A bell trills. Thankfully for your drifting young mind, it’s lunchtime. You rummage through your locker and carry your cartoon-themed plastic lunch box to your usual table of friends. As your peers discover what their parents packed and start to arrange trades, you pull out a Ziploc bag encasing a diagonally-cut sandwich. Between two fluffy, white pieces of bread is a generous layer of peanut butter and — very likely — a coating of jam from one of the 750,000 jars Smucker produces every day.
From the bright picnic-esque lid to the fruity illustrations of your favorite flavor, the quaint jar of Smucker preserves represents international business success. Today, the Fortune 500 company is worth an estimated $13 billion.
Behind the success is a family who emigrated from Switzerland as the “Schmuckers” in 1752 to establish a farm in Pennsylvania. A few generations later in 1897, Jerome Monroe Smucker built an apple cider mill in Orrville and made apple butter, which he sold door-to-door with his sons. They claimed the apples used to make it were “cultivated by Johnny Appleseed himself.”
When J.M. Smucker incorporated the private company in 1921, annual sales of apple butter were already $147,000 — which would be $2.5 million today. In 1928, the Pennsylvania Railroad even built a rail attachment called a siding into the Smucker factory to facilitate regional distribution.
Concurrently, Orrville was home to SmithFoods, Inc., founded in 1909 and acquired by Dairy Farmers of America last year. As SmithFoods and Smucker’s success skyrocketed, Orrville’s population has nearly tripled since 1910.
The community and local industries remain intertwined: Former Orrville Mayor Dave Handwerk said the city’s own power plant — which keeps energy costs low for residents — is possible because of Smucker’s profitability.
After 100 years of the coal-burning power plant, EPA regulations have restricted its use, according to Handwerk. Now, the plant is used only 10% of the time, but its longstanding significance also means Orrville has a large energy network, Handwerk said. As part of American Municipal Power, Orrville has been a key player in establishing hydroelectric, natural gas and solar methods.
“Our energy over the last 20 years has cleaned itself up to the point where we’re talking that last 1.5% is what’s the most expensive to try and fix,” Handwerk said.
Smucker and Orrville are truly one and the same, as over 1,300 residents — or one-sixth of the city’s population — are employed by Smucker. The Orrville base also makes up one-fifth of Smucker’s total employment.
Smucker’s humble beginnings and horse-drawn wagon sales model have also evolved into community investment.
“Smucker’s is one that over the years has been very supportive of our school system,” Handwerk said. “Smucker’s is also behind a group that we have called the Heartland Education Community. It’s all about having the community help raise the kids.”
According to Handwerk, the organization was founded by Tim Smucker — Chairman Emeritus of the J.M. Smucker Company — and his wife Jenny in the 1990s. Their goal is to maintain a liaison between the schools and city officials so that the schools get what they need, Handwerk said. For instance, a few years ago, as more non-English speaking families began moving to Orrville, the committee prioritized creating a free preschool and making the transition smoother.
Pat Carr, who serves on the board of the Orrville Historical Society and is a city council member, she said the importance of family in Orrville’s culture is demonstrated by their Boys and Girls Club. Started when Carr’s son was in middle school, the organization had a house where young students could go after school. At the club, they have access to tutors, sports and even overnight events filled with enriching activities, Carr said.
The Smucker company also advocated for the University of Akron to establish a campus in Orrville, which is now Wayne College.
“[Students in the area] can get a two-year degree and then transfer wherever they want to,” Carr said. “I graduated 50 years ago. But if you’re in my situation, we didn’t have any money because my dad was a truck driver. But both my parents worked, so I wasn’t poor enough. So I worked and went to school — it’s a wonderful program.”
Because Wayne County is agriculture-focused, educational programs in the area tend to be, as well. For instance, the Ohio State University has a branch in Wooster, one town over from Orrville, called the Agricultural Technical Institute. Carr said people can finish studying at the ATI with a four-year degree in animal husbandry, which can be used to pursue dairy farming or cattle management.
Smucker and the other businesses that call Orrville home have acted as a stabilizing force in uncertain times for the economy.
“When we had the downturn in 2008 and people were really hurting all over the country, we actually didn’t do bad at all — because some of our industries were doing great. Smucker’s was one of them,” Handwerk said. “When times are tough and you’re eating peanut butter and jelly a lot more, they were selling that kind of stuff.”
The pandemic had an interesting effect, according to Handwerk, as more Smucker employees started to work from home in other towns where they reside. Because of how income is taxed, Orrville’s government receives tax revenue as long as people work from the Smucker factory in Orrville — even if they live elsewhere. But with the increase of work-from-home, those same people technically work from other cities that receive their taxes.
Today, the Smucker company still produces its iconic fruit spreads as well as frozen Uncrustable sandwiches. Their business portfolio has expanded to include brands such as Folgers and Dunkin for coffee, Hostess for desserts and Milk-Bone for dog treats.
Mark Smucker, son of Tim Smucker and great-great-grandson of Jerome Monroe Smucker, became C.E.O. of the J.M. Smucker Company in 2016. After 126 years in operation, Smucker has done what seems impossible by advancing to a fifth generation in company leadership — as only 4% of family-run businesses even make it to the fourth generation.
Orrville keeps growing, too — the Smucker company announced in December of 2022 that a new research and development plant would encompass 29,000 square feet, and support 35 new jobs with $2 million a year.