LANSING, Ill. (June 20, 2023) – On a tip that long ago a pickle factory may have operated on the site of the former Waters Edge building at 18418 Wentworth Avenue, a search began. Many hours of research later, I can confirm that no pickle factory ever operated in the Village of Lansing. However, there was a Schrum Pickle Factory operating on Wentworth Avenue in Calumet City, just north of Lansing.
Still, chasing that pickle tip wasn’t completely fruitless. Lansing does have a history of food processing at that address — but it wasn’t pickles; it was olives. Long before that site became known as Waters Edge Gift, Garden, and Pond Center, it was home to an olive-packing business that struggled to get started but then grew to serve armies.
Olives, biscuits, ginger, and cherries (but no pickles)
The story begins in May 1947 when Kitchen-Ease Food Products Co. launched a new brand of food products “destined to be nationally known.” The plant was located in the former Joseph VanSchouwen & Sons onion warehouse that sits on the edge of the historic Christian Schultz farm. It started filling orders for the new Pantry Queen line of olives, biscuit dough mix, ginger bread mix, and cherries. Quite an inventory.
Business didn’t work out as Kitchen-Ease predicted, and the building was acquired by J. L. O’Neill, who had been working in sales promotion and the meat business. He eventually decided he could do better than the previous company, and he took over the olive packing business — despite the fact that he himself did not like the taste of olives.
Olives and olive drab
In November 1949, O’Neill — now owner of the plant and president of Pantry Queen Food Products Co. Inc. — was importing olives grown in Spain and packing them for armed forces in Korea and U.S. Army camps under contract from the quartermaster corps. The navy ordered olives stuffed with red peppers, and the army took unpitted and stuffed olives. The olives sent to the armed forces went under the brand name Mary Lynn, named for O’Neill’s four-year-old daughter.
In a Times article, O’Neill said, “Packing the government boxes for export is a job. The government buys good grade fruits and assigns an inspector to watch the packing of the jars. The jars are placed in cardboard boxes with the quartermaster’s code and numbers on them. Then the boxes are placed in a waterproof container, placed in a wooden box, and bound with metal straps.”
From Spain to Lansing
By 1952 the Lansing plant was turning out 50 tons of olives every month. The olives were raised by families in Spain. They were graded and stuffed in Spain and shipped to Lansing in 300-pound barrels and 2,000-pound casks. At the Lansing plant the olives were unloaded from a box car on a single-track company siding from the adjacent railroad. (A “siding” in railroad terminology is a section of track distinct from the main line, often used for loading and unloading.) Then the olives were hand-packed in 15 different-sized jars with a new and weaker brine added.
A 1954 Centennial Edition of the Lansing Journal (PDF) included a feature article about Pantry Queen in Lansing. It explained that Pantry Queen olives were packed in two ways, “throat packed” or “place packed.” Throat pack was just “dump ’em in the jar,” and place pack was placing olives one-by-one with the stem or stuffing facing the glass. The latter had class and looked prettier, but you could get more olives in the throat packed jars.
The olives were stuffed with almonds, anchovies, or onions. The onions came from Holland and were processed as sweet and sour onions. The anchovy and onion stuffed olives were packaged for the cocktail trade. Almond olives were sent to the high-end retail stores. One grocer advertised the stuffed olives at 29 cents for a 6 ½ ounce jar.
Expanding the olive business
The company also processed sweet watermelon, cantaloupe, and cauliflower. One of the fancier packs included layers of cauliflower, sliced pickles, sweet onions, and tiny pickles.
Things were going so well that O’Neill started thinking of expansion. He added a boiler room and boiler to the rear of the plant, expecting to produce jellies from ingredients grown by midwest growers. He also purchased additional land adjacent to the plant for future expansion.
From Kitchen-Ease to Waters Edge and beyond
Despite the growth of Pantry Queen Food Products Co. Inc. under O’Neill’s leadership, not much was documented and few photographs from that era exist. Much of Pantry Queen’s output was packed for the wholesale trade, and those companies put their own labels on the products, so Pantry Queen never became a household name itself. It is unclear when Lansing’s olive packing production packed up and shut down.
Following Pantry Queen, several businesses have occupied the space on that Wentworth corner over the years. Most of the buildings were rented as storage units and are presently vacant. The renters were never identified. Known past business occupants include:
- Roseland Marines was owned by Al and Sherry Vidal, who operated a new boat showroom and service department from 1977 until they moved to Lynwood in 1986. During the economic crunch in the early 80s the Vidals reduced their rental sales space and concentrated on used boat sales and service, moving to the back of the building.
- Rosati Enterprises ran a printing business at that address in the 1987 era.
- Fabsco Corp., founded by Joseph O‘Neill in 1960, produced various types of steel fasteners including nuts, bolts, washers, rivets, and “hard to find” specialty items. The business moved to 18325 Fred Street in 1973 and to Calumet Park in 1984. Joe died in 2014, and four of his seven children continued to run the business.
- Water’s Edge Gift, Garden & Pond Center, owned by Dave and Carol Scofield, opened their backyard pond and retail business in 2005. They moved just across Stateline Avenue to 5 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana, in 2022.
Current occupants of the former olive packing plant include:
- Creative Custom Cabinets and Bookcases, founded by John Mix and Marcia Davy. They build custom home theaters, desks, tables, chairs, dressers, fireplace mantels, bathroom cabinets, kitchen cabinets, and custom closets, as well as refinishing furniture and flooring.
- Greenway Bikehouse, owned by Cam and Megan Harvey. Greenway expects to open at this new location by July of 2023, moving from 3404 Lake Street. Greenway sells bikes and accessories as well as repair and tune-up services.
No pickles, but lots of olives
The short answer to the question, Did Lansing have a pickle factory? is no. But the confusion is understandable — Calumet City had a pickle plant on Wentworth Avenue, and Lansing had a large olive packing plant on the same street, with few historical records to share with new generations. The building still stands as a reminder of a nearly forgotten part of Lansing history.