Getting to know the Petersons of Peterson Biddick
John Frederick Peterson was born at Pennock, Minn., on Nov. 22, 1886 to Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Peterson, one of a family of seven children. At the age of 7, he moved with his parents to Aldrich, where his father was later postmaster.
John only had an eighth-grade education and later enrolled at a small business college at Wadena for a six month-course, paying for his tuition with cord wood. Upon graduation he was offered a job in South Dakota but had to pass it up for a store clerk job in Aldrich, because he couldn't afford the train fare.
He worked at the Aldrich job for 10 years, moving on to Coleraine, Minn., on the Iron Range for two years and then to Marble, Minn., on the Range, where he established his own store in partnership with Daniel H. Biddick.
In 1910, the partners sold out and moved to Wadena where they established a wholesale produce company, engaging in a general buying and shipping business of eggs and poultry and also would handle hay, potatoes, dressed veal and hogs and in fact would buy almost anything a farmer had to sell. Their plan was to go in to the surrounding country and towns to buy produce to be shipped to distant markets. They were located at 12 Bryant Avenue SE, which today is the alley in that block.
In 1912, needing more spaces, they moved to 13 Aldrich Ave. SE, the site of Little Hollywood Video in 2009.
In 1916, again needing more space they constructed the first segment of the Peterson Biddick plant on the 104 Aldrich Avenue SE block, which over the years, with increasing needs evolved into a plant covering almost 300 feet and in 2009 is in horrible disrepair.
Over the years much happened. During the early years they were greatly into the potato business and in 1918 shipped 2000 carloads from Wadena to Army camps. According to John's son Harold, during the boom years the company had potato warehouses in almost every little town between Wadena and the Canadian border. The potato business, which was a very erratic business, bottomed out in 1921 and the company found itself near bankruptcy, with potatoes John had paid 10 cents a pound for worth only 1 cent. However, John approached his creditors explaining the situation and promising to make good on all his accounts and he prevailed with all companies except the Bemis Bag Company, and survived. During these potato years they established branch offices at Crookston, Thief River Falls and Jamestown. Later they also had plants at Detroit Lakes and Carroll, Iowa.
They then went out of the potato business, concentrating on the poultry and egg business and later expanding into seeds and feeds. Later one of their largest departments was Hybrid seed corn, with Funks G brand.
As they expanded they increased the size of their plant, adding grain elevators, garages to house their trucks, a feed mixing operation with appropriate storage tanks for formulating feeds, storage bins and additional office space. All of this in addition to a poultry processing plant which was housed in the basement of the second addition to the plant.
In the first years of the poultry business the company shipped live carloads of poultry from all of the early branch offices to New York. This required a man accompanying each car to feed and water the chickens. This man was Les Nyberg, who later owned and operated the Wadena Hatchery which always worked closely with the Peterson Biddick company. Later they became associated with Armour & Company and the New York Dressed process was started. This required the removal of feathers but the innards were left in. This went on for a few years and then they started the full processing of the birds in their own plants. They later entered into an agreement with Swift & Company who did all of the processing.
Through the years the purchase of eggs was important with the first carload of eggs being shipped from Wadena in 1913.
Shortly after World War I, Albert Becker joined the company to head the seed department and developed this through the years to become a very important part of the business and very prominent in Minnesota. Of course the hybrid seed corn business followed in 1935. Upon his death, the position was filled by Carl Hulting for many years and eventually by Ronald Rickers.
In 1935, John's son Harold joined the company. At that time the company had 36 retail stores and Harold's job was to service these stores. Eventually these stores were phased out with only retail stores at the main plant and the branch offices.
Eventually the company became involved in the raising of turkeys, with the company owning 12 turkey farms, mostly in the Menahga area. Each year they produced about 750,000 turkeys. Harold told me not too many years ago that turkey farms were not the greatest things to have but they provided an outlet for feed.
Over the years, the company had many competent and talented people other than those mentioned above. Among them were Elizabeth Rice, corporate secretary, Harold Schackel, company treasurer, Erick Knoop, turkey farms manager; Al Haga, handling feed formulations; Leo Bartelt, in charge of feed manufacturing; Dennis Johnson and later Francis (Chops) Kraemer, plant superintendent in Wadena; and Stephen Zwack and John Reger, both long time employees who seemed to know every facet of the business.
In 1909, John married Victoria Gustafson at Coleraine. There were two children from this union, J. Harold who married Edythe Danielson, a third-grade teacher in the Wadena school and Lois who married Luke Repetsky and lives in Minneapolis. Harold and Edythe had two children, John and Nancy.
In 1936, John purchased land adjoining Black's Grove on the north and built a beautiful summer home which he named Brookside. It was a favorite summer gathering place for picnics and church events. After John's death it transferred to Francis (Chops) Kraemer, long time employee who in recent years sold it to Jerry Anderson, the present owner.
John was a long and faithful member of the Congregational Church, an ardent member of the Masonic Lodge and the Shrine, at one time the village treasurer, and president of a local taxpayer's group. When the Wesley Hospital got into financial trouble in the late 1930s, John was one of a group of five Wadena businessmen who took over the operation of the hospital installing an operating system which is still in effect in 2009.
John Peterson died at a Minneapolis hotel while on a business trip to that city, on Feb. 26, 1954. He is buried in the Wadena City cemetery beside his wife Victoria.
His son, Harold, took over the management of the company and served as president until 1973 when he resigned the position, being replaced by Alvin Wensman. He continued as a director of the company for some years.
In 1978, Wensman became the sole proprietor of the company. In 1997 the name of the company was changed to Wensman Seed Company and in 1999 the move of the office to the new plant on U.S. Highway 10 west was completed making the move of the operation complete.
In more recent years the old plant was occupied by Ray Krell and his son operating an Ag & Pet Store. However, they moved out a number of years ago.
I recently had the opportunity, with Wadena Economic Developer Dean Uselman, to tour the old Peterson Biddick plant and was shocked at the condition of the property. The roof has leaked, everything is either rusty or covered with pigeon excrement. Ceilings caved in, windows broken out and much damage by vandals. It is a terrible shame that it has gotten in this condition.
Uselman tells me that dealings are in the works to demolish the buildings and clean up the property which through a matching grant will be converted to a useful