The Growers Association
One dollar a gallon, and 150 gallons of juice returned per ton, was the come-on for farmers to invest in Growers Co-op. The year was 1929, and the bottom had fallen out of the grape market. The influx of California grapes into the eastern market had created a disaster in the grape industry. The '20s were an era of national recession. The cut-throat antics of buyers, local growers and Californians made it seem imperative that a better way of marketing be found.
In 1926, New York state passed legislation permitting cooperative corporations, so the time seemed right for new business to appear. It was following this legislation that six small grape cooperatives were formed, one in Ripley, Silvercreek, Fredonia, Westfield, Brocton and Perrysburg. Keystone of North East was formed in 1921 for marketing fresh grapes, but did not have pressing nor crushing equipment until 1930.
March 4, 1929 the first organized meeting of Growers Co-op of Westfield was held with eleven men present. The eleven men, all now deceased, were John Allen, O.A. Ottaway, E.A. Peck, A.N. Taylor, Otto Schultz, J. Kolpien, H. Ames, W. Hopson, J.E. Hall, August Freling, and W.H. Bell. On July 15, 1929, stock was issued to 24 members, but the first stockholders meeting was not held until 1930.
With the decline of prices and a poor economy, money was hard to come by. Banks were not anxious to loan on new ventures. Some of the original members were not grape growers but money was needed so badly [that] some of the promoters became investors. Additional money for building and equipment came from a Chicago bank, as some of the promoters had influences in that area. Growers Co-op could now become a reality.
The cellar, which was only part of what it is today, was dug with horses and slip scrapens. Most of the original members participated in getting the plant started. The original plant was small but had 2 presses, a basement and third floor, but no elevator. The plant was ready to press in the fall of 1929.
Mr Jim Hall, Al's grandfather, was General Manager, Mr A.N. Taylor was first President, Mr Eli Harrington, Plant Manager.
One man, who is a member of the Co-op and still delivering grapes, worked for Growers Co-op in 1929, long before he became a member and grape farmer. He and Leonard Franz built the road to the plant. He also carried and used the dynamite to help clear the cellar, and he was given the honor of setting the first Hot Carboy in the corner of the basement. That gentleman was Gerald Perdue of Westfield.
In 1929, our plant pressed about 400 tons at the rate of 2 1/2 tons per hour on two hydraulic presses. 27 men were used on a shift, for it took a lot of manpower to make the cheese, wash blankets, set hots, and unload wooden crates. Growers received 29.00 per ton with 5.00 withholding.
A change came in 1930, [when] the Springfield Bank of Cooperatives came into existence and Growers Co-op became their first account. Money with low interest rates was a big help in our business.
The elevators went in, in 1930, and the rest of the cellar in 1943, and growth has been constant ever since.
From the 1930s up through the '60s the juice business was up and down. Competition was tough in the single strength juice business. We were also bottling juice under the Autumn Brand label for ourselves, as well as bottling under other labels. We were having to buy ourselves into the market and we couldn't be competitive with our competitors' earnings.
In 1966-67, the Board of Directors made a decision that it was necessary [for us to] become a more modern plant and expand our storage facilities. We also felt the trend was going towards grape concentrate rather than single strength sales.
With determination and a fighting spirit, Mr Hall, Frank Falcone, Robert Gould and I traveled to the Springfield Bank and presented our plan of expansion. After about six hours of negotiation we were refused a new line of credit. Their tough approach and lack of interest in the grape farmer spurned us on with greater determination. Upon their refusal, we looked for new money in our own home town, close to the grape industry.
This was a major decision and turning point in the growth of our company, for we had been doing business with the Springfield Bank for 38 years. [During] this transition period we eliminated the bottle juice business and became total bulk operation. Our 1968 balance sheet showed the result of our new expansion and we have never looked back.
We were now with mechanical harvested fruit, concentrated juice sales, and new storage tanks. We gained new accounts and were able to be competitive in earnings with other processors.
Under the management of Al Hall we have moved forward in sales and tonnage to record-breaking years, from 400 tons in 1929 to the 16- to 18 thousand tons of today, and still operate during pressing season with about 20 men per shift. Less manpower than in 1929.
Many small and large things have happened over the years, frustration, excitement and worry, but the 60 years have been good to us. We have been provided a home for our grapes and, as farmers, we are proud to retain the respect due a cooperative member. Today we can stand with our heads held high, for we still represent that rare characteristic of people working together.
We have the best in management, the best in plant operation, and a staff of people who will continue to carry out the ideals that were handed to us 60 years ago.
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