J.E. Gardner, grower of fancy tomatoes, Osage City, is shown with a wagon load of his produce in this ca. 1912 photograph from the collection of Gary Lowman.
By Wendi Bevitt
In 1912, the Osage City Free Press declared, “It’s a garden for Gardner”. John E. Gardner, of Osage City, tested his hand at gardening and canning on a large scale. Gardner was a gentleman who worked on the “unalterable principle that nothing can be accomplished unless one tries,” and had already been a success at truck farming with his “fancy tomatoes”. That summer, he started by experimenting with canning around 1,000 cans of hand packed tomatoes. He made a good profit, which encouraged him in his venture. Business was going so well that within three years Gardner built a canning factory at Ninth and Holliday in Osage City to keep up with demand.
New businesses within the city had to first meet with the approval of the Trades Extension Committee, a branch of the Commercial Club, and then Commercial Club as a whole. The Trades Extension Committee was comprised of 14 men from various lines of business from around Osage City. Their responsibilities included securing new industry and improvements for the city and promotion of matters of general interest for its good.
Because of Gardner’s expansion, he was able to increase his production. His factory canned tomatoes, beans, corn, beets, onions, pickles, pumpkins and other vegetables. Many of the vegetables came from his 225-acre farm, but much came from local farmers. Gardner paid good money – $50 per ton for green beans – to the local suppliers for their produce. Sometimes the amount of produce coming to the factory was too great and the trucks had to be turned away to dump their loads into Salt Creek, but Gardner would pay the supplier anyway for their effort.
When the canning season peaked, a room was rented next to the Commerce Bank to fill with surplus canned goods. Canned goods from Gardner’s factory would ship all over the county and state and throughout country. In the early years, the factory could can as much as 450 cans in one day. Another service offered by the canning factory was for local farmers to bring in unmanageable homegrown produce to have canned at the factory instead of at home.
After the United States entered World War I, the government relied on businesses like Gardner’s to aid the war effort, and required all factories to supply 10 percent of their output. For Gardner, this amounted to sending 5,088 cans of the 1917 season’s tomatoes to Camp Funston at Fort Riley. By the next year, Gardner was sending half of his output to the government.
Gardner employed a staff of 10 to 30 employees. These individuals worked handpicking produce on his farm, in the factory, or at his grocery store. Many of his staff were family members.
The entire Gardner family was hit hard during the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic. Not one person in the family was spared. In December, Gardner’s son, Archie, died as a result of his illness. Osage City as a whole was hit hard by the flu, and just days before Archie succumbed to his illness, Mayor Benjamin Heilbrun declared an influenza ban within the city. The ban closed businesses, churches and other public places until the disease was brought under control. This also included congregating for public funerals. Archie’s funeral took place at the end of December after the ban had been lifted and the family recovered.
Gardner’s grocery was sold in 1922, after six years of service to the community. His canning factory is now gone, but the gardener who believed in “doing things” showed it could be done.
John Gardner shows off Gardner & Son Fruit and Produce’s new Paige Truck in the April 17, 1919, Osage City Free Press.
The Gardner Canning Factory as shown in the Osage City Free Press, July 1, 1915.
Wendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She has lived in Osage County for 18 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.