This post isn’t about a well-known business, but rather a well-known dessert. How I came across this story is another reason why I love “everyday history,” because you never know when or where you’ll find it. And finding this little historical gem is a perfect example.
During a quick weekend trip to New York State for the purpose of tracking down where one of my wife’s Revolutionary War ancestors had settled near the City of Batavia we passed through the small town of LeRoy, and there on the town’s welcome sign it read, “LeRoy, the Home of Jell-O.” This was an exciting, and unexpected, surprise that I had to check it out.
Like McDonald’s most everyone has a Jell-O story from their childhood. For me it was my Mother adding Pineapple chucks to Strawberry Jell-O, which is now my Daughters favorite too.
But before we tour LeRoy’s Jell-O Gallery museum let me give a short history of Jell-O and its connection to Leroy.
From the kitchen of Pearle and May Wait
In 1897 a Leroy entrepreneurial couple by the names of Pearle and May Wait had been trying, unsuccessfully, to start a cough syrup and laxative business in their kitchen. After years of getting nowhere with this line of products they decided to try something they knew more about, food. What Pearle and May where really good at was making sweet syrups from local fruits and berries.
No one knows what gave them the idea to combine their fruit syrups with gelatin, then turning it into a powder that would become a tasty sweet and fruity dessert when water was added, but they did and it worked. Although gelatins had been around for a very long time no one had combined it with anything to make it taste good before the Waits. The desserts of that time were cakes and pies which took lots of time and ingredients to make. The process that the Waits developed was quick and easy to make, and a little known fact, that their Jell-O didn’t need to be refrigerated, which wasn’t available in the late 19th century. All you needed was the powder, water and let it stand for a while.
It was May who came up with the name for their new product by combining the words gelatin and jelly. She then added the letter “O” at the end, which was a popular marking practice at the time. The first flavors they offered were strawberry, raspberry, lemon, and orange.
Although Pearle and May had invented a revolutionary new tasty dessert they didn’t have enough money to advertise and promote their new treat. Unable to make a living selling Jell-O themselves they sold the formula, patent, and name to a neighbor, Orator Frank Woodward for $450 in 1899.
Woodward, with his Genesee Pure Food Company, had the manufacturing capability, and was already a success with his roasted cereal coffee substitute, Grain-O. He channeled the income from Grain-O into the marketing and sales for Jell-O, but the initial sales of Jell-O were extremely slow. At one point a frustrated Woodard thought of selling the whole business, Grain-O, Jell-O and all, for $35.
But Woodward, being a natural born marketer, wouldn’t give up. He developed a two part strategy: first he’d send his sales force out, wearing fancy suits; to distribute free samples and the Jell-O cookbook he had created. He then had these salesmen go around to the local grocers telling them that they better stock their shelves with this new product because, “they’ll be a run on the store for it.” Although it worked in the local region it didn’t have the far reaching success that Woodward had hoped.
Early in 1900 Orator became ill and his wife Cora took over running the business, she would finally develop the full potential of Jell-O. In 1904 Cora hired William Humelbaugh to help with the advertising. Humelbaugh suggested that they run an ad for Jell-O in the Ladies Home Journal, one of the most popular magazines of the time, at a cost of $336; the ad featured a smiling housewife in an apron proclaiming that Jell-O was, “America’s Favorite Dessert.” This new adverting campaign took off causing sales for Jell-O that year to jump to $250,000. Jell-O sales continued to grow, and well known artists were hired to create artwork promoting Jell-O, one being Norman Rockwell.
In 1925 the Postum Cereal Company (today’s General Foods) bought Genesee Pure Foods and Jell-O. At that time the Jell-O factory was the largest employer in LeRoy. In 1964 the corporation moved its Jell-O manufacturing operation out of LeRoy, ending almost a century in the city. The original Woodward factory has since been torn down.
The story of Jell-O, like McDonald’s, is one of both success and misfortune. For Pearle and May Wait they sold their invention for $450, which would be around $12,000 today, while Orator and Cora Woodward’s company raked in $250,000, around $6.2 million today, in sales for Jell-O just five years later. This difference between these two stories can clearly be seen at LeRoy’s Machpelah Cemetery where both families are laid to rest.
The Woodward’s are entombed in a Greek style crypt, while Pearle and May lie side by side with only simple headstones.
The Jell-O Gallery
LeRoy is about thirty miles from Rochester, New York on Route 5 (East Main Street in the town). The museum is called the “Jell-O Gallery” and is located about a half mile east of Oatka Creek behind the equally historic LeRoy House (more on this later).To find the LeRoy House you need to just look for the burgundy and gold yard sign for the LeRoy House on the north side of the road. You can park on the street or drive around and use the parking lot in back. The Jell-O Gallery is on the second floor of what was once the Union Free School (more on that later also) building.
Another thing I enjoy about doing the research for my posts is finding out information that I didn’t know, or of things that I missed while visiting these sites. This allows me to let you know what the background story is and what to look for when you visit. I almost missed when visiting the museum the “Jell-O Brick Road,” with the names of the former factory employees inscribed on the bricks.
Besides the history of Jell-O the museum is filled with thousands of Jell-O related items, molds, advertising posters, signs, toys, recipe books, and other items. You can also vote for which Jell-O flavor is your favorite.
The museum is operated by the LeRoy Historical Society and is open April through December seven days: Monday – Saturday 10am till 4 pm and Sunday 1 pm till 4 pm. From January through March it’s only open weekdays from 10 am till 4 pm. It’s closed on major holidays.
Admission is really inexpensive: Adults $5, children 6 to 11 years old $1.50, 5 years and under are free. Also included with the admission is the transportation history exhibit downstairs.
The Leroy House and Union Free School
When you visit the Jell-O Gallery give yourself time to check out the LeRoy House.
This Greek revival style house was originally built as a land office in the early part of the 19th century. These land offices were part of the independent General Land Office agency of the United States government. This agency was formed in 1812, for the surveying and distribution of public lands.
The LeRoy House was built by Jacob LeRoy, one of the early land agents and settlers to the area. LeRoy expanded the house over time, making it one of the largest and well-furnished homes in the region. In fact LeRoy hosted in this house the wedding reception for Daniel Webster’s second marriage to one of his sisters.
Today the LeRoy House is a museum displaying its history as a land office and of life in the early 19th century. When you walk through you’ll go back in time to what life was like in the finer homes on the early frontier. Upstairs is a room that is dedicated to the American Boy Scouts, featuring uniforms and other items.
The Union Free School
Besides housing the Jell-O Gallery and transportation museums this three-story limestone building was first home to the LeRoy Academic Institute, one of the first educational schools in the area, and later the local high school. It the 20th century if ceased being used for education and was converted for the manufacturing of patent medicines. It was bought, along with the LeRoy House, by the historical society in the 1940s.