WESTON — Gordon Smith remembers seeing, when he was a kid, 12 pea-processing plants in towns all around his birthplace of Pendleton.
“In those years, every town had one,” the now-owner of Smith Frozen Foods Inc. said.
The company — which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary — provides 10 to 15 percent of America’s frozen peas and corn, he said, as other plants have either shut down or consolidated. But Smith Frozen Foods has endured, and last week the company on the hill in Weston honored its centennial with a barbecue luncheon, cake and speech from Smith organized for the frozen food company’s hundreds of workers, growers, investors, buyers, family and friends.
One man present for the occasion was Cecil Fletcher, who worked for Green Giant for 24 ½ years before Smith acquired the fields Fletcher use to manage, Fletcher said. But he then worked for Smith’s for 14 ½ years before retiring.
“It’s changed drastically,” Fletcher said of the industry’s harvesting methods, which went from manual labor to more mechanical ways, such as using combines.
Donna Evans, who retired from Smith’s after 26 years, said the Weston area had one of the richest soils in the world, and she’d learned a lot about farming, as many workers did — and still do.
“You have to harvest peas at just the right time,” she said. “It’s a very delicate thing.”
Smith — a former Oregon senator — said he bought the Weston-based frozen vegetable processing plant in 1980 from his brother-in-law, Norman Jones, who had combined the family’s three smaller plants in Pendleton, Lewiston and Milton-Freewater, after buying the larger Weston plant.
“My life can be summed up with peas and politics,” Smith said, adding he is a member of the Udall political family besides serving two terms as a senator.
The plant — which employs about 350 full-time employees and more during harvest season — now has the potential to process and package 200 million pounds of frozen peas, corn, lima beans, carrots and onions per year, Smith said, but usually produces about 130 million. He said this year’s weather pushed back the plant’s operations, but peas likely would start rolling in by this weekend. Corn would start in mid-July, lima beans in September, and carrots the first of October. Onions were virtually year-round, he said.
Jones purchased the company in the 1970s from Smith’s father, who had inherited it from founder Albert Smith.
The founding Smith, of Clearfield, Utah, saved up enough money to buy land for raspberries, peas and other crops and supplied CalCAN. But the canning company soon told Smith they received enough crops from California and didn’t need his anymore. But he traveled to New York, where he purchased used French canning equipment, and started the process himself.
He continued until he heard from Oregon State University in 1936 about an experiment to rotate peas with wheat to help preserve the soil’s nutrients. The researchers promised his father land and disposal for the water if he built a plant in Pendleton, so he relocated. A temporary cannery in Athena was set up in the meantime, Smith said, and his father, Milan D. Smith, became the manager of both. Other facilities were also added.
“But then a funny thing happened,” Smith said. “The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.”
With World War II, getting canning supplies was basically impossible, he said.
However, Smith’s father had befriended Clarence Birdseye, who had created a way to quickly freeze produce He got an allocation for rations for a booster compressor and turned the Smith family’s Pendleton plant into freezing facility.
Smith said his grandfather didn’t know what his father was doing and even had a contract with the Campbell Soup Company for a million pounds of frozen peas, when he didn’t even have a freezer to put them in. His father wouldn’t have found out, but one of the railroad cars full of product went bad on its way to a Campbell’s plant in New Jersey.
“But it worked out all right because we have gone from freezing to canning as a company because of the Second World War,” Smith said. “And as you know, shortages and emergencies are the mother of invention, and so it was with Smith Frozen Foods.”
Later, when Jones bought and consolidated the plants, he faced debt from the consolidation and lean revenue years from pricing, Smith said. However, Smith said, he saw the potential of the plant and worked out with his sister and bankers to take over Smith Frozen Foods.
Much has changed since 1919, but a lot remains the same, he said.
“What is still the same are the fundamentals of keeping a company alive … No company is better than the people who work for it,” Smith said.
What kept Smith going, he said, was how he felt about the company.
“It produces something that others want to buy, which is a product that is good for them,” Smith said, adding he felt obligated to provide something good to people, as many of the country’s founders had praised the industry.
“Agriculture is the most healthful, most useful and most noble employment of man,” Smith said, quoting George Washington.