History of Oscar Mayer: a Company and a Community
Posted by eastsidehistorymadison on December 28, 2013
The nationally recognized meat products company founded in 1919 was the subject of the East Side History Club’s November 2013 meeting. The Oscar Mayer Weinermobile greeted attendees arriving at the Goodman Center.
Inside, a lively program held in the Loft teen dance space took place on November 16, 2013.
Jim Aehl worked in public relations at Oscar Mayer frm 1970 to 1996. He showed slides and talked about the history of Oscar Mayer. After his presentation (and while Larry Borchert was getting set up) Ann Waidelich drew numbers and Jim gave out several door prizes.
Larry Borchert worked at Oscar Mayer from 1960-1996. He holds a PhD in food chemistry and became Director of Central Research. He presented a PowerPoint program showing the equipment Oscar Mayer invented to mass produce hot dogs and the efforts they go to, to insure quality and consistency. He had used this program when he went to Russia several times to teach people there how to mass produce meat products.
Dave Arndt worked as a chemist at Oscar Mayer from 1965 to 1996. He has been collecting Oscar Mayer memorabilia for 42 years and brought a car full of “things.” The highlight was a uniform worn by one of the Little Oscars. After the meeting several people showed him their Oscar Mayer items—several of which he hadn’t seen before.
Judy Fenske worked as a secretary at Oscar Mayer from the Monday after she graduated from East High School in 1960 until 1992. She talked about the Oscarettes and the Oscar Mayer READI volunteers. The Oscarettes were a club for women office workers who have been employed for two or more years at the Madison plant. Later the rules were changed to require five years’ employment to be eligible.
The Wisconsin State Journal in May 11, 1947 reported on the forming of the “Oscarettes:
The following officers were elected at the first meeting: Nuzzie ‘ Wilhelm, president; Irene Johnson, vice-president; Viola Sprague. treasurer; Kathryn Hustad, secretary;’ and Ruby Allman, program chairman. Four meetings will be held a year. Former workers, who were employed for two or more years at the company are eligible for membership and are asked to contact the officers.
READI stands for Retired Employees Are Dedicated Individuals. Anyone can join—not just retired Oscar Mayer employees—but the group was formed by and remains popular with O.M. retirees. The READI website (http://readioscarmayer.com) describes the group:
READI was founded in 1993 by retiring employees who wanted to make a difference in the community and still work with and socialize with fellow employees and acquaintances. We currently have over 300 members. We have contributed over 5,000 hours on approximately 50 projects each year. There are project opportunities for everyone regardless of physical restraints, age, and sex or work experience. Members are from all levels and areas of the Madison plant and office families and friends of retirees. Our efforts are devoted solely to READI Board approved non-profit organizations. Our objectives are to help our Dane County neighbors in need, to help save tax dollars, and to socialize with our fellow volunteers.
Joan Phelan closed the program talking about her experiences working in the Oscar Mayer office from 1950 to 1992.
How the Oscar Mayer Company came to Madison
Harry Backer, OM vice president of public relations, interviewed Oscar G. Mayer Jr. on April 21, 1977 –Oscar retired in 1977 –and this is Oscar’s recollection of how Oscar Mayer acquired the Madison plant in 1919 when Oscar Jr. was 5 years old.
“It happened that my father (Oscar G. Mayer) and mother, with me along too I’m told, were visiting mother’s sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Suhr, Sr. who lived in Madison. They decided to take an automobile ride to the nearby town of Mount Horeb, but got stuck in a muddy road along the way and had to turn around and come home instead. While sitting on the Suhrs’ porch afterward, Fred Suhr, Sr. noticed a small article in the local paper that told of an auction being held at that very moment to sell a small meat packing plant located beyond the edge of town, but not more than two miles from their home in the city. Father told me often since then that he had been aware of this plant, but hadn’t realized that the auction was to be held that particular day. He asked his brother-in-law whether they might go out there to see what was going on and Fred said he would be glad to take Father to the site. Upon arriving, they found the auction under way, but no bids for purchases of the plant had been entered. The proceedings were being held in the plant stockyards with several planks laid across a livestock pen fence to serve as a platform, and an upended wooden box used as a lectern. A distinguished looking man wearing a white meat frock coat was acting as the auctioneer and was calling for bids. Father promptly worked his way right up to the platform, and I can still hear him describing how be reached up and tugged this auctioneer’s white coat and said, “Mr. auctioneer, my name is Oscar Mayer, and I am from Chicago. I notice that you have no bids so far for the sale of this plant. If you can see your way clear to postpone these proceedings for a few days, I may be able to make a bid but will have to return to Chicago to look into the possibility of arranging the necessary financing.” Oscar G. returned to Chicago, talked it over with his father (Oscar F. Mayer, the company’s founder) who said: “Son, if you want the plant, go ahead and buy it.” Oscar G. Mayer Jr. recalled: “Father immediately proceeded to negotiate the necessary financing with his bank, no easy task in those times, then entered his bid with the auctioneer several days later, and the deal was closed to the satisfaction of everyone.”
The auctioneer that day was William Spohn, a prominent attorney in Madison. Some years later, his son, John (Jack) Spohn, joined the company and served as the Madison plant manager for many years.)