Jell-O Hometown Celebrates Heritage

Iconic Communities, Made in America, On the Road, Traditions
on October 22, 2000

For more than a century before Pearle Bixby Wait sat down in his kitchen in Le Roy, N.Y., in 1897, entrepreneurs had been trying to simplify the process of preparing a gelatin dessert. Wait had done it, and made it mass producible, but he was stymied for a name. No one knows what transpired in that kitchen, but his wife, May, might have said, Honey, why dont you call it Jell-O?

The Worlds Most Popular Dessert was born. In 1899, Jell-O went into production, and the first four flavorsstrawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemonrolled off the line. Over the next 65 years, Jell-O and Le Roy (pop. 4,764) became synonymous as the kitchen-table recipe conquered the world. But you cant help but feel sorry for Wait: he sold the Jell-O secret for $450 the year his product was launched.

Wait is still a hero in LeRoy, however, and his name is on the first of the 6,508 bricks laid on the Jell-O Brick Road leading from Main Street, past the Le Roy Historical Society, to the 1898 schoolhouse thats home to the Jell-O Gallery. Here, the collection of Jell-O memorabilia keeps growing.

At the dawn of the 20th century, however, no one had ever heard of it. But the Jell-O Co. was bought by Genesee Pure Food, whose pioneering marketing, advertising, and name recognition campaigns are still studied and copied today.

In its first quarter century, salesmen fanned out across the country. The distinctive horse-drawn Jell-O wagon would roll into town, boys were hired to slip fliers under every door in the morning, and the salesmen would hit the stores in the afternoon to help merchants meet the demand for this new dessert.

In Le Roy, recipes were created, molds were invented and sold, new flavors added. Artists were hiredone was Norman Rockwell, virtually unknown at the timeto create original oil paintings for magazine ads. The Jell-O girl became every childs best friend, every mothers favorite daughter.

By 1924, 15,000 Jell-O, Le Roy, NY crates, each containing 36 cartons of flavored powder were shipped each day, filling five railroad cars. The factory employed 300 Le Royans, and production continued through the Great Depression.

It was something people could afford, says Lynne Belluscio, the Jell-O gallerys curator.

Florence Van Galio, 80, is one of many who has helped build and staff the gallery. Her ties, like those of many Le Royans, go back a long way. She was born in Le Roy, now largely a farming town, went to work in the factory in 1947, and stayed, she says, Till the end.

The line ran 24 hours, seven days a week. It was a wonderful place to work, she says. We married women were allowed to work any shift we were able. It ended in 1964, when the factory moved to Delaware. Today, more than a million boxes of Jell-O are sold daily. But the heart and spirit of Jell-O are in Le Roy.

Born to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Waits recipe, the gallery began humbly. The former school had been boarded up for 50 years. Wainscoted ceilings and wood floors were a mess. There was no electricity, no plumbing, and the front steps were cinderblocks. A lot had to be done with little money.

Residents never expected Jell-O to leave town. They had been proud to introduce themselves with Hi. Im from Le Roy. Thats where we make Jell-O. So, just as they had built the Jell-O Co., they built the gallery to mark its history.

More than 200 volunteers have worked here since the beginning, Belluscio says. They were in on it every step of the way. Kraft Foods, which now owns Jell-O, donated money, and a local contractor provided the labor for the front steps. A retired veterinarian did the electrical work, a retired school superintendent did the ceilings and floors, and a retired aeronautical engineer is overseeing renovations. Theyre local residents, Belluscio says.

The old factory is unoccupied, but petitions are circulating to have it declared a historic landmark. Three-quarters of the inscribed bricksnow a proud feature of the townbear the names of Le Roy residents. In the meantime, Le Royans have been digging through attics and basements for memorabilia.

Today, they have 19 original oil paintings, Jell-O molds, recipe books, magazine ads, crates, and an array of collectibles. A man from Ohio visited and sent back a stack of letters his father-in-lawan early Jell-O salesmanhad written. They also have 52 of the 3,000 spoons from a Times Square Jell-O billboard.

The museum is a point of pride for residents and a focus for the towns history, a reminder that the past is part of the present and, in Le Roy at least, that Theres always room for Jell-O.