A Fork in the Road
Once a leading manufacturer and Tupper Lake's biggest employer, Oval Wood Dish faces an uncertain future
by Ned P. Rauch
THE TALLEST STRUCTURE in Tupper Lake is not an apartment building, mill, hotel or hospital. It’s not a water tower or an antenna. The honor goes to a slender brick smokestack that reaches up near the shores of Raquette Pond and stands as prominently in this old lumber town’s industrial past as it does on its skyline. Bricked into four sides of the column are the letters OWD, the initials of Oval Wood Dish, a company founded more than a hundred years ago in the Midwest and—by manufacturing millions upon millions of wooden spoons, forks, bowls and more—became one of the Adirondack region’s most powerful economic engines.
“It was doubtless the Oval Wood Dish Company, more than any other factor, which saved the little village of Tupper Lake from decades of slow decline to many years of sound prosperity,” Floy Hyde wrote in Adirondack Forests, Fields and Mines (1974). For fifty years Oval Wood Dish, a sprawling complex of mills, machines, railroad tracks, generators, offices, warehouses and employee housing, dominated the flats along what is now Demars Boulevard. For much of the last century, it was the largest industrial plant in Franklin County, employing in 1940 one-tenth of Tupper Lake’s population.
What remains are splinters of the original firm and its buildings. The smokestack that boasts the company initials so proudly and a warehouse below it are now the property of a scrap-metal dealer. The Town of Altamont has converted the company’s former offices into its headquarters. And Oval Wood Dish, Inc., once the owner of nearly a hundred thousand acres in and around Tupper Lake, exists only as a holding company. Based in Texas, the firm’s assets have dwindled to about six thousand acres south of the village, which it’s trying to sell. But part of the original plant is still humming; for the last twenty-five years or so, OWD, a separate company from Oval Wood Dish (and in this case, confusingly, not an acronym), has been churning out plastic cutlery from the shadow of that towering smokestack.
In April 2003 however, OWD’s founder and owner, a former sales manager with Oval Wood Dish, sold his company to Jarden Corporation, a fifteen-hundred-employee conglomerate that owns plastics plants around the country as well as Diamond kitchen matches and Ball canning products. (Jarden made the “Bloomberg 100” list as the sixth-best-performing stock of 2002, rising 210%.) Since the sale, residents have feared it may not be long before the local plant is closed and the legacy of Oval Wood Dish is relegated to Tupper Lake’s collective memory and its skyline.
OVAL WOOD DISH Corporation was founded in 1883 in Delta, Ohio. Four years later company head Henry S. Hull, the son of a farmer, moved it to Mancelona, Michigan, where he began production of the container from which the business took its name. The original oval wood dishes were designed as temporary food containers; when people bought ground beef from the butcher, these are what he put the meat in. The bowls, a sixteenth of an inch thick, were originally “scalped” out of a single piece of wood, according to Frank Bencze, of Tupper Lake, who worked as a woodlands manager for the company, became a vice president and now owns shares of what remains of the corporation. That method proved wasteful, and a new machine process of folding and stapling a wood veneer into bowls was adopted.
In 1892 Hull, then president and general manager of Oval Wood Dish, moved the company to Traverse City, Michigan, where during the next quarter-century it expanded its product line and became one of the city’s biggest employers. An article in the March 14, 1999, Traverse City Record-Eagle recalling the city’s timber past stated that the company took in thirteen million feet of lumber in 1899 alone.
“Under the guide of H. S. Hull, the Oval Wood Dish Co. operated year-round and made, as its name suggests, oval wood dishes—which the company claimed were in every grocery store in the United States,” the paper reported. But such productivity would spell the end for the firm’s stay in Traverse City, as lumber became increasingly scarce. Oval Wood Dish planned to build a new plant on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and would have done so had two of its leaders not spent their 1913 summer vacation in the Adirondacks. Spying vast stands of cheap hardwoods—softwood was popular at the time but not sturdy enough for their purposes—the pair saw opportunity.
By the end of 1914 Oval Wood Dish had purchased its first parcel of land in the Adirondacks. A year later, it bought approximately seventy-five thousand acres of timber around Tupper Lake, much of which would soon be served by the company’s own logging railroad, according to Louis Simmons’s authoritative history of Tupper Lake, Mostly Spruce and Hemlock (1976). Soon after, the decision was made to move from Michigan to New York.
At this time, Henry Hull’s son, William Cary Hull, known as W.C., was serving as vice president of the company. He had worked at Oval Wood Dish since 1891, after a brief stint as a professional baseball player. Several accounts give him much of the credit for relocating the business to Tupper Lake.
It was a move that would have drastically different effects on both communities. “For Traverse City residents, the news was devastating,” Deborah Root-McGill wrote in a history of the Hull family. “It dealt a crushing blow not only to the economy but to the dedicated workers of the Oval Wood Dish Corporation. Nearly one hundred persons decided to move with the company. For Traverse City, the casualties were high. In the end it paid the price for the wanton lumbering policy of the day.” In Tupper Lake, meanwhile, the mood was elation.
An article from the Tupper Lake Free Press and Herald described in exuberant detail all the work that would go into erecting the Oval Wood Dish plant: “The plans call for the construction immediately of nearly a score of buildings, ranging from shops and warehouses to buildings which will be devoted to recreation and lunches and to shower baths,” the paper announced. “Fronting the thoroughfare will be the following: Clothespin factory, 219 feet in length, 55 feet in depth, two stories in height. Lunch and recreation building, 100 feet in length and 81 feet in depth, with 20 foot ceilings,” and so on for every structure on the 240-acre site.
Oval Wood Dish’s arrival in Tupper Lake would transform the community seemingly overnight, packing the village with new people and new money. “About 300 men and 200 girls will be employed by the Oval Wood Dish Company at a schedule of wages which now prevails at Tupper Lake. Just where the employees will reside is to be arranged for later. At present every house in Tupper Lake is occupied and it will be necessary to build . . . for the new comers,” the newspaper predicted. According to Simmons, construction began April 15, 1916, and the sawmill cut its first log in January 1918. Houses for the workers were built, appropriately, on Ohio and Michigan Streets, which no longer exist. “They really came in here very strong,” Bencze says. “They built that large plant. For those days, in this part of the country, that was really an engineering feat. The rail came right into the yard. The warehouse could accommodate four railroad cars at once. It was a large, going operation.”
In 1923 Henry Hull died, leaving the business to W. C. Hull. A number of his sons would at various times in their lives work there too, with his second child, Gerald, eventually taking charge and selling off most of the business some forty years later. W. C. Hull’s granddaughter Susanne Frenette, who still lives in Tupper Lake, describes W.C. as a thoroughly unpretentious man, despite his position. “He was a very, very community-oriented person,” she says. “And a people-oriented person.” He arranged a massive company picnic every year for the plant’s employees; helped found the Tupper Lake Country Club, donating Oval Wood Dish land for its golf course; and did the same for the village’s first ski hill. Susanne’s husband, Jim, says W. C. Hull was also likely one of the first industrialists to employ large numbers of women.
Meanwhile, the company grew, introducing new wood products—everything from floorboards to spoons. After struggling through the Depression, the business was revitalized by its creation of the Ritespoon and Ritefork in 1939. “Good news for this village broke today with the first announcement by officials at the Oval Wood Dish Corporation, Tupper Lake’s biggest employer of labor, of two innovations in the O.W.D. ‘Riteshape’ products which they term the ‘outstanding development in the woodenware line in the firm’s more than 55 years in business,’” crowed the Free Press. Unlike earlier wooden utensils, which were flat and paddlelike, these were heated and pressed into the shape of a regular teaspoon, bowl and all. The Ritefork was formed like the spoon, only it had three tines at the end of the bowl. The new utensils must have been popular: According to Mostly Spruce and Hemlock, employment at Oval Wood Dish peaked in 1940 with 539 workers and a payroll of six hundred thousand dollars.
Though W. C. Hull died in July 1941, the company’s success continued as it opened factories in Potsdam and Quebec. Its products were everywhere, remembers Bencze: “G.I.s used to say they ran into our flat Eskimo Pie spoon overseas. The product was pretty widely distributed.” Sometime during World War II, however, production of the namesake oval wood dish stopped, he says. By the 1950s, Oval Wood Dish was manufacturing tongue depressors, bowling pins and furniture pieces too.
Skip ahead to the early 1960s, and the company’s fortunes begin to suffer. Simmons wrote that the changing economy and, again, the dwindling timber supply, cut into earnings. There was still a demand for Oval Wood Dish’s products, Bencze says, but Gerald Hull was getting older and none of his heirs was interested in taking over. In 1964 he sold the main plant to the Adirondack Plywood Corporation. Ownership would change several times over the coming years until a massive fire destroyed a hundred-thousand-square-foot warehouse full of plywood in 1967. After some rebuilding, the facility moved through several more owners.
In the decades since Hull’s sale, Oval Wood Dish has remained alive, though not in manufacturing. The company sold nearly all of its woodlands to private interests; Bencze says most of the property is now owned by timber companies that continue to harvest trees. Oval Wood Dish’s remaining six thousand acres around Tupper Lake are leased for logging and hunting and have been on the market for several years.
Meanwhile, in 1964 Roger Sullivan, who had been in charge of sales at Oval Wood Dish, and an attorney, Adam Palmer, bought the company’s woodenware division and set up another factory in Tupper Lake with “slightly fewer than twenty employees,” Sullivan says. They called the company OWD. Then they made a change. “We converted to plastic,” Sullivan explains. “The public decided they liked plastic better than wooden spoons, forks and Popsicle sticks.”
Sullivan started the Lady Dianne brand of plastic cutlery and straws, and before long was selling his products in all fifty states and Canada. In 1978 he bought the Oval Wood Dish plant on Demars Boulevard, moved his business there and watched it grow. Soon it was making plastic utensils for many of the country’s major supermarket chains, including SafeWay, A&P, Price Chopper and Grand Union. By the time he sold it to Jarden (the price was not disclosed), Sullivan says the company had two hundred employees and annual sales of $25 million. (Jarden, whose sales in the first six months of 2003 were $228 million, has claimed there were only 120 employees when it bought OWD.)
“In our industry we were number two in packaged plastics cutlery. We sold out to number one,” Sullivan says. But in doing so, he strove to prevent Tupper Lake from suffering the fate that befell Traverse City years ago: His deal with Jarden hinged on the company making a two-year commitment to the Tupper Lake plant. “I’m a resident of the area,” Sullivan explains. “The employees are my neighbors and friends. I just felt it was my duty.” Jarden officials would not comment for this article, but Sullivan says he has no reason to believe the company will pull out of Tupper Lake in 2005.
The plant still plays a major role in Tupper Lake’s economy, and area officials and business leaders say they will do whatever they can to keep it open. Already, the community has felt some jitters. In August Jarden officials acknowledged there had been layoffs but would not say how many—fewer than ten is all they confirmed. One recently laid-off worker says morale among the employees is at an all-time low, that raises are a fantasy and people are “always quitting.” If the plant, which is now known as Alltrista/Unimark Plastics (a division of Jarden) is closed, its workers will have a hard time finding similar jobs in the area, where the business accounts for nearly the entire manufacturing sector.
“We would like to get together with [Jarden], the town and the village and see what we can do,” says Tupper Lake mayor Sandra Strader. “We need the jobs. Mr. Sullivan had been really great over the years. Now, it’s a company; you’re a number. Anything we can do to get them to stay here we will do.” Strader adds she is not particularly worried about the situation, if only because she tries not to let herself dwell on it too much. Jarden has not said how many people work at the plant now, but Strader reckons the figure is more than a hundred.
If the company leaves, she asks, “who’s going to pick up the slack? Go to Sunmount? What if there’s a hiring freeze?” Sunmount Developmental Disabilities Service Office, a state-run residence and treatment facility for mentally retarded people, and the school district are Tupper Lake’s only other large employers. Losing the plastics plant would be a crushing blow for a community that is already struggling for economic footing. “I’m hoping they’ll give us a chance,” the mayor says. “We plan to make a good case for them to stay here.”