In the pre-dawn hours of a Saturday morning in 1937, 24-year-old Victor Weaver and his wife, Edith, loaded 17 dressed chickens into the trunk of their 1936 Hudson Terraplane. They had prepared the chickens the prior afternoon in their small farmhouse kitchen in Blue Ball, Pennsylvania.
They took their cargo to the Sharon Hill Farmers Market, near Philadelphia. They returned to Blue Ball with an empty trunk, a little bit of cash and plans for weekly runs to Sharon Hill.
In the short space of a few months, the husband-and-wife team was processing 200 chickens a week for their blossoming business. They had outgrown the farmhouse, so they moved to nearby New Holland and hired an employee, Ben Burkholder, to help dress the birds and tend the market stand.
That humble beginning to a company that became a poultry industry giant is detailed in the first chapter of “The Story of Victor F. Weaver,” a 144-page anecdote-filled book written by Allan W. Shirk and published by Masthof Press of Morgantown, Pennsylvania.
Shirk, a retired social studies teacher, was born and grew up near New Holland, where the Weaver family business started and stayed. He spent a teenage summer working in the cut-up department of the Weaver chicken processing plant.
The Early Years
The first two chapters of Shirk’s book cover 1937 through the 1950s. Weaver chicken sales expanded from one market stand to many market stands during that time.
A shed at the Weavers’ New Holland home was used to get the chickens ready for market. The building is no longer standing, but it remains an icon, known as “The Shed” in family lore.
As the business grew, Burkholder suggested to the Weavers that they could use some help catching chickens, and he had somebody in mind. That somebody was Melvin Mitchell, who was in 10th grade at the time, but ready to quit school to help his family deal with financial difficulties.
Mitchell joined the venture and went from catching chickens to managing the Weaver market stand business. Like Burkholder, Mitchell spent his entire career working with the Weaver family business.
In those early years, the Weavers, Burkholder and Mitchell formed the backbone of the enterprise.
The Weavers and Burkholder completed their formal educations after eighth grade. Mitchell had just two more years of schooling. Many of Lancaster County’s most successful business people have had similar educational backgrounds.
In his book, however, Shirk points out that Edith Weaver’s role in the company business — a journey from chicken plucker to corporate officer — was definitely not the norm for a mid-20th century woman.
A Company Gives Back
In his third chapter, Shirk introduces the faith-driven philanthropy that was as much a part of Victor’s and Edith’s lives as their expanding poultry business.
Victor was one of 12 original board members for Philhaven Hospital, which opened in Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania, in 1948.
It was the result of a drive by the Lancaster and Franconia Mennonite conferences to build a facility that would treat mental health as an actual health issue rather than as a condition which, more often than not, doomed the mentally ill to fester in “insane asylums.”
Philhaven today is a part of WellSpan Health.
The Weavers invested much of their time, energy and wealth in a number of organizations that, like Philhaven, still thrive in some form.
The United Service Foundation was founded in 1969. It supports community leadership development and microenterprises. It also supports a number of Mennonite religious and education organizations, and a camping association, Camp Hebron.
As the company grew, Victor met with other Weaver officials annually to review not only corporate finance but also corporate contributions. The New Holland Community Park was an annual beneficiary, as were the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, and the Welsh Mountain Medical Clinic.
Victor and Edith established scholarship funds for employees and their children at Eastern Mennonite College, Goshen College and Elizabethtown College.
One of Victor’s most visible contributions to the New Holland community is scribbled on a napkin with the date May 23, 1986, and the headline, “How to go about to start a retirement home.”
That napkin now is part of the archival collection of Garden Spot Village, a 280-acre retirement community on the eastern edge of New Holland. It took a decade for the dream on a napkin to become the reality that welcomed its first residents in 1996.
Much of Shirk’s book is about good works made possible by wealth earned from a family poultry business that was very successful for more than four decades.
Keeping Up with Changing Markets
Early on, Weaver and the people he hired kept up with the growing demand for fresh whole chickens and parts they needed for their market stands.
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, they transitioned to wholesale sales of fresh poultry to supermarket chains. In the 1970s, they successfully developed and launched new products like chicken rolls for the deli case and fried chicken for the freezer aisle.
The last four chapters of the book are focused on what happened when the glory years began to fade.
Weaver, the company, became a dominant force in Northeast poultry, with some 60% of the market. It seemed logical to expand from the Northeast to the Deep South and the Far West. Marketing, logistical and financial challenges ensued.
And there was a language issue, too, in the heart of Dixie. A slogan on Weaver fried chicken said, “Step Aside Southern Fried.” Southern consumers didn’t much care for that marketing ploy.
Although sales and profits had flattened, the Weaver company — management, the physical plant and employees — remained an attractive buyout deal. And other giants of the industry had the wherewithal to pay cash.
Another mid-size company, Holly Farms, a North Carolina competitor, was in the same boat as Weaver.
Holly Farms leaders proposed a merger of the two companies, a strategy they believed would make the combined businesses too big for a hostile takeover. In April of 1988, the Weaver board agreed to Holly’s logic, accepted the offer, and became part of Holly Farms but continued to operate as Victor F. Weaver.
Unlike the Weaver company, Holly Farms was a publicly owned company with stock traded on the New York Stock Exchange. That meant it could be bought by any other company with enough money to seal the deal.
When the acquisition of Weaver was complete, Holly Farms stock was selling for $49 a share. Agribusiness giants Conagra and Tyson Foods both wanted the Holly Farms and Weaver markets, and the infrastructure that filled the orders. The battle between Conagra and Tyson drove the price to $70 a share, with a total buyout price of $1.2 billion.
It was too much to pass up, and the purchase of both Holly Farms and the Weaver company became a milestone of the poultry industry less than a year after their merger.
A Local Legacy
By some accounts, the Weaver impact ended there. But Shirk, in researching for his book, didn’t come away with that impression.
He talked to people who knew the Weavers, their family, friends and associates. He learned about the often unheralded good the company and the family had done for the New Holland community and Lancaster County agriculture.
Victor Weaver died in 1989, Edith in 2005.
To the beneficiaries of their largesse and to the company they built, their story is one of half a century of success after success after success until that brief final chapter when “Tyson” replaced “Weaver” on the company headquarters.
“The Story of Victor F. Weaver” by Allan W. Shirk is available at Good’s Store in East Earl, and at the New Holland Area Historical Society at 207 E. Main St., New Holland, PA 17557, phone 717-538-3079. The price is $20 if picked up, or $23 for mail orders.