Minor Cooper Keith Born: January 19, 1848 (Brooklyn, NY) Death: June 14, 1929 (West Islip, NY)
Before Minor Cooper Keith became the head of the Pan-American Railway and VP of the United Fruit Company, he started out in a store on Broadway. Born in Brooklyn, in 1848, he started his business career before reaching adulthood. The contents of that Broadway store as well as how long he was there remain a mystery, as do many parts of Keith’s seldomly recorded life. From Broadway he then went on to Texas to try his hand at raising cattle. In 1869, he managed to secure a foothold in the business and moved to Galveston Island to raise his cattle. While working in Texas, Keith noticed how his business was hampered by the scarcity of railways in the region, with there only being a small line between Galveston and Houston. This may well have been the point where he became fascinated with railroads.
Despite success as a cattleman, Keith decided to switch careers again and began his first attempts of building a railroad, his newfound passion. Notably, his brother Henry was already working on a railway in Costa Rica, between Puerto Limon and San Jose. In 1871, Keith joined his brother and began to help. His uncle, Henry Meiggs, made the decision to transfer the contracts he held with the Costa Rican government over to Keith, and suddenly, at the age of 23, Keith had become the head of a railroad operation. Building this railroad was no easy feat, by the time the first 25 miles had been completed, over 4,000 men had lost their lives. Along the way, an international financial crises resulted in Costa Rica being unable to pay Keith for his efforts, leading to a period of time where the only thing keeping his workers going was the belief that eventually Keith would pay them. The railway took 19 years to reach San Jose, and at that point a new dilemma had popped up. What was Keith to fill his cars with? It was in 1872 that Keith planted his first banana.
Keith obtained his first banana bulbs from Carl B. Franc, who would later go on to become his competitor. He wasn’t an expert, but at that time no American was, and within that same year, he used his brother’s ship to send 200 bunches of bananas to New Orleans. The supply was low and the demand was high so Keith’s first bananas sold at high prices and produced with a hefty profit. From then on out, Keith continued to make monthly shipments of between 250-400 bunches). His railroad came in handy as well, as it allowed him to cheaply and rapidly transport bananas from the fields to the ships. In 1878, Keith opened up his first store in Bluesfield, Nicaragua. Now, the Bluesfield location wasn’t a banana shop, but it allowed for him to ship more bananas to New Orleans, which he began doing in 1882. After handling that for a bit, he turned Bluesfield over to an associate, and began to focus on growing his banana industry.
By the year 1898, Keith dominated three banana companies, but when financial disaster struck that same year, he realized something needed to change. Keith decided to consolidate his three companies in cooperation with fellow banana businessman Andrew Preston and his Boston Fruit Company. On April 5, 1899, the United Fruit Company was born.
Information about Keith’s life after the UFC’s creation is limited. Keith was married in 1883 to the former president of Costa Rica’s daughter, Cristina Castro. Keith returned to New York early in the 1900s, but he maintained a high degree of privacy. He died from pneumonia in 1929 at the age of 81.
Adams, Frederick Upham. Conquest of the Tropics. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Page & Company, 1914.