The City of Niagara Falls has a rich and varied industrial history with many well-known products being made right here in our own backyard. Since our local region is also renowned for its excellent agricultural farmland, it makes sense that food industries would take advantage of this and thrive.
The history of the canning industry in the Niagara Falls area dates back to the early 1900s. I am sure that many of us recognize the Lowrey Brothers, Bright’s Canning Company, the Sanitary Can Company and the D’Arcy Cropp Canning Company to name a few. In 1950, Mr. Cropp sold his canning factory to Gerber-Ogilvie Foods Ltd., where the new owners planned to use the factory to make baby food and baby cereal.
Shortly after the transfer of ownership, a large expansion program was announced. At the time, Gerber was hoping to have a stronger presence in the baby food market in Canada, which was controlled by Heinz. In 1951, approximately 50 per cent of the 110-member Gerber workforce were women and most of them were also mothers. Each day, 100,000 cans made their way out of the storehouse and were filled with more than 15 tons of fruits and vegetables that were grown in the Niagara Peninsula.
Through the years, the Gerber plant continued to expand at an unprecedented rate. In 1962, they announced what was to be their sixth major expansion that would cost $187,000. It would include an increase in storage facilities as well as an upgrade to the production line. This was needed because Gerber was changing their packaging, moving from cans to the new glass jars that were extremely popular with customers. In 1963, 118 different varieties of baby food were made by 185 employees at the Niagara Falls location.
Anyone who was lucky enough to attend Montreal’s Expo in 1967 would certainly be greeted with a familiar local sight when they visited the Nursery Baby-Care Centre. Here, Gerber exclusively provided free baby food as well as the use of bottle warmers for visitors. Cribs were also supplied for naps and the babysitting station expected to look after more than 15,000 babies while Expo remained open.
The 1970s saw continued growth and even more products were added to the Gerber roster. As well as processing a quarter million jars of baby food daily, waterproof plastic baby pants and nursing sets were also manufactured. Through the years, the plant had increased in size from 38,400 to more than 120,000 square feet. The quality control practices at Gerber were also ahead of their time and many standards developed here were known by other factories to be the gold standard for quality. It was also during this time that a spike in birth rates, combined with the low value of the Canadian dollar enabled Gerber to hit record sales.
Unfortunately, this trend did not last forever. In December of 1989, the news broke that the Gerber plant in Niagara Falls would close in April of 1990 when operations would be moved to the company’s headquarters in Fremont, Michigan. Sadly, more than 150 employees lost their jobs. It can be said that the economy was to blame, as five other companies in the city announced plant closings and layoffs during the same period of time. Although demolition crews tore down parts of the Gerber plant in 1991, the Lapennaco Liquidation Super Centre is currently located at this site.