In my last post, I began with a look at the site of the John S. Isaacs cannery at the intersection Route 30 and Cedar Creek Road, and talked in broad terms of how farming in Sussex County transitioned from horse-drawn machinery to mechanization. Isaacs and his family were big players in this transition, not only in the use of gas-powered tractors and modern cultivation methods, but also in their early adoption of a modern, integrated business model for farm to factory production of lima beans and poultry. In this posting, I will look at John Sudler Isaacs’ early life as the youngest son of none-too-prosperous farmer John Ponder Isaacs; his own first foray as a tenant farmer; and his rapid transition into a major grower and packer of vegetables. The third and final installment of this series will look at Isaacs’ innovative venture into poultry farming.
Before going further, I would like to give extensive credit to W. Edwin Kee, author of John Sudler Isaacs: A Sussex County Visionary, who worked with Hobby Isaacs Sr. and Jr. to assemble a biography of their father and grandfather, respectively. It would have been infinitely more difficult to create this posting without Kee’s book, from which I took the major part of the material presented here, with the exception of the family photographs and a few of the present-day shots I took myself. Please see the A note on sources at the end of this posting for more details.
John S. Isaacs was the son of John Ponder Isaacs (1854 – 1933). The elder Isaacs was the sixth of the eleven children of Minos Isaacs (1813 – 1871) and the only child of his second wife Lovey Elliott (1822 – 1857). When Minos Isaacs died intestate, the Sussex County Orphan’s Court divided his estate of 510 acres among his wife and eleven children, thus leaving each heir with only a small plot. John Ponder Isaacs ended up selling his share to his stepmother in 1892 and moved to the Greenwood area, where he bought a small farm and struggled to make a living on poorly drained soil that lost its fertility quickly. When John S. Isaacs was born in 1889, the third of four children, his father lacked capital to make improvements to or expand the farm he would later buy, and so continued to eke out a living. While not impoverished, the Isaacs family led a difficult existence, one that may have imbued John S. Isaacs with a drive to make a better life for himself.
When he married Mary C. Lofland in 1908, John Sudler Isaacs had had no more than six years of schooling and was working on a nearby tenant farm; according to Kee, the couple had to borrow money just to buy a table and chairs to sit on. By 1914, with a wife, infant son J. Howard and four year old son Earle to support, Isaacs was highly motivated to generate more income.
In 1915, John began an association with George H. Draper Jr. that was to last 15 years when he assumed the tenancy of the farm adjacent to Draper’s Slaughter Neck canning factory. The Draper family was a canning dynasty in those days; George H. Draper Jr. operated canneries in Milford, Frederica, and Slaughter Neck, while another branch of the Draper family operated the Milton cannery formerly owned by the Workmans. At Slaughter Neck, John grew tomatoes, sugar corn, peas and lima beans for the Draper cannery, in a 50-50 deal on the proceeds of crop sales to the cannery. All of the cultivation was done by mule-drawn machines, and the harvesting was done by hand.
Although there is no written record of a plan, John S. Isaacs’ activities from 1915 to 1929 appear to have followed one that would lead him ultimately to owning his own farm. The family owned about a dozen dairy cows and sold the milk, keeping all of the proceeds as was customary for tenant farmers in those years. They also ran a small general store on the farm that was patronized by the Draper cannery workers, adding an additional source of income. He bought a 16-acre tract of timber in 1917, the 50-acre Wells farm in Slaughter Neck in 1928, and finally in 1929 the 110-acre farm Simpson farm on Hummingbird Road north of Milton. With the purchase of the last property, Isaacs was no longer a tenant, but the owner of his own farm. The family moved there from Slaughter Neck as soon as the deal was consummated.
In addition to his farming activities, Isaacs was making himself known and respected in the community, first in 1925 as a trustee of the one-room Prime Hook School his children attended, and then as the Sussex County Receiver of Taxes in 1929. The latter was at least in part due to his declaring himself a Republican and aligning himself with the right people in the county government. More than the additional income he received from these positions, he was forming the social, political, and business connections that would facilitate the growth of his agricultural interests in the long term. His political involvement would increase as time went on.
The Isaacs family continued to supply the Draper Canning Co. with peas, lima beans and sweet corn for packing. Although Isaacs had bought a tractor in 1929, much of the farm labor was still performed by manual labor or mule-drawn machinery. He continued his dairy business and also diversified into timber and lumber from his wooded tract. The breakthrough that would bring major changes to the way John S. Isaacs conducted his business came in 1935, when his son Hobby Sr. suspected that the Draper Canning Co. was underpaying the family for the produce they provided, and informed his father. When Isaacs verified the truth of what his son told him, he made the decision to build his own cannery. With the proceeds of a land sale, a small loan, and his own lumber, John S. Isaacs built his cannery at the intersection of Rt. 30 and Cedar Creek Road; by September of 1936, he was ready to pack that season’s crop of vegetables.
John S. Isaacs made a strategic decision with the building of the cannery to not pack tomatoes, relying instead on peas, lima beans and asparagus. It might have seemed counter-intuitive to forgo canning a crop that was ideally suited to the packing process and very much in demand. However, tomatoes were a risky business for both growers and canners. The industry was highly competitive, and tomatoes were a volatile commodity in terms of pricing. Canners contracted with tomato growers for a set price and for a predetermined acreage to be planted, potentially locking themselves into paying higher-than-market prices when there was a bumper crop.
The cannery turned a profit very quickly. The New Deal was pumping money into the American economy, but the real boost came with the outbreak of World War II and the U. S. entry into the conflict. A military force of 15 million men and women at its peak consumed vast amounts of food, not the least of which was canned items, and prices rose steeply. The Isaacs Cannery had been selling under its own label since the start of production, but most of its output was sold to chain stores and other distributors under their private labels. The cannery did sell directly to the military under its own label during the war; the labels were distinct in including a V in the front and a special emblem on the back (designed by Walt Disney).
By the 1940’s, John S. Isaacs had achieved a level of diversification and integration among a wide variety of activities, and was also buying land. By the time of his death in 1950, he had acquired over 8,000 acres of improved and unimproved farmland. These were all highly notable achievements, but not the crown jewel in his empire; that title would have to be accorded to his poultry farming, which achieved integration on virtually the entire supply chain. That will be the subject of the third and final installment of this series.
A note on sources
I made use of two principal sources for the postings in the John Sudler Isaacs series. The first consists of the recollections of Hobby Isaacs Jr. as well as his extensive collection of photographs and documents pertaining to his grandfather. The second is an 85 page biography titled John Sudler Isaacs: A Sussex County Visionary, by W. Edwin Kee, Jr., published by Delaware Heritage Press in 2009. Edwin Kee is a former Secretary of Agriculture for the state of Delaware, an author of numerous scholarly papers and three books, as well as a respected academician associated with the University of Delaware. Some readers may be familiar with an earlier title of his, Delaware Farming, one of the Images of America series sold in many locations in Delaware. However, he failed to include even one mention of John Sudler Isaacs in that volume, something that did not escape the notice of Isaacs’ son and grandson. The subsequent volume, John Sudler Isaacs: A Sussex County Visionary, was a direct result of his discussions with the Isaacs family.