Recollections of the Grape Business
as told to
John McMath lived from 1883 to 1959 and was in the business of buying grapes for shipment until 1932 around the northern end of Lake Keuka. His father Samuel McMath lived from 1842 to 1918. Frank Swann was a former Yates County Historian. Virginia Gibbs, the present Yates County Historian, supplied the manuscript for reprinting here.
At first there were so few grapes there was no standard package. Various sizes and styles were tried out and shipped by express. On account of the very limited quantity going to market, these grapes met with a ready sale at a very satisfactory price and were sold by the pound. Naturally, others were encouraged to set out more grapes. With this growing demand it was not many years before there was enough tonnage, so that growers were able to make sizable shipments every few days to the various large cities.
The sawmills cut out the material necessary, of the right dimensions and kinds of wood, to make a little square basket-type box that held three pounds. They sold this material direct to the growers who had to make up their own packages. These little boxes, in turn were put into a small crate containing ten baskets with a divider between, somewhat on the order of a berry crate. This style of package, however, did not continue very long because it was too expensive and too heavy for express shipment.
There then came on the market a five-pound basket, complete with a wooden handle and cover. The handles were nailed on by hand and the covers were held in place by small strips of tin tacked to the cover and bent under the top band.
Later a steel wire hook was invented by Leroy Toby to take the place of the tin. This was a big improvement as long as soft pine was available for covers. When it became necessary to use a tougher wood, it was often quite a job to insert the hook because the wood was so hard the points of the hook would bend. Sometimes you would have to use two or three hooks before you were sure the cover would stay on.
The 5 lb. Climax basket was cut down in size from time to time until it contained 3 lbs. net of grapes. It became known and quoted, in the big cities, as the "Pony Basket." This was the standard package in the Finger Lakes section for years.
More and more baskets were needed, and veneer came to be used for making baskets. The veneer was made flat and laid on the ground in the sun until it was dry. Then it was gathered in boxes and sold to basket factories who in turn had the baskets made by hand and put together with nails and tacks. Any basketmaker who could make five of six hundred a day was considered above average. The rate paid was 20¢ a hundred. At this time the price to growers for the basket complete with a white pine cover, delivered, was from twelve to fifteen dollars per thousand.
As the acreage grew, it became necessary to have a standard container into which the grapes were picked. This was a flaring box-like container called a tray which held 40 pounds. Later a standard box holding thirty pounds was adopted. This made it much easier for women pickers to handle and carry out the trays to the end of the rows.
Most growers had their names stenciled on the boxes and trays. The grapes were picked very carefully and placed stem up in the tray so as not to take the bloom off the grapes. This also eliminated waste and made it easier for the packers.
These grapes were then stored in the packing houses, or the coolest places that could be found outdoors, and covered with canvas or carpets, or anything that would keep the heat and rain out. The stems were allowed to wilt some before they were packed in the baskets. This enabled the packers to pack a basket that gave a full appearance at all times. Because of this painstaking care. the growers were able to put up a better package than in any other section outside the Finger Lakes region.
One of the early factories was owned by Seneca L. Pratt and was located where the old St. Johns' Mill is on the Outlet. He later built the original Guile and Windnagle factory on the Channel where he manufactured grape baskets for a number of years. He retired and sold out to Charles E. Guile and Warner Windnagle. They also had a factory in Gaines, Pennsylvania, where they made a specialty of bushel baskets. In the Penn Yan factory they made the largest variety of baskets of anybody in the country. When anybody got stuck on some particular kind of basket, they would take their troubles to Guile and Windnagle, and they usually ironed them out. This is the reason that they had such a large business in such a variety of styles of packages. They took great pride in making their baskets as well as they could be made and had a good reputation in the trade for quality.
Another of the first firms making baskets was the McMath & Morgan factory on Water Street composed of my father, Samuel McMath, and C. W. Morgan. They were located where Joe Sanderson is now on Water Street. There was another basket factory on Head Street, that of Ira Price & Brothers, whose specialty was bushel baskets and delivery baskets. They later sold out to Barden & Robinson. There were also quite a number of small factories in Guyanoga Valley, Dundee, and up on the Bath Road that assembled baskets and sold to nearby growers.
This method of making and distributing baskets went on for a number of years until a man from Michigan, whose name was Mercanthaugh, perfected a basketmaking machine that made and used staples instead of tacks and nails. This machine, run by a line shaft, enabled a basketmaker to assemble from two to three thousand baskets a day which was many times faster and very much easier than the hand method. This new method practically put the smaller and older factories out of business except those of Guile and Windnagle and the Yates Lumber Company, who both put in the necessary machinery to make this style of package. This made employment for quite a number of people. They were able, with this method of manufacturing, to supply all the necessary baskets for this area and to ship many carloads to other grape growing sections that had come into bearing by this time.
The Yates Lumber Company for years was known as the largest manufacturers of Climax baskets in the country. They sold their baskets in all the grape growing sections. Their outstanding salesman was Rexford Potter, and believe me, he was a salesman! He could sell wooden nutmegs! Rex had a personal acquaintance with practically all the users of Climax baskets and was liked by all of them. Both Mr. Wise and ourselves bought from Guile and Windnagle and the Yates Lumber Company in large amounts as long as we were in business, and sold the baskets to the growers. This style of package, with a wooden handle, was used until 1914.
Perhaps the greatest trouble that packers and shippers of fruit had to contend with was the necessity of using wooden handles on their baskets. This meant extra work for the packer for even after the wooden handle was on, it was apt to split or break. It became necessary for the shippers to put a bunch of wooden handles (500 in a bunch) with nails and tacks in each loaded car so that handles broken in transit could be mended at the other end. Over a hundred different types and styles of wire handles had been invented and tried out by the growers and shippers but all proved to be unsatisfactory, since they, too, had to be put on with a hammer and depended upon the tension of the wire to hold the cover on and in place with no centering point. After baskets with these handles were loaded in a car, the constant motion had a tendency to make the covers slip. The covers had to move only the thickness of the end of the basket to slide inside the basket and crush the fruit. This was especially so in the bottom rows of baskets where the most weight was. Of course when they arrived in this condition, the customer complained and deducted from his invoice an allowance for the damaged grapes.
As a result there came upon the market a wire handle and attaching machine which was patented by myself and F. B. Townsend. This was named the Automatic Clincher Wire Handle, and was patented January 19, 1915. The handles and machines were made in four different sizes; 4 quart, 12 quart Climax, 2 quart Climax, and 2 quart Till. These quickly took the place of the wooden handles and were the only handles on the market, which, when applied, were in proper position for the cover, regardless of the width of the top band or hoop, and the thickness of the cover. When they were on these handles stayed on. They did not pierce through the veneer weakening and splitting the sides of the baskets. They were also the most rigid handles made and served to strengthen the basket because of the shoulder and loop on each side.
An important advantage of these handles was that tension was not required to hold the covers in place, which resulted in every package being uniform when filled and ready for market. These handles were recognized by growers, dealers and shippers, as being perfect in every detail, and acknowledged to be the standard wire handle. They were accepted in all sections and were soon used exclusively. Another desirable feature, that met with great favor among cherry growers, was the crimp in the center of these handles which allowed the baskets to be hung with perfect safety from the limb of the tree without tilting when picking small fruit.
This patent also included the self-locking notched cover which was made with a die so that all were uniform. The growers received them in bunches of 100, ready for immediate use. The "V" notch in this cover was just deep enough so that, when put on, the cover did not spread the basket. The notches were the same distance apart as between the shoulders of the wire handle, and yet wide enough to allow the cover to lie perfectly flat the entire length of the basket. This resulted in an unusually neat, strong package and saved growers the necessity of working after supper, sometimes late, hooking covers on the baskets that the packers had packed that day.
The Handy Handler, covered by the same patent, was a strong, simple, and thoroughly practical machine, used to attach the Automatic Clincher Wire Handle to baskets of various sizes. It delivered and fastened every handle exactly in the center of basket, and did it quickly and with almost no effort. This machine performed the work of five men handling baskets in the old way, and soon saved its cost in labor, time and satisfaction.
Under the old method an average of not over a 1000 wooden handles a day could be put on by expert nailers. With the Handy Handler anyone could easily put on 5000 handles in the same length of time. Some growers put on as many as twenty handles a minute. No packing house was complete without this machine, and the low cost, $15, put it within the reach of all fruit packers.