a whole, occurred in 1936. They began distributing their products by truck.
“Our drivers notices that the small towns were getting very little meat. Farmers’ herds had been decimated by the drought and Depression. We talked to Fred Kist Sr. (well known Mandan meat market operator) and ask him if he’d make sausage and provide fresh meat for us to distribute. We also started to buy from Hormel. That’s how we got started in the meat business,” Walton Russell said in an interview with the Bismarck Tribune in 1988.
While business was expanding rapidly, the Mandan Creamery took the opportunity to set up plants in a variety of areas. With the increase in both dairy and poultry on the rise, the Mandan Creamery established plants not just in Dickinson and Minot, but also in Hettinger, Garrison, Bismarck and Miles City, Mont.
Farmers from across North Dakota, as well as into Montana and South Dakota, were shipping their cream to Mandan Creamery. Because of the success, Russell became nationally recognized as a leader in not only the fields of butter and poultry, but also in egg production.
At home, the progress, while respected, also caused a good deal of annoyance as well. After a buttermilk dryer was added to the operation, Mandan residents would be assaulted by the sickening sweetish odor that wafted through the town. None complained though, as those were the days of the draught and depression, and the payments for cream were something the farmers desperately needed. Much of that money would be spent on Main Street.
However, times were beginning to change, which would have great impacts on Mandan Creamery. With years of good rain, the drought that had choked the nation was beginning to recede. Farmers began focusing once again on planting more grain, and the poultry flocks, which never were large, shrunk even more. In 1946, the Mandan Creamery would finally shut its doors on the turkey business.
Dairy production was also beginning to fall after World War II. While Mandan Creamery would still churn out millions of pounds of butter a year, it was clear to Russell that the company would have to diversify once again. This time, he decided to focus on premium pork products.
Just a year after the turkey operation was closed, Russell would install a meat processing plant in the east section of the building, which eventually expanded to occupy the entire front. Mandan Creamery was beginning the change to the Cloverdale we know today.
In the next few issues, we will explore the later history of Cloverdale, as well as the various individuals who helped make the company possible.