From Steel to Munitions to Certo to General Foods to Kraft

In 1909, Emma Eliza Fanny Stiles and Elizabeth McNaughten owned land on the west side of Ontario Street just north of the railroad tracks in Cobourg Ontario. At the time there were only a few houses in the area. The Provincial Steel Company purchased 15 acres of land from the ladies and soon began building the attractive little red Classical Revival building you see there today as their office. The building was construted by the well- known Jex family of the town who owned the Jex Furniture Factory, the Jex Brothers Bricklayers as well as the Martin Jex Lumber Company. The Provincial Steel Company only manufactured steel in Cobourg from 1909 to 1914 and many of their buildings still stand nearby where they owned a large brick company. The ‘little red building’ was acquired by the Imperial Munitions Board and used to store nitrate of soda for use in ammunition shells for the 1st World War.

The nitrate stored here was then hauled a few blocks south to another building on Second Street on the lakefront where it was loaded into the shells for ammunition. The Second Street building was originally part of the Victoria College complex and was dismantled and moved to Second Street on the lakeshore to become the Cobourg Munition plant to turn out artillery shells for the war effort. Immediately after the Armistice was signed at the end of the war, the plant ceased operations. A year later this building was purchased by the Bird Archer Company of New York to serve its Canadian operations. Bird Archer was well known for its water treatment chemicals, especially for the mighty railroad steam engines of the day. With the demise of the steam engine by the diesel locomotives the company lost a major portion of its business. Expanding into other chemical products, in 1944 the company name became the Perolin Company and became a major employer in Cobourg. In 1983 the Diversity Corporation purchased the plant and later the Nalco Chemical Corporation and was closed in 1998, the site was purchased by the town in 2001 and demolished two years later.

In 1919 with the munition office closed, the building was purchased by Robert Douglas who owned the New York State Fruit Company. Abundant apple growing in the County from Bowmanville to Trenton with preferential business rates made Cobourg a desirable location for his plans. Douglas Packaging Company began manufacturing cider vinegar and became the largest producer in the world. Discovering that commercial jam could be made to gel more readily and quickly with the addition of a single but elusive ingredient called pectin, apples are high in pectin and he discovered how to extract it. Apples are loaded into vats, sent by conveyors to grinders and then dropped into a press and the juice extracted is used to make apple cider vinegar. The pulp is sent to a cooker and after a second pressing pectin is easily extracted. A little known fact is that apples contain about 1.5% pectin by weight. The Certo Pectin product recipe for jam must be made according to the package directions, the pectin and sweetener ratio are carefully adjusted by lab technicians, so no altering the recipe or the jam will not set!   Fortunately, the company now has a hot line to inform customers how to correct our mistakes and save our jams.

With a patent for pectin, Douglas realized that other products could be made here, commercial jams could be made to gel faster and more reliably and much quicker with the addition of this elusive ingredient called pectin. Cobourg became the first pectin plant in the British Empire. Retail pectin soon followed for use by the home canners. The new pectin product was soon called ‘Certo’ and Douglas Packaging became the Douglas Pectin Company. Pectin was such a revolutionary new product they had to find a way to promote it, and came up with an early ‘hot line’ that consumers could contact for jam making recipes and ideas for the product. The ‘hot line’ was called the June Taylor Allen site. Jam making was usually the realm of the ordinary housewife, so imagine the surprise when consumers discovered that June Allen was really a man, one of the staff chemists! After Douglas died in 1929, the thriving company was sold to the Postum Cereal Company.

The Postum Cereal Company of Battle Creek Michigan started business in 1910 in Windsor Ontario. In 1895 C.W. Post invented Postum cereal as a healthy alternative to coffee. In 1929 Post became General Foods and moved its operations to Cobourg Ontario. General Foods expanded to become the town’s largest employer for over seventy years, in the 1970’s heydays there were over 1200 employees at the plant. In the 1980’s Philip Morris bought General Foods (1985) and Kraft (1988) merging the two giant companies to form Kraft General Foods Corporation one of the largest food companies in North America. Unfortunately by the early 1990’s the company began to shrink soon after after the large Research facility was closed and moved south in 1992. After almost a century, the plant was closed and the seventy acre facility was sold to private enterprise for a measly $2.6 million. Some encouraging news, a large part of the plant is now occupied by a medical marijuana factory which may very well eventually employ hundreds of staff.

Some memorable events at this site: At one time the Douglas Pectin Co. decided to give away their excess cider from pulp extraction, the response was so overwhelming by the locals lining the street with empty containers wanting this product the practise had to be stopped. With the excess cider now poured down the drain, the apple residue was spread around the woods on Ontario Street. This practise attracted hundreds of pheasants that eventually became very tame. Again, this practise had to be stopped as the ‘easy target’ pheasants were attracting many poachers after dark. The company had to hire guards to keep the hunters away.

In the 1970’s, General Foods started using canine taste testers at their newly opened Gaines pet food kennel in nearby Centreton. Here up to one hundred dogs were kept, their job was to evaluate formula changes to see what they liked, or not. On closing this facility several years later, all the dogs were all adopted by local dog lovers. In 1975 General Foods hired blind ‘taste testers’ to join the quality control team. Literally blind, this new team was featured in a television commercial where they demonstrated how they handled the job and to show how blind people could function in the workplace as well as sighted people. In 1969 General Foods as part of its 50th anniversary in Cobourg sponsored a national jam making contest using CERTO pectin. The contest winner was announced. The judges expected an elderly, gray-haired grandmother to appear, imagine their surprise to see Beverly Archer step forward. Beverly was a young male college student! Everyone had just recovered from the fact that the ‘hot line’ June Allen spokesperson was a male company chemist, now this, he made a great jam! Bev was the best friend of Rangers through high school and one of the contest judges was Ross Henry, an elderly lab technician known as “Mr. Certo” and the first person I met when starting my career at General Foods.

The Ranger worked at his site from 1966-2006. Here I worked in every part of the plant as a laboratory technician and worked with the Bushwhackers wife for some years and a few later actually met the Bushwhacker when he was hired to work in the Research Laboratory located on the west end of the property. The 2oldguyswalking team shared a lot of memories while obtaining photos for this post.

Regards, Ranger

 

4 comments

  1. Hi Ranger – Do you recall what products were still being made at the plant when you left in 2006? From what I’ve been able to find, Minute Rice was sold off in August 2006? Creme Savers sold Jun 2005? Cream of Wheat sold Feb 2007?, but info about other products towards the end is hard to come by.
    Derek

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    1. Hi Derek,
      When I retired, the plant still ran Jell-products (gelatin and pudding & pie fillings), Beverages (Tang, Kool-Aid, Quench, Crystal Light), Post cereals, Shake ‘n Bake, Certo, and Bird’s custard. Awake frozen beverage, and Cool Whip were shut down the last few years before I left.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wasn’t aware so many products were made there, thank you so much! Did you ever see Minute Rice, Creme Savers, Cream of Wheat, or any coffee brands made at the plant?
        Derek

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        1. Derek, great comment, yes I was still at Kraft when Minute Rice, Cream of Wheat and Crème Savers were produced. The ‘candy’ line was a favourite as I was in Quality Control and able to sample the product every day! The only coffee brand we made was General Foods International Coffees, flavoured instant coffee in the distinctive rectangular tin cans.
          Ranger

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