JUNE 2019


Introduction

In the 1950s, not long after my tenth birthday, I walked over to “Town” on an errand for my mother.  As usual, on the way back I took a short detour past Boslet’s Hobby Shop on Herzog Place .  In the window, I saw something new:


HO Scale Heinz Pickle Car model by Revell Inc., c.1957
worthpoint.com

A railroad car built to carry only vats of pickles seemed strange to my young brain.  On the wall next to the model there were old photographs, pictures of a local pickle works.  Hicksville had had a pickle factory?  For the first time, I really understood that, before the shiny new suburbs of my childhood popped up, there once had been a rural village here.

It would be many years – decades – before I looked back to that day, and decided to investigate the story of Hicksville ’s Heinz pickle works.

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Good-bye Barrels, Hello Jars

It was the 1890s.  America was nearing the end of one hundred years of remarkable change, change that had taken it out of the world of Thomas Jefferson, and would soon bring it into the world of Teddy Roosevelt.  A very tangible part of that change was the way the nation fed itself.  Rural families had always cured home-grown produce in ceramic crocks.  They used root cellars for winter storage of their durable vegetables (cabbages, potatoes, onions, carrots).  Once Mr. Mason invented his jars, things got easier, but the task still had to be done.

By mid-century, however, the rise of industry meant that people increasingly lived in cities.  Tenements had no gardens or root cellars.  Most blue-collar urban families, many of whom were immigrants, were reluctantly learning to live without preserving their own foods.  City folk had to buy, not grow, what they ate, and no matter what they bought, it probably was far different from the foods they preferred.

Consider the phrase “pickle barrel.”  Even today, it evokes nostalgia for crunchy, tasty dill pickles in old-time country stores.  The obvious implication is that dill pickles offered a more memorable taste than anything else the store sold – and sadly, they probably did.  Until the waves of Italians, Germans, Slavs, Asians, etc. broke on our shores, much American food was not heavily spiced, and immigrants found it bland.

Around 1860,
Pittsburgh teenager John Henry Heinz had pioneered the concept of putting commercially-prepared foods into jars.  He began by selling his own prepared horse radish door-to-door.  Soon, his business grew large enough to begin supplying his products to merchants.  By the 1890s, American stores were stocking their shelves with a great number of his tasty items, items which evoked the delicacies that customers might recall from “the old country.”  He offered many types of pickled cucumber items, marinated in a choice of spices, as well as pickled cauliflower, pepper, and tomato products.  His concoctions gave grateful customers a choice of ways to complement the affordable meats that blue-collar families ate.


Crate-label painting of
Heinz “octagon jar” with mixed pickles c.1894
morfauction.com

Eventually, Mr. Heinz hit on the idea of emphasizing the multitude of choices his company offered.  He began advertising its “57 Varieties” – 57 being a number he felt would stay in the public’s mind (in reality, he was already selling more products than that).  The Heinz Company grew steadily, encompassing distant markets and growers almost all over the world.



H. J. Heinz Company advertisement, 1924
archbridgeinstitute.org

***

A Plant Grows in Hicksville

Obviously, Brooklyn and New York City (they had yet to join together in one municipality) constituted a major sales market.  At the time, Heinz already had a limited pickle-salting operation near Port Jefferson, but putting an actual factory on Long Island , closer to the City, would offer advantages.  Shipping supplies and finished products would be convenient.  Perhaps more important, increasing the company’s total Long Island capacity would mean having local farmers commit more of their crops to Heinz.  This would leave L.I. farmers with less produce to sell to competitors of the company, which would help Heinz solidify its market share.

Would a town on western Long Island welcome a new Heinz factory?  Unquestionably.  H. J. Heinz Co. was a legendary success – a “clean” thriving business with happy employees.  It had earned a reputation for paying employees a fair, but not high, wage.  Important to its ethic was offering its employees (many of them women) clean, safe, and humane “Christian” working conditions.  Compared to working in other factories, a job at Heinz was practically a blessing. 



Uniformed workers sorting and counting pickles at a Heinz factory c.1910
“H. J. Heinz Company, Producers, Manufacturers and Distributers [sic], Pure Food Products”
Internet Archive


For the town itself, getting a Heinz factory meant construction jobs, new prosperity for farmers, and higher employment levels.  It also “said something” about the place; after all, the world-famous Mr. Heinz could easily have put his factory in some other town instead.

Thus, when the Heinz Company talked, small towns listened eagerly.  Who first spoke to whom about the matter is not evident, but this news item was published late in 1892:


Newtown Register, November 10, 1892


And so, as 1893 began, “the people of Hicksville ” resolved to give land to the company – a standard commitment made by any community that wanted a Heinz presence.  It was a tract of seven acres, adjacent to the tracks of the LIRR branch to Port Jefferson, between Park Avenue and Bethpage Road .



E. Belcher Hyde 1914 Atlas of Nassau County (highlight added)


Newtown Register, January 5, 1893

Within a week, the company accepted the offer.  Soon, the following advertisement was placed in local newspapers:


Huntington Long-Islander, January 28, 1893

It was late January, and Long Island was thoroughly frozen.  No farmer’s plow or builder’s shovel would penetrate Hicksville ’s cold soil for months – and farmers were pledging the year’s unplanted crops to Heinz.

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Joining the Heinz Empire

Everyone seemed satisfied by the agreement.  At the very end of April, ground finally was broken; at the same time, the LIRR began constructing a 200-yard-long rail connection to serve the complex.  The first part of the factory (three stories tall, and at 64 x 80 feet less than half its final size) was constructed, as was a salting house (for turning cucumbers into pickles, and cabbage into sauerkraut), and a power plant with a boiler.  A well was dug, and a reserve water tank built.



H.J. Heinz Factory No. 3 in Hicksville c.1910
The Salting House (left) had tripled its size in 1894, and would expand further.
“H. J. Heinz Company, Producers, Manufacturers and Distributers [sic], Pure Food Products”
Internet Archive

Through the spring and early summer of 1893, successive news reports eagerly followed the progress: excavation, masonry work, deliveries of equipment, final painting, etc.  One report admired the factory’s large sign, painted (of course) by a Hicksvillian.  As the local farmers toiled to deliver the first year’s twenty million cucumbers – America certainly did like its pickles – the works began operating.  Things had settled in nicely by the time the fall harvest began.  In September, H. J. Heinz himself came to Hicksville , in order to survey the latest outpost of his domain.




Henry John Heinz
Smithsonian Institution


In October, the Long-Islander reported that most of the first year’s pickles already had been shipped, but that Heinz had contracts to ship one hundred more carloads by November.  Meanwhile, the Salting House was processing 1,300 tons of cabbage into sauerkraut, and it expected that by mid-November it would receive 2,500 more tons.  Hicksville had never before experienced anything of this magnitude.

***

Beyond the Pickle

From the 1890s through the 1910s, the complex continued to thrive, growing until the site occupied ten acres.  The investment and expansion were not surprising, for the Hicksville operation was more important to the business than one might realize today.

Although the company had dozens of pickle-salting operations around the nation, it had only twelve branch factories, which made more of those “57” products than pickles, including four varieties of vinegar.  Heinz was considered the world’s largest manufacturer of vinegar, and only six of its factories produced it.  Hicksville was one of them.  In the photograph below, the building in the rear likely was the one which housed the hydraulic presses and the fermenting / distilling equipment needed for vinegar production.



Postcard of Heinz complex in Hicksville
Note the rows of stacked barrels to the left.
Pinterest


Occasionally, the plant was in the news.  For example, there was a sauerkraut workers’ strike in the autumn of 1899.  Newspaper accounts do not fully explain the strikers’ agenda.  Reportedly, they complained about consistently working very long hours (doubtless to be expected during the peak harvest season).  Presumably, they were being paid for the time they worked.  The striking workers wanted their employer to hire more employees, so that all the employees would each work less.  This sounds rather altruistic, but it also sounds unlikely – would factory workers in the 1890s strike to win the right to work less and bring home less money?  There must have been more to it than was reported.


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 4, 1899


Now and then, there were minor mishaps, and consequent injuries, as staff installed or maintained machinery.  I have found no reports of any fatal accidents, although ironically, while visiting Long Island , Mrs. Heinz – identified somewhat charmingly below as “Wife of Pickle Man” – had a close call.


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 12, 1912

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Blight at the End of the Tunnel

Around 1919, Long Island ’s pickle industry saw its first hints of trouble.  Here and there, blights, especially White-Pickle Disease (also called Mosaic), appeared in the great cucumber fields.  Instead of green cucumbers, farmers’ labors began to yield repulsive, white, inedible lumps.

“Diseases and Insects of Garden Vegetables”
USDA Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1371, 1924
Googlebooks.com

In hindsight, it is easy to say – as could later be said also of potatoes – that in this era, growing many millions of bushels of produce, year after year, on densely farmed Long Island made epidemics of blight inevitable.  In this case, the primary vectors for spreading the diseases were small (1/4” long), rather handsome yellow-and-black cucumber beetles, especially the striped and twelve-spotted species shown at the beginning of this article.

By August 1920, newspapers reported that cucumber and cabbage fields on Long Island had shrunk significantly because of blight.  The present crop had started well, but by late summer much of its yield was threatened, by both blight and drought.  Desperate officials convened conferences, seeking guidance from agricultural experts.  Alas, the situation was beyond control.  Things went very badly, even sooner than most people feared.  Only one year later, some farms failed, and those that remained active were harvesting only 20% to 60% of what they had committed to produce.



The Brooklyn Daily Eagle


With little or no usable harvest available, and a future that looked even worse, the Heinz complex had become unsustainable.  After nearly thirty years, the Hicksville pickle works story ended as suddenly as it had begun.  The local Heinz factory was far from the only pickle business casualty: competitors in Farmingdale, Greenport, and towns to the east all went the same way.


Huntington Long-Islander,
June 23, 1922


Local farmers started to realize that Hicksville ’s agricultural heyday would not last forever; change was already coming, bit by bit.  Some hoped to hang on as long as they could by planting different crops.  Others reasoned that the best thing to do was to sell their land to developers, who would divide it into lots and build on it.  A flurry of new construction began transforming the old farmland – more houses, more people, and soon a new High School on Jerusalem Avenue .

What about the shuttered pickle works?  It facilitated the change.  The site once selected by the townspeople because of its railroad access and proximity to farms would again prove convenient: it became a satellite location for the Brooklyn lumber supplier who provided the wood for building all those new houses.

***

Epilogue: An India Relish Car

H. J. Heinz was proud of his accomplishments, and he saw no reason to be timid or restrained about marketing his products.  He had hundreds of special freight cars built, and he had their sides painted in eye-catching hues, so that they would serve as rolling billboards.  Whenever they traversed America ’s countryside, they unabashedly advertised the products they carried.

Obviously, no color photographs from that era exist, but have no fear, reader.  After checking several color print publications, I digitally altered a portion of this photograph (taken at Heinz headquarters) to provide a glimpse of how these cars’ “billboard” sides looked.  Nifty, huh?



created using a black-and-white photograph from
historicpittsburgh.org


More than sixty years after I first wondered about them, I have answers to those old questions from my childhood.  Yes, Hicksville , you really once had a Heinz pickle works.  And yes, pickle cars once rode the country’s rails – not to mention vinegar cars, ketchup cars, India relish cars, and (believe it or not) apple butter cars.

***

Sources

In addition to the sources noted above, relevant information for this article has been gleaned from:

 

old issues of the Rockville Center South Side Observer

 

Tom Montalbano, The Great Sysosset Pickle Boom 1880-1914, available at https://www.oysterbayhistorical.org/uploads/4/9/5/1/4951065/great_syosset_pickle_boom.pdf

 

Wikipedia (articles on H. J. Heinz and the company he founded)

The happy little critters below are visitors from luv2garden.com’s Vegetable Garden Reference Center website at (https://luv2garden.com/cucumber_beetles.html)

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