Morton Salt was a family company with rich local Chicago history. Who owns Mortan Salt? Today it’s owned by Stone Canyon Industries Holdings LLC, Kissner Group Holdings minority owner, CEO Mark Demetree, and friends. Joy Morton (named after his mother) started the journey into the salt industry in 1880 thanks to Ezra Wheeler, a Chicago salt distributor. However, the Morton story begins with an arborist who was America’s 3rd Secretary of Agriculture under Grover Cleveland. Let’s get to some history.
Julius Sterling Morton (1832-1902) and Caroline ("Carrie") Joy French (1833-1881) were high school sweethearts in Michigan. In 1854, the Democratic Senator from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas, introduced The Kansas–Nebraska Act, and it passed, making Kansas and Nebraska territories part of the United States. After Julius was expelled from the University of Michigan for protesting the firing of his favorite professor, Jules and Carrie, got married and left for the Nebraska Territory on the day of their wedding. They settled in Nebraska City where Mortan became editor of the Nebraska City News. The next year, in 1855, the couple welcomed the first of 4 sons, Joy. Three years later, Father Jules would be acting Governor of the Nebraska Territories when the U.S. House of Representative from Illinois's 5th district, William Alexander Richardson (1811-1875), was appointed as Governor of the Nebraska territory by President James Buchanan… which Richardson ultimately declined.
Jules would again be acting Governor of Nebraska territory after Samuel W. Black resigned. Black was as lieutenant-colonel during the Mexican–American War, and moved to Nebraska in 1857 when President Buchanan appointed Black as United States Judge. Two years later, in 1859, Buchanan appointed Black as Governor. Samuel Black’s biggest offense was vetoing the Act to Prohibit Slavery in 1860. When his mentor, Stephen A. Douglas, lost the presidency to Abraham Lincoln, Black resigned. The legislation governing Nebraska overruled the veto. When young Joy Morton was 12, President Andrew Johnson (reluctantly) signed to make Nebraska a state on March 1, 1867.
A BOY NAMED JOY
By the time he was 16, Joy had become familiar with anything and everything regarding the pioneering life in a small town. While he father was always gone, Joy, his mother, and his 3 younger brothers were left to care for the farm, but Joy Morton would find other jobs to occupy his time like clerking at the local bank, working on a railroad survey crew, hauling freight, and raised a copious amount of chickens. By the time he reached 16, he applied to his great uncle’s school, the Mayhew’s Business College in Detroit, and was accepted.
Unfortunately Joy ended up developing spinal meningitis, putting his ‘big city businessman’ dreams on hold, while he worked back on his family’s farm in Nebraska while recovering. The time did him well. He married a young woman named Carrie, the daughter of Nebraska Supreme Court Judge George Lake. Joy partnered with Ezra Wheeler, a Chicago salt distributor for the Michigan Salt Association, and set the new course for his life, his name, his legacy, and the face of salt in the United States.
After the Civil War, Chicago became a major hub for meat packing and distribution. At its height, Chicago was supplying 80% of America’s meats. This blog has covered this phenomenon HERE and HERE. With meats comes salt, and Wheeler’s business was right in in the heart of Chicago where Joy and his family moved to work with Wheeler. Because of Wheeler’s extensive travel, Morton found himself running most of the business. When Ezra Wheeler died in 1885, the partnership between Morton and the widowed Mrs. Wheeler lasted a year before Morton took control of the company and renamed it Joy Morton & Co., and distributed ownership shares to his family. In 1889, Morton acquired Alonzo Richmond’s distribution business that brought in salt from Onondaga Lake near Syracuse, New York.
Father Jules became an advocate of nature, planning a tree planting holiday, Arbor Day, set for April 10, 1872. It’s estimated that over a million trees were planted that day. It makes sense, then, that on March 7, 1893, Jules became Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of Agriculture. Joy Morton’s brother, Mark (1858-1951), was Joy’s right-hand man in business, and worked with side ventures like Joy Morton Lumber Co. and Morton Sand and Gravel Company. Joy's other brother, Carl (1865-1901), was running a successful starch company in Nebraska before his death at 35 years old due to an unusually fierce cold. Joy’s other, other brother, Paul Morton (1857-1911), worked with Mark on the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad. Whereas Mark ended up joining Joy in business, Paul followed in his grandfather's footsteps and made a great career in the railroad, becoming president of the Santa Fe Railroad until he was appointed the 36th Secretary of the Navy under Theodore Roosevelt. Paul eventually had to resign when it was reveled in court that Santa Fe was given illegal rebates, a kickback scheme his older brother, Joy, was also participating in.
MORE SALT, LESS JOY
By this time, the company was massive. In 1902, Morton merged Retsof Salt Mining Company and the National Salt Company of New York with Joy Morton holding controlling shares. It’s understandable that Jay Morton and Co decided to restructure in 1910 and incorporate itself as the Morton Salt Company. In 1911, magnesium carbonate was added to prevent caking, a common problem with any dry ingredient in places with high humidity. The result was a salt that would flow freely whether it was fresh out the container or if it’s been sitting on a table in a diner all day. Philadelphia ad agency N. W. Ayer & Son created the iconic round cardboard salt container with the metal flip spout, and introduced the girl with the umbrella that has become iconic. Knowing all this, makes the slogan, “When it rains, it pours,” pure genius.
Joy Morton remains with Morton Salt as president until 1930 when Daniel Peterkin, Sr. took over while Joy remained a board member until his surprised death in May of 1934, just a few months before the Congressional preliminary report on the revelations of General Smedley Butler and the Business Plot of 1933. As a reminder, this was the Wall Street and banking plot involving the most powerful business men in America who planned to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt and install Butler as leader to move America to work alongside Hitler, bringing a bit of Germany's new regime to America.
Nobody knows who all was involved, but from that failure came the America First movement of the 1930s created by (rich) American isolationists and anti-interventionists. The America First Committee was officially started in 1940 by a Yale student, the son of the cofounder of Quaker Oats, and future Quaker Oats President and US ambassador to Norway, Robert Douglas Stuart, Jr. The committee counted Joy's son and secretary of the Salt empire, Sterling Morton, as a member next to Walt Disney, Jay Hormel of Hormel Foods, future Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, future president of Yale University Kingman Brewster Jr., Nobel Prize winner for Literature Sinclair Lewis, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and was headed by, and partially financed through the Vice-President of Sears, Roebuck and Co., General Robert E. Wood. The America First Committee folded after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Along the way, Morton Salt acquired other companies, some salt, some not. The son of one of the salt manufactures opened up a synthetic rubber company named Thiokol. Thiokol merged with Morton Salt in 1982 to form Morton-Thiokol… a merger that was shot-lived as Thiokol was blamed with the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. It was unfair, as multiple engineers at Morton-Thiokol warned NASA not to launch, but the engineers were out ranked and out-numbered.
If you’re familiar with Chicago history, so much of the past 130 years of growth has the fingerprints of Joy Sterling Morton, from his advocacy for air rights for construction above railways, giving us unique floating buildings like the Old Chicago Main Post Office, the Merchandise Mart, and some application to Lower Wacker Drive. He was instrumental in the completion of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, giving the ability to transport salt by water from New York to the Mississippi River. Everyone in Chicago knows THIS recognizable landmark, literally bursting with flavor... it's now turned into a music venue.
In the spirit of “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit,” the most wondrous accomplishment of Mr. Joy Morton is turning his sprawling estate in Lisle, Illinois Into an arboretum. Originally 735 acres at the time of Morton’s death, the Morton Arboretum today covers over 1,700 acres with 16 miles of hiking trails. Certainly not to be missed is their large scale art installations, and their Illumination: Tree Lights is a local family tradition during the holiday season for a reason as it is truly a magical experience (you’re going to need the heavy coat). Check them out HERE.