Share this article

print logo

ITS HEYDAY LONG PAST, NABISCO SILOS GROW SILENT

The Shredded Wheat plant was so spectacular when it opened on Buffalo Avenue in 1901 that it drew 100,000 visitors a year.

The palatial building had a chandeliered lobby, a library, an 800-seat theater, a roof garden with a view of the falls, even a ballroom. It had so many windows that it was called "The Palace of Light."

Niagara Falls was known throughout North America as "The Home of Shredded Wheat," with a picture of the falls on every box of the cereal.

When Nabisco moved the plant to Rainbow Boulevard in 1950, the towering silos were such a landmark that they played a part in the 1953 movie "Niagara," starring Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten.

All that comes to an end Saturday.

The first Shredded Wheat -- a whole unground wheat cereal invented by Ohio-reared Henry D. Perky to cure his stomach problems -- came out of the oven May 15, 1901. On Saturday, 100 years and seven months to the day later, production at the Nabisco plant here will cease.

"It's like the kids have grown up and moved on, and the parents are divorcing," said Mark J. Adams, who has been employed at the plant for 27 years and whose father worked there for 41 years. "And soon the family will just be a memory."

"Losing that plant is the end of a very proud era," said Charles P. Steiner, president of the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.

In the movie "Niagara," when cereal salesman Ray Cutler, played by Casey Adams, and his wife, Polly, played by Jean Peters, check into a motel by the falls, Cutler looks off in the distance and says to his wife: "Look, honey, you can see it from here."

"The falls are that way," the motel owner says with disdain, pointing in the opposite direction.

"He's talking about the Shredded Wheat factory," says Polly.

"I work for them, but I'm seeing the joint for the first time," says a beaming Cutler. "Where breakfast food cereal became a national institution."

The plant's closing will leave nearly 200 employees out of work, and the building will be put up for sale, said Cathy Pernu, spokeswoman for Kraft Foods, which owns Nabisco's Cereal Division.

The current staff is a shadow of what the work force was in Nabisco's heyday. The Buffalo Avenue plant was one of 25 major manufacturing companies in Niagara Falls, then the center of the electrochemical industry and the fastest-growing city in the United States. Perky built his Shredded Wheat factory here because of the cheap water power. He also knew that building his factory in a famous place would help sales, according to the company history.

There were marble shower rooms for employees to bathe, and the employees became the guests of management every lunch hour in a dining room with a view of the falls.

"My mother loved working there," said Niagara historian and author Paul Gromosiak. "She started when she was 16. You had to be 18, but she lied about her age just so she could work there. She used to talk about it all the time -- how cool it was in the summer and how very clean it was."

Today's plant is still known for its cleanliness.

"It's so clean in there, you could eat off the floor," said Adams, 48, of Lewiston.

There appeared to be no bitterness among employees randomly interviewed after leaving work last week.

"There's nobody here who wants to leave," said Adams, who worked in the Quality Control Division. "But it was nobody's fault, just a sign of the times. It was purely and simply a consolidation of a business."

Nabisco has moved its Shredded Wheat production to plants in Naperville, Ill., and, ironically, Niagara Falls, Ont.

Nabisco officials have been reviewing workers' resumes in recent weeks and helping them find positions elsewhere, Adams said.

"They have been extremely good to us," said Adams, who hopes to join the Nabisco plant in Buffalo, where the company manufactures Milk-Bone dog biscuits.

Steiner described Nabisco as a "wonderful corporate citizen" but said the plant closing is another tough blow for a city still reeling from about 1,000 layoffs at Occidental Chemical and other industries in the last year.

"Right now, one job loss is very serious in this community," Steiner said. "We've gone through so much downsizing."

"We knew the Shredded Wheat plant was invaluable to the area," said Edward F. "Eddy" Joseph, who was a radio icon with WHLD for 36 years. "The plant was always a symbol of what the beautification of Niagara Falls was supposed to be, setting an example for appearance and cleanliness."

Joseph, who interviewed Monroe when she was here for the making of "Niagara," can see the Nabisco factory from the window of his Buffalo Avenue apartment.

The building is expected to be demolished to make way for new development.

"I'll be sorry to see it go," Joseph said. "It's going to be missed."

The current building at 920 Rainbow Blvd. was built in 1914 as a warehouse, becoming a second cerealmaking plant in 1954. All the cerealmaking was transferred there when the Buffalo Avenue plant was demolished in 1963.

National Biscuit Co. acquired Perky's Shredded Wheat Co. in 1928.

The production of Shredded Wheat at the plant ceased in 1993, when Nabisco's cereal business was bought by Kraft General Foods, which in turn is owned by Philip Morris.

The Niagara Falls plant converted solely to making Triscuit crackers.

When production ends, management staff will remain on site, decommissioning the building through March and wrapping up operations by June, said Nabisco spokeswoman Pernu.

The 400,000-square-foot building and 13-acre property will be ready for sale in the summer, Pernu said. The building is assessed at $1.1 million, but with a proposed casino and other downtown developments, it is expected to draw closer to $3 million, realty agents say.

An early interested buyer is said to be Joe Anderson, the millionaire owner of Smokin' Joe's Indian Trading Post on the Tuscarora Reservation.

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

There are no comments - be the first to comment