Ninety years ago, Rochester was famous for Mayo Clinic, but it also was known as a farm and dairy center. We became a regional center first because of farmers and markets, milk bottling, canned vegetables and farm supplies. The city’s history is intertwined with the history of agriculture in the area, and the names Reid, Murdoch, Marigold, Kemp’s, Little Dutch Mill, Libby’s and others are as much a part of our lore as Mayo, Plummer and Watson.
Another name along those lines is Seneca, the vegetable canning and packing company that has owned the former Libby’s cannery on 12th Street Southeast since 1982. They bought it from Libby, McNeil and Libby Inc., which had been here since the days when 12th Street was known as the Beltline and the city airport was nearby.
The cannery dates from about 1929. That’s a lot of history, and a lot of peas and kernels of corn. Ask us another time to calculate how many kernels of corn have been canned on that corner since 1929.
So when the Post Bulletin reported June 22 that New York-based Seneca Foods will end the seasonal veggie pack in Rochester after this year’s harvest is a historical milepost. Fortunately, the company will continue frozen vegetable distribution here and employ about 160 people, but generations of Rochester area people who worked hot, loud and really interesting seasonal jobs and third-shifts at Libby and Seneca will pause to remember those days when the last shift ends.
Some of the best stories we’ve heard over the years about Rochester’s past are related to that cannery. It’s part of the city’s fabric, so it’s good news that Seneca will keep frozen veggies coming — and in fact, it’s the consumer change from canned to frozen that’s driving the change. People now prefer to toss a bag of frozen peas into the microwave, rather than opening a can.
Though Seneca doesn’t have the high profile of some local employers, it has the highest-profile landmark of all: the corn water tower, the 87-year-old, 151-foot-tall ear of corn that bestrides the site on 12th Street just east of South Broadway.
If we didn’t have the corn water tower, we’ve have to invent it. It’s one of the two or three things most people remember when they visit the Queen City for the first time. They may remember the Plummer Building, and if they don’t step carefully around Silver Lake, they may remember the geese. But the corn water tower is a sure bet.
When the news came out last week about Seneca, many people asked, “But what about the ear of corn tower?” That concern also has been discussed by historic preservationists, who worry about its fate. The imminent loss of the Hotel Carlton/Days Inn building is one thing; the loss of the iconic corn water tower would be quite another.
Seneca officials say plans are uncertain about the property on Third Street at 12th. We’ll keep an ear to the ground regarding the fate of the tower.
Businesses come and go, and when that last can of creamed Rochester-area corn comes off the line at Seneca this fall, it will be the end of an era, but the city will remain a regional powerhouse when it comes to dairy and food processing, and our fortunes are profoundly dependent on farmers and what they grow.