Beech-Nut Nutrition Corporation, the world-famous baby food factory that operated in downtown Canajoharie for nearly 120 years, began its storied life in the village as the Imperial Packing Company in 1891, founded by entrepreneur Bartlett Arkell and two sets of brothers, Raymond and Walter Lipe, and John and David Zieley,
The plant’s express purpose at the time was to smoke Beech-Nut hams using a method employed by the Lipes’ father, Ephraim. As the business grew, Beech-Nut added a variety of products including chewing gum, coffee, and baby food.
During the factory’s first seven years, Beech-Nut successfully produced its initial signature foods — ham and bacon — and was also viewed as an industry innovator. IPC’s pork products were sold in revolutionary, gasket-capped vacuum jars created and patented by Beech-Nut engineers. The technology became the industry standard.
Sales in 1900 totaled a monumental $200,000 and Imperial was incorporated as Beech-Nut Packing Co. Part-owner Bartlett Arkell was named the company’s first president.
During the first quarter of the 20th century, Beech-Nut added an array of products to its line including condiments ranging from ketchup to chili sauce, spaghetti, peanut butter, jam, mints, caramel, fruit drops, marmalade and tobacco grown and harvested in Schoharie.
In 1920, the company launched an advertising push to increase consumer demand for one of its original products — bacon. The company was competing with fads encouraging Americans to eat cereal and lighter breakfasts while Beech-Nut pushed bacon as a morning staple.
Austrian-born, public relations master Edward Bernays was specifically hired to promote the meaty pork product.
Bernays solicited a doctor friend to endorse the benefits of bacon and eggs for breakfast and before long 5,000 medical professionals got behind the idea. The medical ‘study’ was promoted in newspapers and magazines, and bacon sales and Beech-Nut prospered.
Between 1,800 and 2,000 employees worked at the plant in its heyday, and many retirees have remained loyal to the company that left town years ago. One of those workers was Canajoharie town resident Virginia Porter.
Porter, from Brown’s Hollow, originally planned to go to college. But when the depression hit in 1932 she was forced to leave school in her second year and get a laborer’s job at Beech-Nut. Her take-home pay was $15 a week.
She worked her way up in the bookkeeping department over four decades and once told former mayor and current village trustee Francis Avery “that if she could get up to $17 a week” in pay “she would be wealthy,” he recalled.
The village hummed when Beech-Nut did. The daily downtown lunch scene was vibrant. Sidewalks and eateries were packed, except on Sundays.
“I wouldn’t come near Canajoharie from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.” on a weekday,” said Janet Stanley, president of the Canajoharie-Palatine Bridge Chamber of Commerce. Stores and restaurants were so packed with Beech-Nut workers on staggered lunch breaks. “There was no getting near the owners, and it would’ve been rude to try while they were so busy.”
The Beech-Nut plant had been the heart of the village’s downtown, employing approximately 300 people toward the end of its 119-year tenure in the western Montgomery County village. After the business moved to its new state-of-the-art headquarters and manufacturing plant in Montgomery County’s Town of Florida Business Park, the downtown it left behind has struggled to regain its vibrancy.
For decades, employees lined up at Loretta Pryor’s hot dog cart on Church Street.
“The village was literally bustling with people,” Stanley said. It was “a whole different atmosphere than we’re seeing right now.”
Baby food was at the heart of all that prosperity. The manufacturing process sent a sweet fruit scent through the entire community, as the company continued to tinker with its formulas. In 1977 a line of baby food was introduced with no added salt. Twenty years later, it removed refined sugar from its products and in 2002, introduced a line with essential fatty acids.
In 2006, the company announced it needed $35 million in factory and equipment upgrades. A week later a violent flood battered Canajoharie and the Beech-Nut plant, which was built on 100- and 500-year flood plains. Damage at the plant was estimated at $8 million. Cleanup took a month and production resumed. The state Assembly earmarked $3.85 million to support modernization there.
The 2006 flood was a “dagger in the heart” for Beech-Nut, Avery said. The company “left as quickly as they could get out of here.”
A year later, the company announced it would move manufacturing and its 356 employees to a different site at the Montgomery County Florida Business Park where 100 jobs would be created.
Beech-Nut’s evacuation of Canajoharie and move to the $124 million plant in Florida proved slow going, with Beech-Nut’s parent company, Hero-AG finally celebrating the completion of its 650,000-square-foot facility in the summer of 2010.
The old plant was abandoned and taxes increased significantly for Canajoharie residents as the village suffered the loss of 75 percent of its water and sewer budgets, along with 10 percent of the general fund. Beech-Nut had been the largest user of the Canajoharie Wastewater Treatment Plant, which was expanded in the 1990s to keep Beech-Nut in the village. The New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation loaned the village millions of dollars for the plant upgrades and in 2010 allowed the term of the loans to be extended from 2019 to 2029 with no interest in order to reduce the fees for the village’s remaining inhabitants.
The looming plant at the valley’s center was left to its own devices until 2013 when a crowd reverently watched the quiet removal of Beech-Nut’s deteriorating iconic metal sign, recognizable to travelers on the New York State Thruway.
As the year drew to a close, Hero-AG sold the vacant 26-acre lot to TD Development, LLC of Cincinnati, Ohio. Instead of tearing down 30 percent of the facility and developing 70 percent as promised, company owner Todd Clifford and TD stripped the former Beech-Nut plant of valuable materials and left it to rot.
The plant then sat for three additional years by its lonesome self — an eye-sore and sore-spot at the village center — with the owner failing to pay property taxes.
In 2016, Montgomery County officials announced plans for foreclosure and took over the next year. Feasibility studies determined that while remediation of the crumbling factory might be possible, the process would not be fast, cheap or easy.
Montgomery County took ownership of the former factory, forming a committee of stakeholders that would regularly meet to discuss and implement plans for remediation. Resident input was sought.
Grants were provided — in the eventual millions — and piecemeal work continued to clean and clear the space. Mitigation included the removal of 80,000 pounds of asbestos, with the EPA’s assistance.
Warehouses were torn down in phases until a nearly 20 acre, shovel-ready site remained, at which point Montgomery County launched a massive advertising campaign to market the Exit 29 site.
Residents and business owners now watch and wait for the possibility of new life at the landmark site. The arrival of E29 Labs — with its proposal to develop a cannabis facility there could make for a busy downtown again, with perhaps a different scent in the air this time.