Former Red Wing President Recalls Glory Days Of Fredonia Plant

DUNKIRK – In the garage owned by Doug Manly is a small plaque with two $1 bills. It hangs as a reminder of the Fredonia Red Wing plant’s venture into the peanut butter business.

“When we went into the peanut butter business,” the Fredonia resident recalled, “my goal was to get $1 million in sales in one year.

“We got it in seven months.”

Manly, former Red Wing president, was recalling the glory years of what is now Carriage House on one of the saddest days to hit the village in years.

ConAgra made official Wednesday what many feared would happen over the last year: it was closing down not only the Dunkirk plant, but the Fredonia plant as well.

“The concern I have is for the 425 people who are going to be out of work, including Mark Chamberlain, the plant manager,” Manly said, noting he believes ConAgra will be moving the peanut butter production to Georgia and Illinois with the jellies going to the Buckner, Ky., plant.

“I’m disappointed. I had felt it was going to happen, but I thought it would take three to five years,” he said. “But that was before ConAgra got into the picture. … The script did not turn out as expected. It’s worse than I thought.”

Manly joined the former Red Wing plant in 1957, taking a position in sales and general management. He joined at a time when two jelly giants – Kraft and Smucker – were in a battle to grow their brands.

“When Kraft and Smucker were fighting it out, they neglected their private-label business. We went after it,” he said. “We realized if we were efficient producers, we could make money just being in the private-label business.”

Red Wing’s success in the jelly business opened the door to new possibilities. “We became the private label house,” Manly said. “Then we added peanut butter, mayonnaise and salad dressing.

“Four or five of those expansions came about by taking over the manufacturing from chain stores who had been doing their own manufacturing and we showed we could do it cheaper than they could. That’s how we grew the business until we became the largest private-label packer in our field.”

It also led to increased employment. Manly noted when the company started, a small segment of its work force was year round.

“When we first started, about 10 percent of the help was year-round, 90 percent was seasonal. … By the time we finished, we had no seasonal products. … Every product that we manufactured was manufactured every day and that meant year-round jobs, not seasonal jobs,” he said.

Many of those employees learned the bad news late Tuesday. “A lot of those employees live in the community, spend in the community,” he said. “Those wages are going to be badly lost. That’s for sure.”