Steele foundation grew Red Wing

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Ed Steele played a tremendous role in building a powerhouse.

Red Wing in Fredonia was synonymous nationally with not only flavorful sauces, jams, jellies and peanut butter, it also had a reputation of trust – in the community and with its business partners. Today, there is a lack of trust in evidence in many residents’ reaction to the announcement last month by ConAgra to close the Fredonia and Dunkirk plants and displace more than 400 workers.

We all have a sense of betrayal. In fact, those who have moved away from this area are just as bitter about the recent news.

Steele, a former owner of Red Wing, worked and grew the facility from 1948 to 1977. He also laments the action by the current ownership.

“That loss of jobs … I feel sorry for those people. It’s not of their doing.” he said by telephone this week from his home in Hobe Sound, Fla.

Red Wing was started in 1912 as part of the Cudahy Packing Co. and Steele’s father, Leon, was sent to Fredonia in 1919 “to either sell the company or close it down,” Steele wrote in a booklet describing the “History of the Red Wing Company Fredonia, NY 100th Anniversary.”

It did not take long for Steele’s father to turn a profit at the plant, which enabled him to own one-sixth of the company. It was in 1952 when Ed Steele began running the business.

One of his most significant hires was made in 1957 when Doug Manly, who served as president of the business from 1977 to 1987, joined the ranks.

“Originally at Red Wing, its raw materials were the local things from farmers, the grapes and tomatoes. … But we really transformed the company, and I worked very closely with Doug and he was largely responsible for the success.

“He was a great manager and a great salesman. … We built a very fine company and I really did not want to sell it, but as they say in the movies the British made me an offer I could not refuse.”

That company was Rank, Hovis and McDougall in England. The plant was later sold to Ralcorp Holdings, which sold to ConAgra in 2012.

Steele acknowledged the landscape for business has changed. But during his time of leadership, he saw no problems with doing business here and in New York state.

“You were competitive with plants in other parts of the country, but I’m not sure that’s true today,” he said. “(At that time), we did not have any (troubles) growing the company.”

Though Steele moved away from Western New York more than 35 years ago, he continues to stand tall as a community contributor. His family name is on the Fredonia State University arena that houses an ice rink, a basketball court and swimming pool.

He’s now 91 and looking forward to coming back to the area in June. He’s fond of the memories and the facility he once oversaw.

“It’s been maintained pretty well, but it is 100 years old. … It worked very well for our purposes.”

So well, through private-label initiatives, the Fredonia plant had 25 consecutive years of growth in sales and profits.

After February, however, that era of success – once led by the Steele family – will come to an end. “I’m happy for the people who worked for Red Wing when I sold the company. They continued their careers and went on to a normal retirement age,” he said. “So this did not affect any of my employees.

“But I do feel bad for those presently affected.”

What’s next?

Manly will be speaking to the Rotary Club of Dunkirk on what this area can do now that ConAgra has decided to close the Carriage House facility in Fredonia.

Members of the public are welcome to attend the presentation, which begins after a lunch at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday at the Shorewood Country Club in Dunkirk. There is a $10.50 fee for the lunch.

For more information, please call the number below.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.