History of Tom's Foods
In April, HCF's History Spotlights will cover the stories and legacies of five businesses that have been in our community for a long time. This week is the history of Tom's Foods.
This history spotlight was taken from Tom's: Back Home Where We Belong by Sara Crawford and Janis Eberhardt for Tom's Foods Inc (1990) and Red Clay, White Water, and Blues by Virginia Causey.
In the southern US, peanuts were grown in the 1800s primarily as feed for livestock, especially hogs, and provided food for people only on a small scale. Many farmers grew a few acres of peanuts to dry, parch, and eat during the winter months; but even that practice was widespread only in North Carolina and Virginia. Peanuts became more important to Georgia and Alabama farmers when the dreaded boll weevil decimated the preferred crop, cotton, and a substitute source of income was needed. Farmers quickly realized that peanuts thrived in the deep South; and scientists, especially Dr. George Washington Carver, worked to expand the uses of the legume.
Young Tom Huston grew up on a farm in Henderson, Texas. Determined to develop a mechanical sheller, by 1912 he had a hand operated model ready for production. The invention brought Huston to Columbus – the Columbus Iron Works agreed to manufacture the new product according to Huston’s specifications. He formed a partnership with Clarence Medley and built a plant, the Tom Huston Manufacturing Company, later the Medley Manufacturing Company. The plant manufactured a power-driven peanut sheller designed by Huston. It was used by Tom’s Foods until 1976 when it was replaced by a computerized design.
Increasingly, Americans were recognizing the value of the peanut as food. Roasted, salted peanuts were already being marketed when Tom Huston began his experiments. By 1923 or 1924, Tom and a Mr. Talton of Texas, who had already worked to improve the peanut roasting process, found the right formula. Together, they determined that using coconut oil at 350 degrees to cook the small Spanish peanut produced a very tasty result. In April of 1925, the Tom Huston Peanut Company began operating in a shotgun building located on 32nd Street. At first, the company offered for sale one item – the toasted salted peanut and Tom patented the single serving, tall, narrow, glassine bag that would become a signature.
Almost overnight, the product was a resounding success; and its rapid dominance of the market both locally, and soon, nationally assured its financial success. From an initial investment of $5,000, a first-year sales total of $25,139 was recorded. By the following year, sales stood at $407,607. Such growth demanded larger quarters to operate, so the company moved to 13th Street. Then, finding those accommodations lacking, the company moved to its permanent location on 10th Avenue and 8th Street. Huston demolished a wagon factory on the new site and contracted with Charlie Frank Williams to build a modern plant. Sales reached over $2 million by 1929. Business continued to prosper, and Huston was recognized twice in Time Magazine, which called him “the boy farmer who became peanut king.” The company’s original Board of Directors consisted of Tom Huston, Walter A. Richards, Allen Reid, J.B. Key, Robert Strickland, Jr., H.K. Park, R.W. Courts, Jr., and J. Madden Hatcher.
Tom Huston held Dr. George Washington Carver, renowned Tuskeegee Institute scientist, in high regard for his work on improving peanut quality. Huston made several visits to Tuskeegee, as did Carver to Columbus. Carver was a consultant for ten years helping to improve the company’s products but declining a position with Huston’s enterprise in favor of staying in Tuskeegee to assist African American farmers and students. (Dr. George Washington Carver is pictured to the left.)
Huston would soon fall as quickly as he rose. The Trust Company of Georgia held the majority of shares in Tom Huston Peanut Company by virtue of having given a substantial loan in 1929 for a peach freezing project in Montezuma, Georgia. The lack of sufficient available refrigeration coupled with the onset of the Great Depression, made it impossible for Tom Huston to meet his loan payments. In 1931, the bank foreclosed, and the Board of Directors discharged him as President. They offered him a $12,000 salary and position as Chairman of the Board, he refused and started a competitive business. His new venture would fail. Embittered, he left Columbus for Miami, returning only after his death in 1972 to be buried in Linwood Cemetery. In 1932, Walter Richards was named President of Tom’s. By 1940, the company would be fully under local control again and not Trust Company’s. Richards had led the company out of debt and the Depression. Walter Richards was the perfect stabilizer for the Tom Huston Peanut Company, and he would also serve as Mayor of Columbus and head of the School Board. Richards (pictured below) served as President and later as Chairman of the Board until his death in 1961.
Independent distributors were also key to the success of the company. It was a winning combination of talent and loyalty. These early distributors pioneered the routes and staked their futures on the company in which they believed. They were direct contributors to phenomenal growth at Tom’s. The company continued its growth in the field with 347 distributors in 1949 operating 1,094 routes. Sales to these distributors were right under $10 million. 1950 would also bring more change to leadership with Bill Feighner becoming Vice President and a member of the board. Feighner would become President in 1958. Rupert Triplitt also became Assistant Sales Manager having started his peanut career in 1939 as a route salesman in Lubbock, Texas. Rupert would head the Sales Department and retire as Senior Vice President in 1983.
1964 Board of Directors: (back row) Oscar Betts, Madden Hatcher, Rupert Triplitt, Pete Schield, Frank Foley, and Gunby Jordan. (front row) Tom Black, Clarence Ford, Bill Feighner, George Swift, and Robert Chambless.
The 1950s brought a period of building and modernization for the company. The 1960s brought the vending machine, more snack lines like potato chips, and a new owner in General Mills (1966). In 1975, as Tom’s celebrated its 50th Anniversary, sales approached the $100 million mark and there were more than 500 independent distributors operating 2,500 routes. The 50th Anniversary was also marked with sadness in the passing of J. Madden Hatcher, longtime counsel for the peanut company, board member, and valued friend. Mr. Hatcher’s role and void would be filled by Alan Rothschild. Years of steady growth and mutual benefit following the General Mills acquisition continued until 1983 when Rowntree-Mackintosh of England purchased Tom’s Foods from General Mills. They paid $215 million for the company and would own it for five years. During their ownership, they launched a franchise program for their distributors. Due to the lack of sales, the company was once again sold.
TF Acquisition Corporation took over the company in 1988, paying $200 million in a management buyout. Under this new ownership, they opened new chip plants in Columbus and Tennessee expanding their network of independent distributors. Tom's had goals of increasing sales to over $400 million over the next five years. Their goals fell short, and in 1993, Heico Acquisitions took the company over. Over the next few years, sales suffered, falling to $200 million. As a result, Tom's Foods had declared bankruptcy. In 2005, Lance Inc. won the bid to acquire Tom's Foods for $37.9 million plus certain liabilities and renamed it Tom's Snacks Co. In 2018, the company was purchased by Campbell Soup. Unfortunately, it was announced in January of this year that Campbell would be closing the Columbus plant.
We don't know what the future will hold for Tom's Foods. For 96 years, the company has been a Columbus manufacturing staple, employer for our citizens, and economic engine for our community. Hopefully, it will live to see another day. Next week, we will highlight Lummus Industries.