Essential Mineral Management, from Ag to Zn
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Our story began over a century ago with the partnership of three families, the Pillsburys, Bennetts, and Longyears. United by the discovery of iron ore and words of honor, the partnership formally began in 1892. Various iron ore companies resulted from the partnership, and Meriden Iron Company was formed in 1903 to manage the family iron ore business. The name was later changed to Meriden Engineering. Through decades of patience and perseverance, the partnership weathered the boom and bust cycles of mining and endured through a deep sense of trust and commitment. Now in the third, fourth, and even fifth generation, the legacy continues and forges ahead into its second century as Superior Mineral Resources LLC.
In 1890, two visionary and determined young men persuaded three owners of substantial timber interests in northern Minnesota to grant them the right to explore their properties for iron ore, and if successful, they would get a half ownership in the lands. These two young men were Russell M. Bennett and John M. Longyear, and the landowners were Governor John S. Pillsbury, his brother, George A. Pillsbury, and the latter's son, Charles A. Pillsbury.
In 1892, the two men did find ore near present-day Chisholm, Minnesota, on the Mesabi Iron Range. The Pillsburys upheld their end of the bargain and granted the two men a half interest in 10,187 acres of their lands in the northeastern part of the state. This was the beginning of a relationship between the Pillsburys, Bennetts, and Longyears that has continued through their descendants for over 100 years.
Bennett and Longyear also had a similar pact to explore some 24,000 acres of land in Minnesota owned by Wright, Davis & Company, a prominent logging and lumber firm headquartered in Saginaw, Michigan. Russell M. Bennett's uncle, Charles H. Davis, was a partner in Wright, Davis & Company. But unlike the Pillsburys, Wright, Davis repudiated the pact and a dispute ensued. A compromise was eventually reached, and Longyear and Bennett received a half interest in 3,110 acres of land. In 1899, railroad tycoon James J. Hill purchased the Mesabi holdings of Wright, Davis & Company, including those in which Bennett and Longyear held a half interest. Hill's purchase made Bennett and Longyear his partners. Hill's interest has evolved into Great Northern Iron Ore Properties, with the Bennett interest held by the R. M. Bennett Heirs Limited Partnership, and the Longyear interest held by JML Heirs, LLC.
From the outset, Russell M. Bennett handled the day to day business details for the joint venture. The Pillsburys had their many and varied business and civic activities, and John M. Longyear was busy with his Michigan business interests. Initially, Russell Bennett oversaw business activities from his office in Minneapolis. With the onset of mining on its properties in 1902, the joint venture needed a full-time representative on the Mesabi to oversee the leases. To accomplish this, in 1903, they formed Meriden Iron Company. (Interestingly, the company was given Russell M. Bennett's middle name, except for a slight variation in the spelling: Meridan became Meriden. Chances are this was the result of a typographical error, possibly by a government clerk who registered companies in those days. If there was some other reason for the discrepancy, it has been lost to history.) The name of the company was later changed to Meriden Engineering.
By 1906, as mining on the joint venture properties grew and the number of owners grew as the interests were passed on, it became clear that they needed a more efficient mechanism for conducting business. The best alternative under the circumstances was incorporation. Because Minnesota statutes did not permit any corporation to own more than 5,000 acres of land, they formed three separate land companies. They were Sargent Land Company, using the governor's middle name; Sutton Land Company, named after the New Hampshire town where the governor's great-grandfather had settled the Pillsbury clan in 1790; and Kearsarge Land Company, named after a mountain near Sutton.
Unfortunately, the three original Pillsbury partners did not see their investment in the Mesabi come to full fruition. George A. Pillsbury died on July 17, 1898, at the age of 82. Fourteen months later, his son, Charles A. Pillsbury, died at the age of 57. And then, on October 18, 1901, Governor John S. Pillsbury died at the age of 73. The Pillsbury legacy is well known. They became one of Minnesota's most prominent families. Their flour milling business would evolve into the Pillsbury Company, one of the nation's biggest food enterprises.
For the next decade, the companies remained on the upswing. Keewatin Mining Company was formed in 1912 to own and mine some of Sargent's lands.
The 1920s were a period of relative calm for the companies. Early in the decade, the land companies lost a key figure. In 1922, after a long illness, John M. Longyear died at the age of 72. He left quite a legacy. He not only played a key role in developing the Gogebic, Menominee, and Mesabi Iron Ranges, but he had achieved ownership or control of more than one million acres of land.
When the American stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, marking the beginning of the Great Depression, a tough period began for the land companies. Russell M. Bennett died on October 31, 1934 at the age of 69. Bennett's death marked the passing of the companies' last original partner. He had led a full life. His Mesabi interests made him a very prosperous man. Despite his formal presence and taciturn reputation, his grandchildren remember him as a warm and tender man.
As the 1930s came to a close, the United States began to shake off the effects of the Great Depression. Then the century's second major war erupted. Steel was needed, and lots of it, marking a return to prosperity for the mines of the Mesabi.
The era of taconite, a hard rock containing magnetic iron oxide particles, brought giant new plants to the region and new prosperity for the land companies. Taconite was more plentiful than the nearly exhausted high grade, direct shipping natural ores that were being mined on the Mesabi.
By 1950, pilot plants were under construction by Erie Mining Company at Aurora, Reserve Mining Company at Babbitt, and U.S. Steel's Oliver Iron Mining Company at Mountain Iron, all on the eastern end of the Mesabi.
By 1957, giant new plants were up and running at Silver Bay and Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota. These plants were expanded and provided enough capacity to satisfy the steel industry's demand for taconite pellets into the mid-1960s.
By the early 1960s, with America's escalating involvement in Vietnam, the economy shifted into high gear. The blast furnaces needed more pellets than existing plants in Minnesota and Michigan could supply, but steel companies were hesitant to invest the huge sums of money needed for new plants with the existing tax climate.
With the passing of the "Taconite Amendment" in 1964 establishing a more fair tax climate for taconite producers, steel companies immediately announced plans to build a "second generation" of taconite plants. These included National Taconite at Keewatin, Butler Taconite at Nashwauk, Eveleth Taconite at Eveleth, and the Minntac plant of U.S. Steel at Mountain Iron. In 1973, Bethlehem Steel and Pickands Mather built a plant near Hibbing called Hibbing Taconite Company.
The 1970s and 1980s brought recession and resurgence. 1982 saw America's deepest economic downturn since the 1930s. The recession hit the Mesabi hard and at one point, all but two of eight mines were idle. In 1985, the Butler Taconite plant on the western Mesabi was shut down and completely dismantled. In 1986, Reserve Mining Company filed for bankruptcy and its operations at Babbitt and Silver Bay remained closed for four years before reopening under new ownership. The Mesabi Range eventually began to recover from the recession. Minnesota taconite pellet production began a steady rise from its 1982 low point. By 1990, it had climbed 86 percent to 43 million tons. By the time the new decade opened, it was clear that the mining industry was back on track. That same year, the Pillsbury-Bennett-Longyear interests celebrated their first 100 years. Remarkably, the interests are still held by the families of the founders.
The 1990s were a period of consolidation for the steel companies as they trimmed down and modernized to remain competitive with the ever increasing pressure of competing in the global market. Foreign ownership first came to the Mesabi taconite industry when for a time Nippon Kokan Corporation, one of Japan's largest steelmakers, owned a 70% stake in National Steel Corporation, the parent of National Taconite. National Steel later filed bankruptcy, and in 2003, U.S. Steel purchased National Steel's assets, including National Taconite, which U.S. Steel renamed Keewatin Taconite. This trend would continue as consolidations/mergers took place and plants fell under new ownership that often included foreign partners.
Maybe the greatest challenge facing the Mesabi taconite industry today is the growth of electric-arc-furnace mini mills. Mini mills use mostly scrap and other high-grade iron sources to produce steel. Mesabi Range taconite pellets are used exclusively in blast furnace steel production. Mini mills now produce more than half of America's steel. To meet this challenge, Indiana-based Steel Dynamics, Inc., recently completed construction of the first commercial iron nugget plant in the world at the site of the former LTV plant near Hoyt Lakes. In January 2010, Mesabi Nugget began producing a 97 percent iron nugget for use in SDI's electric-arc-furnace mini mills. The success of this operation could pave the way for similar plants on the Mesabi.
Another recent, significant development on the Mesabi is the Essar Steel Minnesota project—North America's first iron mining through steel processing facility, which broke ground in 2008. The Bennetts and Longyears led the development of the next generation of the iron ore business on Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range, spending more than a decade investing in the development of Minnesota Steel. Minnesota Steel was purchased by Essar Global Ltd. in October 2007 and is now known as Essar Steel Minnesota. Raw material for the Essar Steel Minnesota operation will come from Bennett, Longyear, and other Meriden client lands.
With growing demand in the U.S., and from countries like China and India, nonferrous exploration activity has greatly increased in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The target of this exploration is mainly platinum group metals, nickel, copper, and zinc. Pillsbury-Bennett-Longyear and other Meriden client lands are gaining increasing attention for nonferrous minerals.
In 2009, the families announced the formation of Superior Mineral Resources LLC to consolidate the holdings of their various companies into a single asset, beginning a new chapter in an enduring legacy, ready to meet the challenges of the next century with confidence, creativity, and growth.
(Much of this information is from the book Mesabi Miracle, The 100 Year History of the Pillsbury-Bennett-Longyear Association, by Peter F. Torreano)