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The Klingamans and Christmas Canned Goods

Welcome to another of Bill’s History Corner. This one was fun; it features canned goods. I have been having an interesting and informative (at least for me) email conversation with Ruth Smith. She was asking about her Grandfather (Charles William Klingaman) who worked at Coppes starting around 1918, possibly at age 14, and also her Great Grandfather (also named Charles Klingaman).

Ruth’s family legend has it that her Great Grandfather died of a heart attack one day while working at Coppes, but she is unsure about the date. While Ruth has visited the Coppes Cabinet Museum, she currently lives very far away. Ruth thinks her Grandfather’s picture should be in one of the early employee pictures we have under the glass in the museum. She didn’t find his picture when she was looking for him, but since has found his picture in one of the series of Coppes factory photos taken in 1936. You know the pictures- the ones taken in the different departments in the factory.

Ruth hinted that part of the problem is that she is not sure what her Great Grandfather looked like when he was a young man. This Illustrates the difficulties we have with hunting through the Coppes records. First, we do have some very old pictures, but as you would expect, there is no one alive today who can identify the people in the oldest pictures. Second, the Coppes factory was more focused on keeping the factory running each day rather than recording the names of the employees who were associated with the company.

We do have some lists of employee names in the earliest ledgers. These early ledgers list names and how much they were paid every two weeks. It is unclear what the jobs were that the men performed. We also have “employee seniority lists” from the 1960s. This is the period when the Coppes Inc. company was first sold away from the Coppes family and the new owners were laying off employees. Other than those two sources any employee names we come across are purely random. An employee’s name may be associated with an injury reported in the newspaper, or an employee name may be on a list of people that accepted a turkey as a Christmas gift. What I’m trying to point out is that the company did not keep the employee files or records that would be so helpful today.

On a related story, in the emails with Ruth, she pointed out that her Mother (Joyce Klingaman), who operated the printing press making advertising products and cabinet blueprints, recalls the Christmas gifts that were given during her time with the company. The printing press was in the “cow shed,” which was a building connecting our main building and the little green office building to the west. The cow shed no longer stands. She remembers that most everyone had a choice between a ham or a basket of canned goods of the type that were also given with the purchase of a Napanee Kitchenet Cabinet. She said, “all the farmers already had hams, we wanted the canned goods. They were wonderful quality”.

The brand of canned goods that Coppes gave to employees and buyers of Kitchenets was the “Richelieu” brand. Founded in 1862, the Richelieu company/brand produced a variety of products besides canned fruits. It is now one of the subsidiary brands owned by Sprague, Warner & Co. Over the many years the Richelieu company has been in business, their products have changed several times. Today the company is a very large player in the frozen pizza business. The first thing that comes up when you Google Richelieu is this picture of 25 of their colorful canned goods. 

The caption for this picture is “Richelieu fruit & vegetable cans (25), sealed metal cans w/colorful paper labels, made for a supermarket exhibit at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, de-acquisitioned by the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry… Sold in 2009 for $900.”

Do you have any of these cans? I am wondering if the 25 cans were full or empty when sealed for the display? Ruth also said her Grandmother (Florence Swihart Klingaman) worked at Uline in Nappanee making “BOMBS” during WWII. Later she also worked at Coppes in the mailrooms. Florence was also one of the employees who was laid off when the company was sold – three years before her retirement date .  So far Ruth’s Mother, Father, Grandfather, Grandmother and Great grandfather worked at Coppes. Ruth’s uncle Ted worked at Mutschler, so it was almost a total Coppes family.

Ruth said, “ I think that’s my grandfather standing behind the man in the center of the photo. You can’t see him very well. He had wavy red hair.”

Ruth’s mother, Joyce, is 90 years old this year. If you think your family may have a connection, send me your name and contact info. I’ll forward it to Ruth and maybe she and her mother will contact you.

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