In 1927, Dorothy Gerber of Fremont, Mich., struggled daily to steam, strain, and puree solid food for Sally, her 7-month-old daughter. Eventually, she recruited her husband, Dan, to help with the tedious task.
After watching him make several valiant attempts while getting covered in strained peas, Dorothy suggested he take the job to Fremont Canning Co., owned by his father, Frank. Dan thought it was a good idea.
Experiments with strained baby food began shortly thereafter, and infant Sally Gerber became the company's first baby food tester. As word spread, other plant workers requested samples for their babies. Within a year, Fremont Canning Co. evolved into Gerber Baby Food Co.—and strained peas, prunes, carrots, and spinach were ready for the national market.
Today, Gerber is an international company serving millions of customers worldwide, but it still maintains a strong presence in the town where it was born. The company, now owned by the Swiss-based Novartis Group, is Fremont's largest employer with 1,200 workers in a community of 4,400.
Gerber's manufacturing plant in Fremont makes about 180 different food and juice varieties for infants and toddlers. Many of the products are made from fruits and vegetables—apples, broccoli, carrots, cherries, green beans, peaches, pears, peas, plums, and squash—grown by local farmers, just as they were when the company was founded.
Over the years, the Gerber family has provided Fremont with more than a market for farm-grown produce. In 1918, Gerber Memorial Hospital opened in a house donated by Frank Gerber. The hospital has evolved into Fremont's premier medical facility.
Endowment money from the Gerber family helped build the $5.5 million Fremont Area District Library, which opened in January. The endowment also will be used to build a 400-seat performing arts center in the next two years.
"The company has always been very supportive of the town," says Stan Houck, human resources director and a Gerber employee for 29 years. "Most of the city's activities have a Gerber influence."
One of these activities is the National Baby Food Festival, held each July. The festival celebrates babies and families, with activities for all ages, including a baby food-eating contest whose participants must be at least 18 years old.
The baby who helped make Gerber a household name was Ann Turner. In 1928, Gerber was seeking a baby face for an advertising campaign to introduce its newly developed products.
Dorothy Hope Smith, a New York artist who specialized in drawing children, submitted a simple charcoal sketch of her neighbor's infant daughter, Ann. Gerber officials were so taken with the sketch that they adopted it as the companys official trademark. Today, Ann Turner's cherub face still is displayed on jars and boxes of Gerber baby food.
Kyle Converse has multiple images of the Gerber baby in her Rolling Ladders Antiques shop in downtown Fremont. Amidst old furniture, glassware, dishes, and books are Gerber baby dolls, spoons, toys, and other memorabilia she has collected over the years in remembrance of her grandparents, Dan and Dorothy Gerber.
Converse says her grandparents were always grateful to the people of Fremont who supported them in the early years, especially after their other business ventures—hide tanning and furniture making—failed because of raw material shortages. "My grandfather gave countless dollars back to the community," she says, "but he didn't want recognition for his philanthropic gifts."
Times have changed since Dan and Dorothy Gerber strained peas in their Fremont kitchen, but the company they started is still a big part of the town's identity. When Converse and other city residents are asked where they live, they say they're from the town where Gerber baby food is made. That's all they need to say.