Ed Burns Traces Growth of Alton Canning Factory

History of the Alton Canning Factory

(Largest Food Cannery in the East)

By E.E. Burns

Edward E. Burns

Source: Lake Shore News, Thursday, October 12, 1967. A weekly newspaper, formerly published in Wolcott, N.Y. "Editor's Note - This is a message delivered by "Ed" Burns at recent open house held at Alton."

I have been allotted 15 minutes to cover about 67 years!

I do have some records that go that far back, and so, from stories that were told me and my own memories, I can say that some part of this property was bought by my father about 1900. The high wooden building on the northeast corner was built, I believe, in 1901. The products handled were dried apples, berries, (sun dried) and beans. From 1900 to 1910 the market was primarily domestic and the packages were 2 lb. cartons, 25 lb. and 50 lb. wooden boxes for the pie baking customer. About 1910, and prior to the first World War, the business was primarily export, and this type of merchandising was carried on after the war and until about 1927. Of course, during the first war large quantities were purchased by the government.

Perhaps of some interest to many would be prices of the commodity and wages. Dried apples varied from 3 1/2c per lb. to 7 1/2c per pound and sky rocketed to 20c or 23c during and shortly after the war. Labor rates in the early 1900 to 1912 range from $1.25 per day to $2.00 per day. That is a ten hour day and a six day week. As contrasted today, there was little, if any mechanism. There was no electric power or lights. Now and then an automobile plying the dirt roads, but all products drawn in to the warehouse by horse and wagon, kerosene or gas lamps, and practically no canned goods.

I have evidence exhibiting this spoon, dated 1912 - American Can Co. - that my father had some interest in canning. This spoon came from a canner convention he attended in the Powers Hotel in Rochester that year. I also recall his mentioning canning to me about 1918 or 1920 - and some plans were made but never consummated until 1927.

In 1937 definite plans were developed to build a small plant to can applesauce. Mr. Fred Sommers, the father of Mrs. Bonney, interested and encouraged my father in this venture. Consequently he was the first plant manager, but for only a short period due to his untimely death in 1928. He was followed by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bonney as co-managers, and after Mr. Bonney's death, Mrs. Bonney continued until the plant was sold to Pro-Fac in 1961.

The first building for the canning operation was built entirely of wood, the lumber came in rail cars from the West Coast. The building was 60' x 100' but before the 1928 season was finished we had added 35' x 60'. As other buildings were built of cinder or cement block Mrs. Bonney always made sure that the date was cemented somewhere. So possibly you might see these dates in a cornerstone at various locations. The plant was fully automatic fire sprinkled in 1953.

Even though the original plan was to pack only applesauce, before completion of the first building machinery was installed to pack peas. Ninety percent of the pea equipment was second hand, bought from the Mexico and Oswego Preserving Co. A cherry pitter was installed quickly and we packed a hundred barrels of frozen cherries the first year. We bought a few bean here and there, had them snipped by housewives around town - bought a second hand cutter, and so we had beans for sale. Then, all of a sudden, someone decided to pack pears - and we did. The first year the total canned pack was 50,579 cases basis No. 2's - or about 65,000 cases basis today's No. 303's.

You can see there was little future planning or budgeting as there is today.

The pack of 1929 was only 38,800 cases and I believe this was due to a short fruit crop or fear. It was the beginning of that financial depression of late 1929 and the early 1930's. Some may recall this period! Our packs for the first six years averaged 65,000 - the high being in 1930 - 92,000 and the low in 1929 of 38,800.

Due to the depression, prices for the finished product fell drastically in the first four year period of existence - applesauce from $1.25 to 60c - pea from $1.50 to 70c - pears, you could hardly give away - they fell from $3.00 per dozen to $1.00 - cherries from 10c per lb. to 3c per lb.

But in 1934 - conditions started to expand. That year we packed 123,000 cases - 1935 - 202,000, and in 1940 we exceeded a half million cases and in the final year, prior to selling, the plant produced 406,129 cases basis No. 303's. I understand last year the pack was two million.

Probably the greatest contrast, and certainly very interesting to me when I saw the records, and perhaps somewhat embarrassed, but our payroll in 1929 was approximately $21,000. But in the year of 1932, at the depth of the depression, it was only $7,800. This did not contribute much to the community but it was a period when we were all attempting to survive financially. In the year 1956 the payroll was $436,000; in 1966 $624,0000 and if you included management personnel it would be $690,000.

There was much rejoicing when we met or exceeded a goal. Naturally, in each of these years there was increasing dollar sales. The year 1928, our total sales were $107,000. We crossed the half million mark in 1939; the million dollar mark in 1945 - two million in 1950; $3,000,000 in 1954 - and four million in 1960.

The most important part of the growth of any company is its people. I have always felt particularly proud and humbly appreciative of the many dedicated individuals that were instrumental in the growth of the Alton Plant. It is always hazardous to mention names because of the fear of omission. But I pay first my respects to those that have passed on - then to those that are retired and are associated elsewhere.

I took a walk through the plant recently and I saw Roy Woodhams, Adrian Zonneville, Jim Garner, Jake Ticonni, George Cook, Betty Brown, Helen Halcus, Nona McDowell, "Shorty" Davison, and several others too numerous to mention - but they are still with the Company - and then those in Rochester or other offices, such as Paul Baker, Charles Wilson, Leo Fletcher, Pete Pearson and of course the president of C-B and general manager of Pro-Fac - Mort Adams. It is these people and others that made this plant what it is.

When you attempt to write a talk such as this, one is inclined to mention only a bright side, and the good fortunes but there were many a dark day - and poor decisions made. Just to mention a few - one year we purchased cheap pea seed that did not germinate. Can you imagine the wrath of the grower? One year plans well made but a banker said you are "going overboard" and he cut down their line of credit. The can company came to their rescue. We attempted to pack kraut but most of it ended up in a dump on the pre-emption road. At times, I thought the company was a "guinea pig" for experimenting. Continental Can experimented with two new ways to process cherries. Ted Allan had a brain storm as to how to blanch beets and cook apples for applesauce. Some turned out good, others not so good.

You can well understand that throughout the history of this plant only food products have been packed and sold. The base product comes from the farms and at a minimum, the raw agricultural product averages to be 25% of the cost. Consequently, the finished product price affects the raw product price. Over the years, various methods of co-packing, co-operative product groups and complete grower-canner co-operative ventures were attempted. The history of this plant now concludes as part of the Pro-Fac Co-operative, who furnishes the raw material, owns the plants, which with many other plants is leased to and operated by Curtice-Burns, Inc. and it has been a successful joint venture for the past six years.

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