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Local refinery celebrates 70 years

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 around 24 employees and put out 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 SuperAmerica effect

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 through 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."

'Best job in the plant'

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."