History Was His Passion

After spending the last several years writing about local history, I’ve started getting calls from people in our community who are also interested in our past, some who have devoted their lives to preserving Fulton memories. Jeff Gorton was one of those people. Though Jeff was probably best remembered as a teacher and school administrator when he passed away in January of 2016, he also spent much of his life collecting local history memorabilia. A few years ago, I got a firsthand look at his passion for the past.

In 2014, Jeff contacted me about writing a story for the Fulton Library’s Memoir Project. Since his knowledge of Fulton history covered many areas, he invited then-Library Director Betty Mauté and me to his home to discuss which topic he should focus on for his memoir. Walking into Jeff’s home was like walking back in time.

Most of the Gorton home’s common living area was devoted to displays of local history. In his kitchen, den and living room were cans, bottles and cardboard packages from local food industries, such as Nestlé and Sealright. Moving from room to room felt like we were on a museum tour. Each display had a story, and behind each story was something Jeff learned about his hometown – and himself. That’s when we hit on an idea Jeff could write about.

As we talked, Jeff expressed his strong feeling that the many Fulton businesses and industries he’d had the opportunity to work with helped him develop a strong work ethic. For example, here’s an excerpt from Jeff’s memoir describing his first job, delivering newspapers:

“When I retired, I saw on my Social Security profile that I starting paying into the system when I was 11 years old. This was for my first job in the city of Fulton, peddling papers for The Fulton Patriot. I had one of the longest routes for delivering The Patriot in the city of Fulton. My route started at the V where Utica Street meets Emery Street, then went out Emery, around the Fulton Housing Project, over to Broadway past the cemetery and back down Seventh Street to the V at Utica and Emery.”

Jeff’s next job was with The Syracuse Herald-Journal, and his responsibilities included both delivering papers and working in its Fulton office, further developing skills that, as Jeff noted, “I would use later in life: interacting with people, accounting and administration techniques. I’d be remiss not mentioning my first boss, Oney Stoddard, who ran the Fulton franchise of The Herald. He was a man short in stature, but had a very big heart. His office was up a long flight of stairs between the Avon Theatre and Foster’s soda spot…”

When our meeting with Jeff had ended, he offered me a document he’d written about the history of some Fulton businesses. I readily accepted a copy and learned a lot about the factories and stores I had only ever heard about. I still refer to this document when I’m writing about a certain industry in town.

I was especially eager to learn about one of those businesses because it was right in my childhood neighborhood: Birds Eye Foods. From Jeff, I learned the food processing plant on Phillips Street didn’t start its history with the Birds Eye name. In his writing, he took us back to the plant’s origins, and along with describing how the plant got its start, Jeff also gave us a little lesson in food preservation:

 “The process whereby food was heated and sealed in cans to preserve it evolved in the early nineteenth century. By 1888, advances in technology led to the formation of the Fort Stanwix Canning Company in Rome, New York. It was dedicated to providing high-quality canned vegetables and its product was shipped throughout the country by rail, commanding top-dollar in the marketplace.

 “Just after the turn of the twentieth century, the company was looking for a location to place a new factory for the processing of peas, corn, beets and spinach. Fulton proved ideal for their purposes since it already possessed the required power and transportation networks, in addition to close proximity to farmland suitable for crops of the target vegetables. One of the primary reasons why the company’s product was considered the best was that it went rapidly from field to can while still fresh.”

Jeff went on to explain how the Fort Stanwix Company chose the eleven-acre site on Phillips Street for its new plant, where it would preserve and package food for over a century. Through the years, the factory was operated by different companies, and in the late 1920s, Jeff noted that a major change took place in the food industry. It would also alter how the Fulton canning factory did business. Here’s how Jeff explained the change:

“While trading and trapping in arctic Labrador, a man named Clarence Birdseye discovered that fresh-caught fish quickly freeze in the sub-zero temperature. These could then be thawed and cooked months later, still maintaining a fresh taste. After much experimentation, Birdseye developed the Belt Freezer that duplicated the natural process he saw at work in the far North. [He found that] quick-freezing didn’t destroy the nutrients the way that a slow freeze or heating did. This would soon revolutionize the processed food business.

“General Foods Company bought the rights to his system and developed in-store cooling equipment and insulated railcars to make marketing of the product possible. Anxious to get the new idea on the market, General Foods purchased the Fulton plant in 1943, reequipped it to support the quick-freeze process and began selling vegetables under the ‘Birds Eye’ label.”

I’m so fortunate to have worked with Jeff on his memoir and to have read his summary of Fulton businesses. In fact, learning about how Birds Eye evolved in Fulton led me to track down another local writer who knew the insides of that factory firsthand. In my next blog, we’ll get to hear his story.

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