By Rebekkah McKalsen, Contributing Writer
FULTON, NY – Lay-offs are scheduled to start this month at the Birdseye frozen food plant in Fulton. It will close done for good in December.
On April 15, Pinnacle Foods announced that it will be closing the plant – which Pinnacle purchased as part of the Birdseye franchise in December 2009 – in order to promote efficiency.
The plant employs 280 people, and will be the third major closing in the city of Fulton since the Nestle plant shut its doors in 2003.
The majority of the workers during the early days of the plant – more than a century ago – were farmers and their families who needed extra income during the winter months.
In 1943, the Fulton plant was sold from the Snider Packing Company to the General Foods Corporation, and the plant began processing frozen vegetables such as spinach, green beans and broccoli under the Birds Eye name.
At this time, the plant was known as the Birds Eye Snider Division because of its previous affiliation with the Snider Packing Company.
This reporter’s grandfather, Don Pittsley, worked at the plant during that time.
His his jobs included washing the peas just after they were shipped to the plant.
This was a job that was still done by hand and often involved the removal of snakes and other small animals from the harvest.
Pittsley was also placed in charge of a unique set of workers at the plant: German prisoners of war.
“They bussed the [prisoners] in,” Pittsley explained. “Most of them couldn’t speak English, so I never had any that I could talk to.”
In order to orient the workers to their tasks, Pittsley had to lead by example.
“I would do a chore and then” – he pointed a finger, “‘You do it,’” he said.
While this sounds almost fantastic, it was not an altogether uncommon occurrence. German POWs in Medina, NY, were known to have worked at the Heinz factory.
The POWs that worked with Pittsley at Birdseye most likely came from Letchworth Park, where a former CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp had been turned into a makeshift camp that accommodated about 200 German war prisoners in 1944.
According to an article on the Letchworth Park history website, locals recalled many instances of the POWs there working in the fields because of the labor shortage caused by World War II.
Pittsley shrugged his shoulders and said, “I never had any problems with them.”
Park Commissioner Secretary Van Arsdale reported in June of 1944 that the POWs housed in Hamlin Beach and Letchworth parks were “to help relieve the labor shortage in harvesting and canning of fruits and vegetables,” including peas.
Martin Gillette, who worked as a 14-year-old boy at the Almond Pea Vinery, which is located near the camp, confirmed that POWs indeed worked the fields.
“The POWs did not speak English, and they had guards and interpreters. They came in Army buses…” he said.
There are also records showing that the Birds Eye Snider Division housed female workers in one of the cabin areas connected to the prison camp because the company had fields in nearby Mount Morris.
This suggests that the company had hired the POWs there out of convenience as additional, cheap labor to help in the fields.
From there, it is only a small step to having them bring the harvest to the plant on Phillips Street in Fulton to be supervised by a teen-age boy in the midst of large and dangerous equipment.
There are no records of this. Gladys Roark, who works in Human Resources at Birdseye, explained that the records Birdseye keeps only go back as far as the migrant workers that the company hired after World War II.
Anyone with any information or records about the possibility of German POWs working in Fulton is encouraged to contact Oswego County Today (use the comments section at the bottom of this article) in order to help preserve the parts of Fulton’s history that Birdseye helped to shape.
1902 – The Fulton factory is opened as a part of the Fort Stanwix Canning Company.
1917 – New York Canners succeed Fort Stanwix and keep the plant operating in the same manner.
1926 – Clarence Birdseye invents a process for freezing fish inspired by trips to the Arctic.
1927 – The Fulton plant is turned over to Snider Packing Corporation (which still exclusively cans its vegetables).
1929 – Birdseye sells his patents and company to Goldman Sachs (later the General Foods Corporation) for $22 million.
1943 – General Foods acquires the Fulton plant and started processing frozen spinach and other vegetables under the Birds Eye name; the Fulton plant is known as the Birds Eye Snider Division at this time.
1944 – The Fulton plant housed female workers at a former CCC camp near Mount Morris; eyewitness Don Pittsley said that German POWs, who were housed in the same camp area, were bussed into the Fulton plant as hired help with the pea harvest.
1968 – A fire led to the expansion and renovation of the plant.
1993 – Kraft sells Birdseye to Dean Foods for $140 million.
1998 – Dean Foods sells Birdseye to Agrilink Foods for $400 million.
2003 – Agrilink officially changes its name to Birds Eye Foods to reflect its strongest brand.
2009 – Pinnacle buys Birds Eye for $1.3 billion.
2011 – Pinnacle announces on April 15 that the plant will close in December, after 109 years of operation.