When Mink Was King Featured

08 February 2010
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Published in History
Cary was once home to mink empire Northwood Fur Farm, a ‘magical place’ headed by community-minded entrepreneur Otto H. Grosse.

Did you know that Cary was once home to the world’s largest and most-celebrated privately owned mink farm?

A former truck farmer named Otto H. Grosse, having suffered a serious work injury, turned his hobby of fox breeding into a full-time business operation that became the envy of fur breeders everywhere. Back in 1936, on the present-day site of Foxford Hills Golf Club, Grosse established the Northwood Fur Farm, which remained until 1992.

“Lots of townspeople didn’t even know this magical place was tucked up here in the hills,” Jo Ann Clow, who grew up on the farm in the 1940s and 1950s, said with a smile. “Only when we spread the manure — then they sure knew it.”

“A Helping Hand”
Clow’s father, Embert Hinz, was Northwood Farm’s first employee. He’d worked for Grosse as a night watchman at the Algonquin fox farm that Grosse had partly owned since the late 1920s. When Grosse made the move to go solo in Cary, along with 165 pairs of foxes, setting up at the old Crabtree dairy farm, he asked Hinz to come along as “a helping hand.” Fifty-three years later, Hinz retired from Northwood, “in way, owning a bit of the place himself,” Clow said.

“Those were glorious and hardworking days,” she added. “Dad was out there every single day — after church on Sundays — no matter what the weather. Mink are fragile creatures, and they take great care to raise. They need quiet, especially when the kits are born. It was a physical job, too — making mink feed, feeding, watering, caring for each animal every day of the year.”Northwood Farm, mostly for self-sustenance, had more traditional barnyard tenants like chicken, cattle and hogs, as well as fox and mink.  

“We always had animals in boxes at our home,” she explained. “Any baby rejected by its mother, or in trouble, my dad took him in. One was Jimmy the fox. He’d sit at the dinner table and eat spaghetti with us. One day, his nature kicked in, though, and Jimmy went after the chickens. He had to go to the cages after that. But Jimmy always knew us when we came to visit.”

Think Mink
Grosse purchased his first mink in 1937. Once it became clear that mink was king in the fur business, foxes were slowly phased out. Hinz had the most important job: he was in charge of all the mink. “Dad was so proud,” Clow added. “One year we had an unheard of, just outstanding 6.2 kits per litter.”
Four to five kits per litter was a healthy average in the mink breeding industry. So, why was Grosse’s operation so exceptional?

“Mr. Grosse always wanted to know the best methods, the best breeding,” Clow explained. “He always did research and that’s why his mink turned out so good. He was always looking for new things — marvelous, marvelous things.”

A Growth Spurt
Indeed, Grosse, whose byword was “quality,” created a mink farm that was tops industry-wide. He developed new breeding methods, new housing methods, new feeds and innovations in crossbreeding to make Northwood Farm’s mink pelts the most sought after across the globe. In 1958 Otto was named “Fur Man of the Year,” and was long considered by his colleagues as the spark plug of the industry. As a measure of that success, by 1959,

Northwood Fur Farm had grown to 600 acres with 100,000 pens to house the mink. The farm would eventually grow to 1,000 acres.

At its peak, Grosse had 65 employees. The Grosses, of course, lived on the farm, their hilltop home overlooking it all. Employees also lived on the property, either in rent-free apartments at the main building; one of eight houses that Otto provided for employees with 20-year tenures and their families; or the Northwood Farm trailer park.  

The luxury mink pelts produced there ranged from mahogany, pearl and white to more exotic colors like Aleutian blue or “gun metal” black.

All this success was not without setbacks — some near devastating to the entire operation. Early on, a wind storm nearly blew the whole farm away, killing many mink, and necessitated the moving of pens from hilltops to more protected locations in the hollows. Food poisoning took several thousand mink in 1944, and a fire in 1951 caused more than $100,000 in damages to Northwood’s main building — the smoke again killing many mink, not directly, but as the mothers, sensing danger, killed their young. The fire departments of Cary, Crystal Lake, Fox River Grove and Wauconda put out the blaze. In thanks, Otto Grosse hosted a steak dinner for all the firemen.

A Class Act
“I didn’t realize growing up what a wonderful place it was,” Clow recalled. “Like growing up in a fairy tale. He made Northwood into a real show barn. It was first class all the way. There were fashion shows, auctions, huge picnics. But it wasn’t all glamorous. Mom once made 50 gallons of spaghetti in our little house, on our little stove, to help feed the fashion show guests. My aunts came out to help. We had pots of spaghetti all over the house, even on the porch.”

Clow did her share of farm work, too, as a teenager. “I worked in the pelting house. Oh, the smell — and it was a messy job! I sewed the mink skins back together if they’d been torn when the men skinned them. It was a greasy job! Mr. Grosse would come in and say, ‘Honey, that is so good for your hands … you’ll have the softest hands.’

“But Mr. Grosse was very generous. (When I grew up, he was always ‘Mr. Grosse.’ To this day I have to say, ‘Mister.’ I still can’t call him ‘Otto.’) He even helped with my college education,” says the Northern Illinois University graduate. “He was very good to us — and good to the town, too.”

Grosse, a man-about-town in his trademark 10-gallon cowboy hat, was indeed very civic-minded. He served as president of the Cary School Board, was instrumental in forming the Cary Fire Department and provided equipment for Cary Youth Baseball. On snowy winter days, a common sight would be Otto’s Northwood plows working to dig city streets out from under the storm.
Otto Grosse passed away in 1962.

The Northwood Fur Farm was sold by his heirs in 1970 to the Cudahy Company. Many employees, like Embert Hinz, stayed on with the renamed National Northwood Inc., which remained one of the largest mink farms in the world and finally shut down operations in 1992, when the land went up for sale.

“It’s amazing to know of all that happened on that property,” Clow said. “And now you wouldn’t even know it was there … it was an era gone by.”