Many interesting businesses developed in the Genesee Valley in the 19th century and one of those was created by Miss Ellen North of Geneseo. Born in 1857, she was the only child of Mary and Albert North. Albert’s parents were early settlers in Geneseo, coming to town in 1817. Ellen’s grandfather, Henry North, established a successful merchandising business and was prominent in local politics. John Young, Ellen’s maternal grandfather, was New York State governor in 1846. Ellen enjoyed a life filled with distinct advantages and was educated both in the U.S. and France.
In 1889, Albert North purchased a beautiful sprawling Queen Anne home located at 34 Main Street. Ellen, an old maid by society’s standards, still lived with her parents. By 1893 a deep economic depression had crippled the U.S. economy. Banks failed, stock prices crashed, businesses teetered, many closed their doors, and people scrambled to put food on the table. It was a dark time, but the 36-year-old Miss North saw opportunity instead. Her idea was to turn a hobby into a cash business to shore up her family’s finances. Since her friends and family always enjoyed her jams and preserves, why not put up more jars and sell them? Fruit was plentiful in summer and fall, and with minimal starting capital, she decided to try her hand as a commercial jam maker.
Hiring a few women, Ellen began the Geneseo Jam Kitchen in her home. The ladies produced fine jams, jellies, and preserves at reasonable prices using local fruit—strawberries, cherries, and currants. The Kitchen’s offerings were an immediate success, and the business grew exponentially. Workrooms were added to the house, and within a few years, she moved the business next door to accommodate its needs. By 1899, Ellen employed 50 women at the Geneseo Jam Kitchen. The company received eighteen tons of currants from a 16-acre tract in Mt. Morris (said to be the largest plot of currants in the world), 8.5 tons of cherries, and 300 bushels of strawberries from other local growers, which were delivered annually to supply the Kitchen. Stores throughout Western New York eagerly sought Miss North’s tasty products for their shelves.
Miss North carefully guarded her recipes and kept her products to the highest standards. The Geneseo Jam Kitchen used nothing artificial in any of its products. Only pure sugar and the freshest fruit available went into the delicious jams and jellies. Employees prepared and cooked the fresh fruit within 12 hours of picking. Eventually, customers had more choices, including orange marmalade, mincemeat, pickled pears, brandied peaches, and sauces. Business was booming! At one time, 52 different products were available. Her marketing plan targeted the overworked homemaker with the tag line: “Cheaper than you can put them up in your kitchen.” It worked splendidly.
Ellen, whose attention to detail never flagged, also designed a special jar to hold her jellies. It was one you could flip over, tap the jar with a knife, and the contents would slide out whole, making a beautiful presentation on your china plate. These jars were copyrighted and shaped like a cowbell with a wide mouth.
By World War I, the business once again needed more space. In addition, the company had government contracts to produce sweet toppings for our soldiers. This demand required her to convert to quantity production to fulfill the contracts; however, she insisted the excellent quality be maintained. As a result, the U.S. Army ordered millions of tins of jam. Miss North then purchased the Bonner Hotel located at the corner of University Drive and Main Street. The building was used for storage and offices but is no longer in existence.
The tins of jams and jellies were wildly popular with soldiers, and they often sent letters of thanks to Ellen, some even hinting at romance. She commented to the Democrat & Chronicle that she’d have an “interesting human-interest scrapbook by the end of the war.”
In 1922, the sole proprietorship was incorporated, with Miss North still at the helm at age 65. A tall woman, she was of regal posture with a gold ear trumpet and was always noticed, as you might imagine, when entering a room. She had the first floor of the Bonner Hotel remodeled into a tearoom to promote the great variety of products the Kitchen now produced. Her energy decreased over the next couple of years, and she retired from active management of the company in 1925. Vice-President Richard MacKenzie took over and became the majority stockholder. In 1930, MacKenzie sold out to L. Charles Mazzola. Mazzola had worked in the food processing industry for over 20 years. This transfer occurred during the Great Depression, and the company struggled to survive but seemed to be in the black by 1937. Mazzola sold the company to Edward Spencer, who continued to purchase fruit and tomatoes from local farmers and expanded its product base. More attention was given to canning vegetables, especially tomatoes. The company was sold again after Spencer’s tenure.
On May 19, 1939, Ellen North passed away after a brief illness. She was 81. The Geneseo Jam Kitchen continued to operate for another decade following the founder’s death. During World War II, the company once again supplied our troops, but economic woes took a financial toll after the war. It filed for bankruptcy in 1949, and the final settlement took place in 1951. What began in Ellen North’s kitchen in 1893 was no more, but 56 years isn’t a bad run at all. Ellen proved herself an extraordinary businesswoman known for her generous hospitality and work at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Geneseo. Miss North improved the village and county’s economy, provided employment for many women and men, and was known internationally for her fine sweetmeats. An exceptional life, without a doubt. She is buried next to her parents in Temple Hill Cemetery.
Association for the Preservation of Geneseo
Genesee Valley People 1743-1962, Irene A. Beale
Livingston County Historian
The Livingston Republican
Democrat & Chronicle