In the early 1880s, a young fellow named Andrew Preston would go down to the docks in Boston to bargain for whatever fruits and vegetables had come in on the latest ship. The junior assistant to a produce seller, Preston saw potential in bananas. In 1885, he persuaded nine men to give him two thousand dollars each, with the hope of making a profit within five years. With this capital, Preston teamed up with Lorenzo Baker to form Boston Fruit, the earliest incarnation of what would become, after a series of name changes, today’s Chiquita. Together, the two began a gradual process of vertical integration. Baker purchased the fruit in the Caribbean and shipped it north, while Preston created retail markets for bananas in the United States. Boston Fruit invented large-scale refrigerated shipping by setting up a chain of cold-storage warehouses all along the shipping routes from ports to railroad depots. They called this subsidiary the Fruit Dispatch Company. By slowing down the ripening process, the company could expand its consumer base farther from where the fruit was grown.
Back in Central America, a young entrepreneur from Brooklyn secured a contract to build a national railroad in Costa Rica. Strapped for cash, the young republic granted Minor C. Keith a ninety-nine-year concession that gave him 800,000 acres of land along the tracks and a monopoly on the railroad route from San José to the Caribbean port of Limón. Between 1871 and 1880, over four thousand workers died building the railroad. Malaria, yellow fever, dysentery, and dehydration wiped out successive workforces. As historian Aviva Chomsky writes, “Railroad baron Minor Keith experimented with Central American, European, and Asian laborers in his construction projects in Limón, but it was Jamaicans who proved to be the cheapest and most accessible laborers.” Keith soon discovered that he could plant bananas on that land and use his railroad to get them to port. The bananas were much more profitable than the railroad. He began running a steamboat line from Limón to New Orleans. Within a few years, he had set up banana plantations in Panama and in Magdalena, Colombia.
And then Keith’s creditors came knocking. He was unable to repay loans that he had taken out in Britain. Baker and Preston saw an opportunity. Their Boston Fruit Company was dominating the banana business in the Caribbean and the East Coast markets, while Keith’s business reigned over Central America and the southern and southwestern markets of the United States. In 1899, they combined forces to create a new company—United Fruit—with Preston as president and Keith as vice president.