Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rogue River Catsup

by William Alley (historian and certified archivist)
Published in Southern Oregon Heritage Today, Nov 2002. 4:11

When Frank L. KNIGHT decided to expand his Portland-based pickle and vinegar packinghouse to include the manufacture of catsup, he spent two years studying the processes involved and seeking a suitable location. Ultimately Knight accepted the recommendations of the experts at Oregon Agricultural College in Corvallis and selected Medford as the location of his new catsup plant. "The Rogue River Valley," Knight was told, "produces a tomato that is particularly adapted to catsup manufacture." By locating his plant in Medford, Knight could turn the tomatoes into catsup within a few hours of their being picked; "That is a mighty important factor in making high grade catsup."

The Knight Packing Company opened its Medford plant on the south end of Front Street in the summer 1916. Initial production capacity was estimated at fifteen tons of tomatoes per day, with room to expand to thirty tons in the future. By 1925, the plant was processing thirty-five tons of produce per day, the equivalent of 2,750 gallons of catsup.

After harvesting, Rogue Valley tomatoes were delivered to the plant where they were washed in large tanks. They were then scooped onto a conveyor belt, passing by employees who trimmed the tomatoes and removed any defective ones. The fruit was then washed again and steamed before being dropped into the chopper, which separated the seeds and skin; the remaining pulp was then sent to large kettles where it was cooked with onions, garlic, and spices. After cooking, vinegar, salt and sugar were added to make the finished product. The catsup was then packed into five-gallon cans and shipped to Knight's Portland facility where it was bottled in sixteen-ounce bottles.

Knight's Rogue River Catsup, the only catsup manufactures in Oregon, was an immediate success. At the end of the first eight years, the company could boast a 75 percent share of the Portland catsup market, and distribution had expanded to include parts of Washington, Idaho, and California. The company even went so far as to copyright the name "Rogue River" in connection with any tomato-based product.

The presence of the Knight catsup plant had an immediate impact locally. In addition to providing a significant payroll, the acreage devoted to commercial tomato cultivation soon increased. In 1924, the plant's production capacity was doubled to take advantage of the increased availability. The plant was again expanded in 1936 with the arrival of new, modernized equipment. No longer did the catsup need to be shipped in bulk to Portland for bottling. With the new equipment, the Knight Medford plant was now producing catsup at a rate of fifteen bottles per minute.

Knight's Rogue River Catsup flourished in Medford for twenty-five years, but the end came suddenly in the early 1940s. By 1942, the Knight Packing Company had disappeared form the local directories. The October 1925 issue of The Volt, the newsletter of the California-Oregon Power Company, now preserved in the collected of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, gives us a brief snapshot of a now-forgotten local industry.