Door County Almanak, No. 2, 1985
When were the first cherries processed in Door County? By what company? Who headed the processing operation? Fortunately, the man who can answer those questions with authority is still living. Capt. Edward S. Reynolds, now 93 years old, organized Company F, of the Thirty Second Division of the U.S. Army, in Sturgeon Bay during World War I. How he came to can the first cherries ever canned in Door County is interesting, for he was in France, engaged in furious battles when that event was first scheduled to occur. Lougee Stedman, who was manager of the Fruit Growers Cooperative at the time of his death in 1948, wrote a history of that organization shortly before he was killed in an airplane crash along with two other prominent figures in the cherry industry. The article was carried in an industry publication, The Wisconsin Canner, and it explains how the first cherries came to be canned:
“The Fruit Growers Canning Company was organized by a group of cherry growers in January 1918 and purchased the pea canning factory of the Reynolds Preserving Company. At the same time there existed the Door County Fruit Growers Union which actually controlled the disposition of raw cherries. The Canning Company was organized for the purpose of creating another outlet (in addition to fresh fruit sales) which would be in the hands of cherry growers themselves.
“The first president of the Fruit Growers Canning Company was A.W. (Gussie) Lawrence (who was also president of the Fruit Growers Union). E.S. Reynolds, Sr., was the first manager. After two terms as president, Gussie Lawrence was succeeded by H.W. Ullsperger. E.S. Reynolds, Sr. died in 1919, and for a few months, his brother, Will Reynolds, acted as manager. In April 1919, Ed Reynolds, Jr. became manager, and occupied that position until February 1924, at which time H.W. Ullsperger became manager.”
The Fruit Growers Canning Company has originally planned to can cherries in 1918, but the crop was short that year, so that caused the plans to be canceled. In the meantime, Edward S. Reynolds, Sr., the plant manager died unexpectedly, and someone was needed to run the plant in the 1919 season. Young Capt. Edward S. Reynolds, Jr. was still in the army, but he was the man the company wanted for the job. An appeal was made for his release, and it was granted. He came home to find a partially completed plant, with the prospects of a bumper fruit crop, and the canning season only a couple of months away.
The June 26, 1919, issue of the Door County News (later purchased by the Door County Advocate) tells about that first canning season:
“The Fruit Growers Union on Saturday started up the canning factory and canned strawberries.”
“There was a slump in the market price of the fruit and the fact that it was coming in faster than it could be shipped out in good condition, owing to the following day being Saturday. It was deemed the proper thing to preserve the fruit.”
“Consequently, a crew was put to work on Saturday and about 5000-quart cans of the fruit was put up, the factory running until nearly midnight.”
“On Saturday there was a carload of strawberries shipped to outside points by the union.”
The article suggests the important reason for the building of the canning factory. Many fruit crops, cherries and strawberries ripen quickly so the picking season is rather short. In those days, as today, the crop was sold as fresh fruit; but then it could not be shipped around the country as quickly. So, although all the crops might be picked on time, the market was flooded, and some of the fruit spoiled before it could be shipped and sold. Therefore, a method of preserving the crop so it could be sold later was developed. Housewives have already been canning fruit and making jam and jelly at home for years by then, and it only took the development of machines to do the job in a factory to permit the preservation of fruit commercially.
The July 10, 1919 issue of the Door County News sang the praises of the new Fruit Growers Canning Company factory: “a great help to the growers in the canning factory. The fruit that is too ripe for shipment is just what is wanted for canning purposes. As a result, the factory is kept running practically every hour of the day. It has been found necessary to put a double crew on to handle the output. Women at the factory are being paid the rate of 25 cents an hour for their services and the supply is not equal to the demand.”
By July 17, 1919, the Door County News waxed eloquent about the new canning plant: “That the residents of the city and county do not fully appreciate what they have in the local canning factory is quite evident.”
“Warren B. Jones, a merchandise broker of canned goods, whose headquarters are at Chicago, was in the city the latter part of the week looking over the local factory and he expressed the sentiment contained in the above paragraph. ‘People here do not realize what they have in the cherry cannery’, he said. ‘Why, this is the largest factory in the United States, double the capacity of any other single factory. Where the next largest only operates four machines, this one is operating nine.’
“Another impression that seems to be abroad among the uninitiated is that inferior cherries only are used in canning. This is just the opposite of the truth. It is the cream of the crop that is used for canning. These are the cherries that are ripe. The riper they are, the better they are for canning purposes and only those are received and accepted at the factory. Consequently, the fruit that is being canned is bound to make a reputation for itself when placed on the market.
“Owing to the season being further advanced than usual on account of the warm weather in June, there will be more cherries available for canning purposes than was estimated early in the season.
“This is a fine thing for the growers, for if they did not have the factory to can the fruit that is too ripe for shipping a long distance, they would suffer a loss.
“There is a ready market for the canned fruit and the buyers have been here making contracts for the output at good figures.”
A week later, on July 24, 1919, the News reported that members of the state county agents association had toured the canning factory and were highly complimentary of the operation.
The manager of the first cherry processing plant, Capt. Edward S. Reynolds, Jr., is now a resident of the Dorchester Nursing Center. He was interviewed for this article in December of 1984. In his cheerful, sun-filled room, this man who still has the proud bearing of a military man, told of that first year.
“I recall that one of the problems we had was with the de-stemming machine. All the cherries were picked with the stems left on in those days, for the fresh fruit market. The cherries that were canned by the hot pack method had to have the stems removed. But many of them came through the machine that was supposed to remove the stems with the stems still on, so we had to have workers remove then by hand.
“Our brands, Sturgeon Bay Cherries and Pathfinder became particularly well-known in the Southwest, especially in Texas and Oklahoma in the oil fields. We had a big market and the sales went very well.
“The old pea canning factory, which my father converted to a cherry cannery, was a three-story building which ran down to a dock along the shore. We would store the completed product down near the shore where it would be hauled away by boat.
“I had to put a new floor in the factory after I came home from the army in April of 1919. As for the canning machinery, a steam bath had been developed. The no. 10 cans were filled full with the raw cherries and passed through the steam bath and then the cans were sealed. That is all the cooking they needed, and fortunately, everything was successful. The can have a double seal and used closing equipment made by the American Can Company.
When the crop came in, we had crates of fresh cherries standing all over the place! We were working around the clock to take care of them but somehow managed to get through with the crop. As a result, the quality of our no. 10 water-packed cherries became known everywhere.”
When asked about the personnel who packed that first crop at the Fruit Growers Canning Company, the first name to come to Capt. Reynolds’ mind was that of Bow (pronounced “bough”) Augustine.
The Wisconsin Canner book, The Store of Wisconsin’s Great Canning Industry, quoted before and published in 1949, gives us the background of Bow Augustine.
Clarence Plummer, who had worked in a cannery in Davenport Iowa, was hired to set up a pea cannery for the Reynolds Preserving Company after the company was organized in December of 1895. Although he had never packed peas before, the plant was set up and running by the summer of 1896.
Charles “Bow” Augustine went to work when construction began and became superintendent of the plant when Plummer left after 1897.
“It is interesting to note,” the book states, that ‘Bow’ remained with the Reynolds factory and with the Fruit Growers through several different managements, and as of 1949 was still in charge of the factory, making fifty-three straight years of service in one plant.”
Nearly a quarter-century after Capt. Edward S. Reynolds, Jr., left the Fruit Growers Canning Company to go with American Can Company, Lougee Stedman spoke of the difficulty of running a cherry factory and the service of “Bow” Augustine:
“The many changes in managers indicated the severe strain on men in executive positions. It is a killing pace, and grower-membership in a co-operative enterprise contribute to their share of grief. On the other hand, we have found it of advantage to introduce new methods and ideas through such changes. It is hard on men, but good for the association. The one exception of which we are very proud is the unusually long term of service of our plant superintendent, ‘Bow’ Augustine, whose detailed knowledge of the canning industry and whose wholehearted devotion to succeeding managers contributed mightily to our success. We hope that he will retain his health and for many years to come will continue to be the solid foundation of our enterprise.”
The author of the article in which the quote from Stedman was included further states: “Mr. Augustine holds a unique record, certainly in Wisconsin and possibly in the nation, of having continued employment without interruption in one plant under several reorganizations and changes of management from the beginnings of operation in Reynolds Preserving Company, in 1896, up to the present, November 1949, and is still active as general superintendent. He attended the convention in Atlantic City, in January 1948. Surely fifty-three years in one and the same plant must be an outstanding record.”
The Fruit Growers Canning Company was not the first company to can cherries in the United States, Capt. Reynolds says.
“Cherries had been canned in a small way in New York State,” he says, “and Michigan had several canning factories.
“I want to stress that the Fruit Growers Union and the Fruit Growers Canning Company were two separate organizations. The Fruit Growers Union was a cooperative; the Fruit Growers Canning Company was a corporation. The Canning Company has a contract with the Union to process cherries at a fixed rate. The first year we made too much money, so we had a hard time! But we spent a lot on rejuvenating the plant and putting in new equipment.
“The next step in plant improvement was putting in tanks of water in which the cherries were soaked. In doing that, the cherries were cooled down and became more firm and pitted out better. Also, they took on weight, so they were worth more! The quality improved in addition, for cherries in crates suffer a good deal of spoilage.”
The next year, Reynolds states, he had to increase plant capability 100%. Cherries for the hot pack canning process were then picked without the stems, a practice much easier on the hands and fingernails than picking them on the stem.
Quoting from the before-mentioned book, “In a June 1922, news item, it was stated that manager E.S. Reynolds, Jr. has the big plant all tuned up ready for the start on red sour cherries. The capacity of the factory has been increased from 250,000 cases of fruit to 425,000 cases. Twelve additional pitters have been installed, making thirty-three pitters in all.” A later report in August 1922, said, “The Fruit Growers Canning Company this season just completed August 1st, canned a total of 9,280,000 pounds of cherries.”
After the 1924 canning season, when his father’s five-year contract was completed, Capt. Reynolds left Sturgeon Bay to begin a thirty-year period of employment with the American Can Company on the East Coast. Upon retirement, he moved back to Sturgeon Bay, where we had two sisters.
The Fruit Growers Canning Company plant later became the Fruit Growers Cooperative canning plant. In the 1960’s it was sold to Peterson Builders, Inc. and torn down for the shipyard’s expansion program.