3M plant grew along with its home cityMinnesota Mining and Manufacturing, better known as 3M, was out of space on St. Paul’s East Side by the middle of the 20th century and looking for room to expand.
By: Jon Avise, South Washington County Bulletin
Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, better known as 3M, was out of space on St. Paul’s East Side by the middle of the 20th century and looking for room to expand; Cottage Grove had nothing but space to offer, a quiet burgh that was a blank slate for development.
It’s a match that has lasted 60 years, and last month 3M celebrated the beginning of a seventh decade in Cottage Grove, a relationship that hasn’t always been perfect but has seen the multinational manufacturer and suburban city grow by leaps and bounds.
“I know this was a big boon for the area, it brought jobs in,” when the company opened its Cottage Grove plant in 1948, said Vickie Batroot, site director at 3M Cottage Grove for the past year. “And I think it was one of the beginning footholds for the city to start to grow.”
Of 3M’s 65 manufacturing plants, the Cottage Grove site is among the largest — “In the top five,” Batroot says — and, beyond size, one of its most valuable.
Just 20 minutes from 3M world headquarters, Cottage Grove’s 1,750-acre campus offers the opportunity for the company’s engineers to easily and cost-effectively test new technologies.
“The division up at 3M Center is where you’ve got the researchers in research and development mode doing experiments with new technology and they want to scale it up,” she said. “The engineer has a product or a sample they want to make (and) there’s equipment here that makes something big for production but it can also make their experiment. So for no cost (the engineer) can come here, 20 minutes away, do his experiment, take his samples and go back to St. Paul.
It’s that convenience that, in part, makes 3M Cottage Grove so valuable to the company as a whole.
“It’s always going to be important, just because of its proximity to St. Paul,” said retired employee Bruce Stewart, who worked at the 3M Cottage Grove plant for 38 years beginning in 1964. “There’s so much activity in that corporate area, I think it will always have a spot in 3M.”
Beginnings as 3M Hastings
Irene Dalbotten can still recall her first days as one of just a handful of female employees at what initially was known as 3M Hastings, located along the Mississippi River in what was the empty expanse between tiny Cottage Grove and its then-larger neighbor to the south.
“You’re going into this place way off in the country,” she said, “way out in the boonies it used to be, you know.”
Dalbotten, 78, began her 40-year career with 3M in 1948, shortly after what would become known as the Chemolite plant opened its gates.
“It was very small when I began,” she said. “I probably didn’t notice (the growth of 3M Cottage Grove) as much as other people because I wasn’t in the production area … It was very small, but it grew fast.”
Don Buck, who was the plant’s union president for 15 years and worked at the Cottage Grove site from 1961 to 1994, climbed aboard as the site began to expand, boosted by its role as the original home to the popular Scotchgard Fabric Protector.
“There was a lot of expansion during that time,” he said. “I know we had about 890 (employees) there in the early ‘70s; now they don’t have as many. I was there when the head count increased and I was there when it decreased.”
Roughly 750 employees and 100 buildings now make up the Cottage Grove site. It has been a plant in flux, shifting to meet the needs of new technology and new products as the decades have progressed, Batroot said.
A major part of 3M Cottage Grove’s past that no longer exists is its iron oxide production building. The facility produced tape for videocassettes, once a great moneymaker for the company that with the shift to DVDs no longer made sense, Batroot said.
“Businesses have evolved, it’s been new divisions (and) some of the old ones have completely disbanded,” she said. “But mostly they’ve morphed” to meet changing needs.
3M, Cottage Grove and
As 3M Cottage Grove morphs, so too does the once quiet city it has called home for 60 years. Cottage Grove and 3M officials have discussed the city’s growth as its staff updates the 2030 comprehensive land-use planning document, and Batroot admits that 3M’s large footprint in the community presents challenges for both sides.
“As city development comes this way, of course there is an interest looking way out in the future in (the city) having as much land as possible for future development opportunities,” Batroot said. “And we have a big footprint of land here and the city can see in the future that development will have to address that.”
What concerns 3M about future development is the creeping of new construction toward the plant’s large buffer area. The fenced off buffer is visible to drivers heading south toward Hastings on Highway 61, the long, barbed wire-topped chain link running alongside the roadway through wooded terrain. It’s necessary for the safety of both city residents and 3M, Batroot said, to maintain that cushion.
“We must maintain a barrier around our core operations” as the city grows, Batroot said. “Since 9/11 the world is a different place. We are a chemical plant; we need a buffer zone, we need to protect our operations from outside influence … That’s been a source of a lot of conversation lately with the city: What is the plan for the land around us that is the most mutually beneficial?”
Now-retired Bruce Stewart can recall a time when the thought of development nearing 3M Cottage Grove’s operations was almost unthinkable.
“The first business place you got to was up on 80th Street, and it was just a restaurant and a gas station,” the former supervisor said from his home in northern Wisconsin. “When you left 80th Street it was all farms until Hastings.”
Through all the changes 3M and Cottage Grove have undergone, and the challenges they’ve faced — including the recent water quality issues that city and state officials are working with 3M to remedy — Batroot says the worldwide manufacturer isn’t leaving the city that has grown up around it anytime soon.
“There’s no chance we’re going to fold up and leave,” Batroot said. “We’ve been here a long time, and we’re going stay here a long time.”
Jon Avise can be reached at email@example.com.