THE GEBBIE FAMILY
The following is an excerpt from the Gebbie Foundation’s 25th Anniversary Annual Report (1989) that was written by the late Alfreda Irwin, Chautauqua Institution Historian, on the history of the founding family.
The Gebbie Foundation’s original funds came from the estate of two sisters, Miss Marion Bertram Gebbie and Mrs. Geraldine Gebbie Bellinger. The two women chose to name the foundation in memory of their parents, Frank and Harriet Louisa Gebbie.
Mr. and Mrs. Frank Gebbie appeared to have set a singularly happy tone in their family and home. From the Personals columns of the St. Johnsville, New York newspapers between 1892 and 1909, come items that record the church and community activities that the family enjoyed, their occasional travels and the recurring names of favorite friends. The growing prosperity of Mr. Gebbie’s business interests was also evident in the public notices of his company’s annual meetings and increases in the company’s capital and stock. As he opened branches of the Mohawk Condensed Milk Company elsewhere, his visits to those places were often reported in the newspapers. These were the busy “middle years” for Frank and Louisa Gebbie.
Frank Gebbie was born in Alston, Ayrshire, Scotland, in 1844 and was brought to America in 1851. Reports of the times are meager, but it is believed that his mother’s maiden name was Bertram and that his parents came with another couple: Margaret Bertram, his mother’s sister, who was married to James Gebbie, his father’s brother. The two families separated sometime after his arrival. Margaret and James settled in the Elmira area. The location of Frank’s boyhood years has yet to be discovered although there is hearsay evidence within the family that young Frank and his brother, James, often visited their cousins in Elmira.
At any rate, Frank must have matured into a very acceptable young man, for at age twenty-six, he married the daughter of the Honorable and Mrs. Gaylord B. Hubbell of Ossining, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Hubbell were prominent in their community. Mr. Hubbell had served in the State Assembly and had been Agent and Warden of Mt. Pleasant Prison, Sing Sing, 1862-1864. (He served another term, as Warden of Sing Sing 1873-1874.) At the wedding in the Hubbell residence, the Episcopal marriage service was read by Rev. William H. Phraner, an uncle of the bride.
The young couple set up their first home in Brewster, New York, where Frank was already working with Gail Borden, Jr., and the Borden Company. Mr. Borden had pioneered in the development of condensed milk patents and in 1864 had begun producing increased volumes of that product in a plant in Brewster. Frank Gebbie’s employment took the couple to Texas and Elgin, Illinois briefly before 1874 when the Gebbies settled in Lockport, New York. Gail Borden’s death in January, 1874, might have influenced Frank’s decision to enter the food canning business in Lockport that year.
By 1876 the firm of Frank Gebbie and Company is listed in the Lockport City Directory as is the Niagara Fruit and Canning Company. From 1882 to 1892 Frank Gebbie is listed in the directory as the proprietor of the Niagara Fruit and Canning Company. This led to a new investment in St. Johnsville in 1892, when Frank returned to the condensed milk business in partnership with Michael Doyle. Frank was manager and built up the enterprise so that he very soon bought out his partner and eventually expanded to other locations as well. They named their business the Mohawk Condensed Milk Company.
The choice of food processing as a life work probably reflects a number of influences upon Frank Gebbie’s life, as well as his own set of values. One strong influence may well have been the example of the dynamic Gail Borden, Jr. But the picture that emerges of Frank Gebbie as a family man would suggest that he himself placed importance on safely produced food, especially condensed milk, that could be used for the nurture of young children. While he was no doubt alert to the opportunities available to him for success, his business practices were judged to have benefitted not only himself, but others associated with him: the farmers who supplied milk to Mohawk, the young men who were trained in his plants and other employees.
The growth of the Mohawk Condensed Milk Company stimulated dairy farming in the area of St. Johnsville, according to the St. Johnsville Enterprise and News. Milk was brought to the cannery over quite long distances considering the state of the roads and the necessity to use horsedrawn wagons. The dairy farms were said to have kept pace the company’s demand for milk, with the result that the value of farmland increased. The dairymen were able to take advantage of improvements in farm machinery, increased acreages of corn and the use of silos to help them meet the increasing demands for milk. In addition, men trained in the St. Johnsville plant went out into industry to work in other places. In the January 2, 1902 St. Johnsville Enterprise, a Local Brief said that “about $600 was divided among the employees of the Mohawk Condensed Milk Company on Christmas in proportion to the length of service and position filled by the various employees.” Mr. Gebbie’s sharing of benefits in 1902 may be taken as an indication of his style of management.
He also extended his influence into another business which manufactured farm machinery, the Clark Company of St. Johnsville, where he was a board member and officer. It is apparent that all these efforts prospered and before Frank Gebbie sold his interests in the Mohawk Company in June, 1921, he had established satellite operations in Ft. Lupton and Johnstown, Colorado; Corry, Cambridge Springs and Bear Lake, Pennsylvania; South Dayton and Sherman, New York; Lansing and Holland, Michigan; and Waverly, Iowa.
While Mr. and Mrs. Gebbie had endured the personal tragedy of losing four children either in infancy or early childhood, their lives were graced by the two daughters who lived to adulthood and whose companionship they very much enjoyed. Geraldine G. Gebbie was born inLockport in 1878. Marion Bertram Gebbie was born in 1880.