NORMAL — The story goes that when Thomas and George Champion dissolved their hardware store partnership in the mid-1870s, Thomas, a tinsmith by trade, was left with an oversupply of metal cans. Apparently one never to let slip an opportunity, he decided upon a plan of action to put those cans to good use.
Thus began Thomas Champion’s small commercial canning operation, and with it an industry that would thrive in Normal well into the mid-20th century. “For a good many years Mr. Champion canned everything in season, tomatoes, raspberries, beans, pumpkin and so forth, and spent the long winter months making his own cans from the sheet tin,” reads an account of Normal’s canning industry from 1925. Serving as his first canning factory was a 12- by 14-foot building at what was then the east end of Ash Street in Normal. (Today, this would be near the intersection of College Avenue and Beech Street.)
Nothing paid as well as tomatoes, so Champion eventually dropped most other fruits and vegetables, all the while devoting himself to improving tomato varieties through hybridization. In 1889, he built a substantial brick building on East Ash Street, which later was used by the Rich Canning Co., another Normal-based canner. Champion remained in the tomato canning business through World War I.
For a long time, the area’s largest canning operation carried a Bloomington name, though it was located north of Division Street just inside Normal city limits. In 1887, Gibson City banker M.T. Burwell established the Bloomington Canning Co., and for years the business occupied the entire block bounded by Franklin Avenue and Division, University and Apple streets. (At present, this area is occupied by the Illinois Wesleyan University soccer complex north of Hornberger Field, and Division and Apple no longer run between Franklin and University.) Peter Whitmer of Bloomington joined management within a year and eventually became company president, and upon his death in 1909 his son, Ira, succeeded him.
Despite the drought-like conditions during the 1887 growing season, the company managed to ship around 200,000 cans of tomatoes throughout the Midwest. The tomatoes — grown by area farmers and purchased at $6.50 per ton — were peeled by “deft-fingered girls” and then packed into cans. Once sealed, the cans were placed in boiling water for 45 minutes in order to prevent spoilage.
The Bloomington Canning Co. eventually established canning factories in Chenoa (1891) and LeRoy (1905), before absorbing (in 1919) an existing operation in El Paso.
In the mid-1890s, the company stopped purchasing tomatoes, corn and other produce directly from farmers and instead leased acreage. By 1926, the Bloomington Canning Co. was running a sophisticated operation whereby some 7,000 acres of farmland were overseen by four farm managers (one for each canning factory). By this time the company’s specialty was corn, and by handling some 10 million cans per annum it was said to be one of the larger such operations in the nation.
From the 1920s and into the 1950s, Normal was home to two other commercial canners — Lutz (known as Isadore Lutz & Son and then Lutz Greenhouse and Canning Co.) and the Rich Canning Co., the latter established by Joseph Rich and then headed by his son, Roland.
Isadore Lutz was born in 1879 in Russia as Isaak Luchansky, arriving in the U.S. in 1905 before settling in Normal a year or two later. The Lutzes also ran a greenhouse operation much of the time so they could meet winter demand for canned goods. By the early 1950s, Lutz had found a ready market in the south for green tomatoes, with shipments destined for Nashville, New Orleans, Fort Worth and other southern locales. Green tomatoes were different in that they were shipped “au naturel” (that is, un-canned).
In late September 1958, the Rich Canning Co., which by then was located at 100 E. Parkinson St., Normal (about where the old Amtrak station now sits empty), was processing some 40 tons of tomatoes per day, enough to fill 36,000 cans worth of the ripe, red fruit.
Back in the 1920s, The Pantagraph noted a curious display in the offices of the Bloomington Canning Co. on Division Street. Framed was a label torn from one of its cans of corn sent by a U.S. soldier stationed in France during World War I. Apparently, this “Johnny Doughboy” was happy to come across the all-American staple in a country that considered corn little more than livestock feed. “He rejoiced to find this reminder of home while fighting with the allies,” mused The Pantagraph.