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Refinery celebrates 70 years

ST. PAUL PARK, Minn. - Seventy years ago, the pieces of a bankrupt Texas refinery were sent north and installed on a 100-acre plot overlooking the Mississippi River.

Minnesota's first refinery, now the Marathon Petroleum Co. refinery in St. Paul Park, was born with subsidiaries including SuperAmerica gas stations and SuperMom's bakery to come later.

The refinery, then called Northwestern Refining Company, had about 24 employees and output 1,000 barrels of oil per day, according to a history of the company compiled by Marathon refining engineer Brian Veach.

In its early years, crude oil came to the plant by rail, said longtime employee Herb Reckinger. Today, crude oil comes from Saskatchewan, Alberta and Texas by pipeline, he said.

"Now, you wouldn't be able to hook (rail cars) up quick enough because of how much we run," he said.

Officially, Reckinger began working at the refinery in 1972, but he'd been doing work for the company and getting paid for it through his dad's expense account from the time he was 14 in 1966.

"That's how they got around a young kid working there," he said.

The refining company began opening SuperAmerica gas stations in the 1960s, and as a teenager, Reckinger would ride the bus to the first station on Robert Street, cleaning the station and doing other odd jobs. He made $1.25 per hour and used the money to buy a shotgun, he said.

Reckinger's father was a carpenter for Marathon who helped open SuperAmerica gas stations and eventually focused on making Formica checkout countertops for them.

Reckinger graduated from high school in 1970, and attended Inver Hills Community College, but school wasn't for him.

He started full time at the refinery in 1972, and has been there ever since.

"The only other place I've ever made money in my life was my paper route," he said.

About 80 people were working at the refinery then, he estimated. The hours were tough, workers only got one out of every four weekends off, he said.

"Most guys -- you give your best years in operations before you can get to maintenance, before you can get to that day job," he said. For him, it took 14 years to get to a job with a regular schedule.

"You had to use your vacation pretty wisely," he said.

For eight years, starting in 1973, Reckinger worked in the fluidized catalytic cracker unit, which he called the most amazing process in the refinery. The refinery acquired the unit, which upgrades heavier oils to higher-demand gasoline, as part of its first major expansion in 1953, according to the company history.

"You can take these slop oils ... and probably make over 70 percent of the gasoline products, all by taking a few carbon molecules off the stuff," he said. "It's a fascinating process."

The Erickson brothers, founders of the refinery, aggressively expanded their reach in the 1950s and 1960s said Veach, a Marathon refining engineer who has researched the company's history. During those years, the company participated in an oil well in North Dakota, acquired two chains of gas stations to sell its products and expanded the St. Paul Park refinery's capacity from 16,000 barrels per day to 26,000 barrels per day, according to Veach's timeline.

"They were a much more integrated oil company than I had realized," Veach said. "They were pretty much involved from oil production through refining to the outlet sale beyond."

Nowadays Herb Reckinger works a warehouse job Monday through Thursday, 10 hours per day.

"That's the best job in the plant, and I work it," he said.

His three sons all worked as summer help at the refinery, and one of them even met his wife through the program.

Since he started there, safety standards for workers have grown much more stringent, he said. Workers used to just wear old street clothes and hard hats into the refinery, now they wear fireproof suits, safety glasses and special gloves.

Environmental standards have gone way up, too, he said, and the company does a lot of good for the surrounding community.

"I like my job," he said. "I'm proud of the work I do."

Patricia Drey Busse is a reporter for the South Washington County Bulletin in Cottage Grove, Minn., which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

  • Refinery timeline
  • 1939 -- The seven Erickson brothers -- Ivar, Herman, Godfrey, Joseph, Alfred, Arthur and Elmer -- realizing a need for an immediately available supply of fuel in the Twin Cities area, found the Northwestern Refining Company by purchasing a bankrupt Texas refinery for $75,000 and relocating it to St. Paul Park.
  • 1946 -- The Mississippi River barge terminal opens for operation. The refinery receives its first shipment of six crude barges in May.
  • 1953 -- St. Paul Park refinery completes its first major expansion project. The expansion adds a Fluidized Catalytic Cracker (FCC) unit to upgrade heavier oils to gasoline and a catalytic polymerization unit to convert propylene to gasoline.
  • 1955 -- The company begins processing Canadian crude oil from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Five crude storage tanks are built in Cottage Grove to store the Canadian crude.
  • 1956 -- Northwestern purchases Oskey Brothers Company. This provides the company with the North Star brand gasoline stations as an outlet for their products.
  • 1960 -- SuperAmerica is formed as a subsidiary through which Northwestern distributes its brand-name gasoline. The first SuperAmerica station is a combination car wash/service station located in downtown St. Paul.
  • 1961 -- Company participates in its first oil well in Bottineau County, North Dakota.
  • 1962 -- Trax Oil Company -- a regional gasoline marketer with service stations in three states -- is acquired. This provides Northwestern with 17 additional stations.
  • 1965 -- St. Paul Park refinery completes expansion project to increase refinery capacity from 16,000 barrels per day to 26,000 barrels per day. Expansion increases the capacity of the Fluidized Catalytic Cracker and adds an Alkylation unit and storage tanks.
  • 1965 -- Northwestern drills its first Canadian oil well.
  • 1970 -- Ashland Oil, Inc. acquires the Northwestern Refining Company along with the SuperAmerica, Trax, Webb and North Star brands.
  • 1975 -- SuperAmerica introduces fresh baked goods at a Milwaukee store. The concept is successful and added to all the stores in the Milwaukee area. The concept is introduced into the Twin Cities and the name SuperMom's is created for the concept.
  • 1986 -- A second platforming unit is relocated from Ashland's idled Buffalo, N.Y. refinery to the St. Paul Park refinery. This unit provides additional capacity for octane upgrading of the motor fuels in premium gasoline.
  • 1998 -- Ashland Petroleum Co. and Marathon Petroleum Co. merge to form Marathon Ashland Petroleum, the sixth largest refining company in the U.S. The company operates seven refineries throughout the Midwest.
  • 2005 -- Marathon Oil completes the buyout of Ashland, Inc. minority share of Marathon Ashland Petroleum. The company name is changed to Marathon Petroleum Co.
  • 2007 -- The refinery completes an upgrade of the Fluidized Catalytic Cracking unit to increase capacity by 10 percent and upgrade the environmental emission controls for the unit.

-- Compiled by Marathon Petroleum Co. Refining Engineer Brian Veach