Beyond Spam: Hormel family's musical legacy thrives to this day
It doesn’t take long for visitors to realize that Austin, Minnesota, and Hormel Foods go together like Spam and eggs. Or chili and beans. Or Dinty and Moore (Hormel’s canned beef stew). But there’s another link between the founding Hormel family, its well-endowed foundation and the city: music.
That cultural connection might seem surprising considering Hormel’s more prominent economic impact. The company’s big packing plant employs 1,800 workers. The quirky Spam Museum in downtown Austin traces the evolution of that famous Hormel product and attracts revenue-producing out-of-town visitors. The Hormel name also shows up around town on a health center, a cancer research center, scholarship programs and street signs.
But as the company’s businesses, brands and fortune have grown for more than 130 years, so has the family’s musical legacy, beginning at the Hormel Historic Home at 208 Fourth Ave. NW and stretching to the community at large.
There’s tangible evidence in the stately, two-story home, which was built in 1871 and is open to the public. The parlor is anchored by a handsome 1914 Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano, and the room has resounded over the years with family singalongs, choir rehearsals and performances. Nearby, a Victrola turntable holds an Ella Fitzgerald recording.
An upstairs bedroom holds a bass drum recalling the days of the Hormel Girls (aka the Spam Girls Band), the first all-female drum and bugle corps, comprising Austin servicewomen and women employees. From 1945 to 1953, they traveled the country in a caravan of gleaming white Chevrolets and promoted Hormel products, sometimes selling them door to door.
In the summer, the mansion’s grounds welcome visitors to free concerts, and the family foundation sponsors children’s music workshops and annual music competitions in the five-county Austin area. (There’s also a whimsical sculpture of a pig, an apt reminder of how Hormel Foods got its start.)
MarySue Hormel Harris, 80, the grandniece of founder George A. Hormel, now lives in Laguna Hills, California, but still visits Austin and performs there occasionally. She says she practices piano “at least an hour or two” daily and accompanies a chorus in her seniors residence. Her favorite composers include Frederic Chopin and J.S. Bach — and she says she still discovers new elements in their works.
“I feel keenly that enthusiasm for music is one of the most important parts of my life,” she says. “The understanding that I am the [remaining family’s] most important advocate for music is important.”
She is proud that “there are people who come every year to hear me” perform in Austin. She also underwrites the summer concerts.
The Hormel family’s musical matriarch was Lillian Belle Hormel, a church organist and music teacher who in 1892 married company founder George A. Hormel. Hormel reportedly enjoyed playing a mouth harp. Their son, Jay, founded the Hormel Girls during his 25-year tenure as the company’s CEO, and a musical play about the group was staged by the Minnesota History Theater in 2007.
Grandson George (Geordie) was an accomplished pianist who performed at his well-known Kingswood restaurant in Austin, where relatives sometimes went to hear him play.
He also owned the Village Recording Studio in Los Angeles and founded the Zephyr record label. The studio was home to recording sessions by Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, George Harrison, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Sly & the Family Stone, and Steely Dan.
As a composer, Geordie wrote music for TV shows, including The Fugitive, Lassie, Naked City and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. (In a brush with celebrity, his first of four wives was actress Leslie Caron.)
Another grandson, Thomas Hormel, was a pianist who produced several CDs of his own music. One of his compositions, “Go for Baroque,” was performed at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills and by the Cape Cod Symphony. His original ballet, Legend of Bird Mountain, was choreographed by the Martha Graham Company and performed by the South Florida Symphony Orchestra in 2018. He also was a painter with an offbeat interest in collecting and carving avocado pits into quirky little sculptures.
Thomas died in 2019, but a foundation established a year later supports “charitable causes in the fields of art, music and nutrition.” It also contributes to the preservation of the family’s historic home in Austin.
Grandniece MarySue married a musician, Louis William Harris, who played tuba and loved to sing. Their two children (Elizabeth Ann “Buff” Harris-Colarossi and Ben Hormel Harris) also are musical, and two grandchildren took piano lessons virtually from MarySue in addition to playing organ, oboe and trombone.
MarySue, who grew up in Nebraska, began taking piano lessons at 4, began giving piano lessons at 15 and in 1990 was named the piano teacher of the year by the Nebraska Music Teachers Association. She has underwritten and helped judge music competitions in the Austin area that award cash prizes to performers of piano, violin, guitar, marimba and cello.
Although most Hormel descendants no longer live in Minnesota, MarySue’s daughter, Elizabeth, says her mother “absolutely loves keeping the Hormel music legacy alive in Austin” through the annual instrumental contests. She also is “a huge supporter of any free performances in any-sized community because it provides access and exposure to the arts.”
Austin Mayor Steve King isn’t sure how many of the city’s residents know about the Hormel Foundation’s generous contributions to arts organizations and other infrastructure projects around the city, including restoration of the city’s Paramount Theatre.
But Laura Helle, executive director of Austin Area Arts, said that might reflect the foundation’s policy of “not shouting to the world about all the great things it does.” Its grants are funded from its 50 percent ownership of Hormel Foods’ stock.
Helle said those grants have helped extend the family’s cultural values, including music, like tentacles through the community. One of them even pulled in Helle. For six years, she served as director of the Hormel Historic Home, and in 2016 she was married there.
Thanks to Amanda Barber of the Hormel Historic Home for her help with this article.