Types of Business and Industry

Since the 1830s many different businesses and industries have made their home in Iowa. Although many of these businesses are tied directly to Iowa agriculture, others such as the insurance industry, home appliances manufacturing, and aircraft flight controls production are much more diverse. 

Early Iowa industry was mainly “primary manufacturing” in which a factory or mill produced an item that was not much different than the raw material used to make the finished product. For example, grist mills ground wheat into flour, which is a simple stage removed from wheat. 

Railroads Come to Iowa

After railroads reached Iowa in the 1860s and it became possible for Iowa factories to receive raw materials from places outside the state and to ship their products long distances, Iowa manufacturing began to change into “secondary manufacturing,” making more complicated things like washing machines and tractors. Iowa factories historically were located in the eastern part of the state, where there were larger cities. But eventually factories spread across the state. Small cities and towns had factories that produced a wide variety of items: corsets, overalls, appliances, furniture, cars, popcorn, butter and ice cream. 

Feed and Livestock 

One Iowa company that had its start after the coming of the railroad, National Oats of Cedar Rapids, processed oats into oatmeal that was marketed under the name “Quaker Oats.” This product became so successful that the company eventually changed its name to “Quaker Oats” and became one of the largest producers of breakfast cereals and other foods in the country. 

In the 1870s a number of companies started livestock slaughtering and meatpacking factories in Iowa cities such as Ottumwa, Sioux City and Waterloo. These companies, including John Morrell and Company, Sinclair and Rath Packing Company, processed Iowa grown cattle and hogs into meat that could be sent all over the country by railroad.


Coal mining began in Iowa in the 1840s; but during the years following the Civil War as railroads created an increased need for coal as a fuel, coal mining became a very important Iowa industry. Iowa coal mines were mostly located in the southern half of the state. By the 1910s there were over 400 coal mines in Iowa, where 18,000 miners produced nine million tons of coal. Many African-Americans and immigrants from Italy and eastern Europe first came to Iowa to work in the coal camps. Many mines were owned by the railroad companies that burned the coal in their steam locomotives. Although coal mining continued in Iowa for over a century and a half, there are no active coal mines in the state today. 

For the Farm 

Several Iowa companies have produced machines and seeds to support Iowa farmers. Making farm implements, such as tractors and combines, has been an Iowa industry since the early 1900s. In 1893 an Iowa farm worker, John Frohlich, built the first gasoline tractor, and in 1900 two young men, Charles W. Hart and Charles H. Parr, began to manufacture tractors in Charles City. 

In 1918 the John Deere Company established a factory in Waterloo. John Deere plants in Iowa continue to make implements for farms. However, as the market has changed, the nature of the products has changed. In addition to farm implements, John Deere Company produces construction and forestry equipment as well as home and golf course maintenance tools and equipment. 

In 1926 Henry A. Wallace founded the Hi-Bred Corn Company in Johnston near Des Moines. Wallace was interested in a new process for breeding improved hybrid corn varieties. Eventually hybrid seed corn replaced the traditional varieties of corn grown by Iowa farmers for generations. Now called DuPont Pioneer, the company is a leading developer of plant genetics, seeds and food for livestock.

DuPont Pioneer is an example of a new type of industry that has developed in Iowa. The life sciences industry includes businesses that produce pharmaceuticals, facilities that conduct biotechnology research or genetic testing, producers of chemical products, and facilities that provide medical diagnostic services. 

Non-Farm Industries

While many Iowa industries were tied to Iowa agriculture, many others were not. Arthur Collins of Cedar Rapids began making and using radios when he was a teenager. As a young man, Collins founded the Collins Radio Company. During World War II the Collins Radio Company made radio equipment used by military planes and in the 1960s produced the transmitters used by the early astronauts to communicate with earth. 

Over the years, the company now named Rockwell Collins, has become a provider of aviation and information technology for the government and the world's aircraft manufacturers. The U.S. military relies on the company for surveillance equipment that detects enemy locations and communication jamming systems that prevent enemies from receiving communication signals. Airlines use flight control equipment and television systems manufactured at Rockwell Collins for military and commercial aircraft. 

Some Iowa companies have specialized in making appliances for the home. These companies started in the early 1900s when many homes were first wired for electricity. The Maytag Company in Newton began making washing machines in 1907. In 1934 George Foerstner of Amana founded a company that made refrigerators. By the 1960s his company, Amana Refrigeration, introduced the Radarange, the first microwave oven. 

The communications industry has been a significant force in Iowa's history. Newspaper and magazine, telephone, radio, television, Internet and videoconferencing businesses have been instrumental in keeping Iowans connected to other parts of the world. Likewise, people outside Iowa have been impacted by communications businesses in Iowa. An example of an Iowa communications business that reaches people around the world is the Meredith Corporation, which publishes magazines. 

The Iowa insurance industry began in Des Moines in the 1870s. One of the early leaders of this industry was Frederick Hubbell whose mansion, Terrace Hill, is now the governor’s mansion. Hubbell founded the first Iowa insurance company, Equitable Life Insurance Company of Iowa, in 1867. Banker’s Life, another Iowa insurance company, started in 1883 and is today known as the Principal Financial Group. In 2005 over 60,000 Iowans work in the insurance industry. 

New Types of Industries

In addition to businesses that have been in Iowa for generations, new industries have been started. Iowa manufacturers are now producing aerospace vehicles and defense analytical instruments, heavy equipment and metals. Iowa businesses provide business services, communication equipment, software publishing and insurance services. Additionally, Iowa industries include life sciences industries such as natural science research, biotechnology, genetic testing, pharmaceutical production, environmental science products and services, chemical production, medical and diagnostic services. 

Some current Iowa businesses and industries were established generations ago. They have adapted to meet the needs of their customers. Other businesses and industries have developed more recently. As the world changes, so do Iowa's businesses and industries, but with the changes have come new opportunities. 


  • The Iowa Heritage A Guide for Teachers, Iowa PBS, Johnston, Iowa.
  • Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa Past to Present: The People and the Prairie. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 2002.
  • Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 1996.