Owen Cooper was a brilliant entrepreneur

By JOSEPH GOODELL,

You are likely familiar with Google, Facebook, Apple and others. With the mystical magic which their products can work in your behalf. Are the founders, Larry Page/Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs/Jony Ive, et al smart/bright? No, they are way beyond that, into a rare kind of brilliant innovative genius akin to that of Leonardo da Vinci as suggested by Walter Isaacson in his masterful biographies of Steve, and Leo da V.  

Those products of Apple et al, hardly more than toys, it turns out, are "needed" by everyone in the world, hence enormous wealth to those who conceived of them. It also turns out that right here in Mississippi we have that same brilliance. But of an entrepreneurial genius to recognize a real need and bring it to reality. Not the same product proliferation, hence, not the same riches. But the reward of improving the lives of fellow Mississippians.

This genius of our own belonged to Lawrence Owen Cooper of Yazoo City. He was acutely aware of the marginal yields of Mississippi agriculture becoming inadequate to feed our growing population. If only nitrogen (most of the air we breathe, and essential to plant prosperity) could be captured for added application to our crops.

Neither air nor nitrogen-rich ammonia (made from methane and air by the German Haber process) are suitable for direct application. But ammonium nitrate, "built" from ammonia, is.

Owen Cooper hired and inspired a team of capable technicians. Together they devised a method for not only making, but also distributing, this product on a large scale. "Tricky" though, because the pressures and heat involved are so high that special equipment for processing, control and corrosion resistance is required.

His daughter, Nancy Cooper Gilbert, and her husband Spencer (stalwart natives of Yazoo City) arranged for a tour of his plant, Mississippi Chemical Corporation, in north Yazoo City. I was fortunate enough to be invited; it was thorough and extraordinarily informative, conducted by production manager Clark Liddon. We were then treated to lunch and further enlightenment by maintenance manager Joe Dan Dickerson.

 

We are indeed indebted to Owen Cooper, to his business brilliance of producing and distributing a needed product affordable to the agricultural community. He fashioned a co-op of farmers, the Legislature and federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation to secure funding. Then to give the farmers a direct stake in building MCC. The facility, now CF Industries, with never an interruption in production, began operating about 1952. It currently provides over a million tons of ammonium nitrate per year.

Mr. Cooper is further recognized for his inspirational work in the Baptist church. For his arranging the financing and modernizing of Mississippi's road system. US 49 between Yazoo City and Jackson is the Owen Cooper Highway.

Joseph N. Goodell is a Northsider.

 

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