The man who built the old Morton Salt complex helped shape Chicago

Joy Morton and his salt company didn’t just dominate the salt industry. They helped create the city as we know it.

Joy Morton Thumb
Photo collage by Maggie Sivit / WBEZ
Joy Morton Thumb
Photo collage by Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

The man who built the old Morton Salt complex helped shape Chicago

Joy Morton and his salt company didn’t just dominate the salt industry. They helped create the city as we know it.

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Last week the new music venue that will open at Chicago’s historic Morton Salt complex announced the lineup for its first shows this summer. This includes performances by Sharon Van Etten, Fleet Foxes, Mt. Joy, Andrew Bird and Iron and Wine.

The Salt Shed venue at 1357 N. Elston Ave is part of a new mixed-use development that will also include office space.

Chicago City Council granted the site landmark status last year, which means certain elements of the building have to be preserved.

And while this particular location may no longer store any salt, the city of Chicago still gets all its road salt from the site’s namesake, Morton Salt. The man who built Morton Salt, Joy Morton, isn’t just responsible for making our food tastier and the roads less slick. He was a tough businessman whose company would dominate the salt industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and a visionary whose civic work would help shape what Chicago looks like today.

Curious City Joy Morton
Joy Morton in his office at the Morton Salt Company, c. 1900. The Morton Arboretum

Morton Salt’s beginnings

The story of Morton Salt starts in 1848 when the business began as a salt distribution company called Richmond & Company.

Salt wasn’t mined in Chicago, but almost the entire industry flowed through the city, with salt mined in Michigan, brought into Chicago through networks of railroads and waterways and exported across the country.

Demand for salt grew in 1849, after gold was discovered in California and thousands of would-be prospectors needed salt to preserve their food as they traveled west.

Just a few years later, the future owner of the company was born.

Joy Morton was born in Detroit, MI, in 1855. His father, J. Sterling Morton, served as the territorial governor of Nebraska and was a Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland.

Morton spent most of his childhood in Nebraska. His family owned a large farm where they grew apples that they sold to wagon drivers making their way to the Rocky Mountains. After spending part of his teenage years managing the family farm, Morton went on to work for railroad companies in Omaha and Aurora, IL.

Curious City Morton Salt Company Building
The Morton Salt company building. The Morton Arboretum
While Morton was working on the railroads, Richmond & Company in Chicago was becoming a major salt distributor and producer. The company began buying up salt mines in Michigan to decrease costs, which drove up profits.

In 1889, at age 34, Joy Morton bought a major interest in Richmond & Company and renamed it after himself. A decade later, Morton Salt (or Joy Morton and Co., as it was then known) had come to dominate the salt industry, with 500 loads of salt arriving at the Morton Salt plant in Chicago every 24 hours.

Curious City Joy Morton Walking
Joy Morton walking on the Joy Path at the Morton Arboretum c 1927. The Morton Arboretum

It wasn’t just salt

Joy Morton’s business success wasn’t without controversy. The newspapers at the time ran countless stories about financial irregularities, questionable favors and lawsuit after lawsuit from individuals who said they felt defrauded by Morton.

One business scandal involving Morton’s sale and purchase of some railroad lines would eventually lead to congressional hearings and ultimately reform of the railroad industry during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. One of the chief witnesses asked to testify was Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Navy, none other than Joy Morton’s brother, Paul Morton.

“We tried the costly experiment of being honest in this thing — living up to the law as we understood,” Paul Morton said during the investigation. “And we lost so much business that we found we had to do as the Romans did.”

Besides being an industry titan, Joy Morton was an important civic leader in Chicago. He supported the Chicago Historical Society and the Caxton Club, an organization which was interested in the history of early books and printing.

He also played a major role in shaping Chicago’s physical landscape and the area’s conservation efforts in the early 20th century.

Morton was instrumental in hiring architect Daniel Burnham for the 1909 Plan of Chicago and the two worked closely together as Burnham redesigned the city and lakefront.

Curious City Joy Morton planting a tree
Joy Morton planting a tree c. 1927. The Morton Arboretum
In 1902, Morton was working from an office at 77 Jackson Street, according to Morton’s biographer James Ballowe, author of A Man of Salt and Trees. That year Morton began collaborating with Burnham on the designs for the Railway Exchange Building, a building owned by the Standard Office Company, of which Morton was president. After working on that distinctive building together, Morton became a major contributor to Burnham’s Plan of Chicago, writes Ballowe.

Later, Morton wanted to create what he called an “outdoor museum” of trees in honor of his father, the Nebraska governor who helped establish Arbor Day as a national holiday.

Morton inherited his love of trees and horticulture from his parents — in particular his father, with whom he visited arboretums and orchards as a teenager, according to Ballowe.

After all, the family motto was “Plant Trees.”

So Morton transformed his estate in Lisle into the Morton Arboretum in 1922. In order to plan the arboretum, Morton visited botanical gardens across Europe to learn, in Morton’s own words, “the organization and provision for the maintenance of the gardens and their administration — in other words, the business end of it,” according to Ballowe’s biography.

The Arboretum, which is 1700 acres and has 16 miles of hiking trails, remains an important center of research and a popular destination for Chicago-area residents.

Curious City Morton Salt Distribution Facility
The Morton Salt distribution facility in Chicago in 2010. Paul Beaty / Associated Press

From salt to concert venue

In the 1920s, the company moved into the warehouse off the Kennedy Expressway. The complex between Elston Avenue and the Chicago River was built specifically for Morton Salt and designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the same architects behind the Field Museum, the Wrigley Building, the Merchandise Mart and many other iconic Chicago buildings.

The location reflected Joy Morton’s belief that industry should be situated west of the city’s business center and away from Lake Michigan, as well as his faith that inland waterways would continue to play a critical role in commerce, even as railroads and later highways offered alternatives.

Today, boats from Michigan, laden with salt, no longer dock on the Chicago River. The salt Morton Salt sells is no longer mined in the Midwest; these days it comes from Louisiana.

And while the company has kept corporate offices in Chicago, none of Joy Morton’s heirs work for the salt giant.

Still, Bruce Finkleman, a managing partner of 16 on Center, the group developing the Salt Shed music venue, said preserving the old elements of Joy Morton’s salt complex is something he and the group takes seriously.

“We wanted to keep the shed alive, we wanted to keep the roof alive, we wanted to keep its integrity in place and readapt it to be able to utilize them … in a different manner,” Finkleman said.

Curious City Morton Salt Music Venue
Courtesy of Blue Star Properties and 16 On Center

The steel that will frame the outdoor stage is the original steel from the East Shed, and parts of the conveyor belt system that once carried salt from boats to the packing house will remain intact, Finkleman said.

One of the other key elements that will stay in place is the giant Morton Salt lettering and the famed “Morton Salt Girl” logo on the roof. Proving that after almost 175 years, as the Morton Salt girl says, “When it rains, it pours.”

Paul Durica is the director of exhibitions at the Newberry Library.

Thanks to listener Robert Feldman for submitting the question that inspired this story.