Palmetto Canning Company has been around since 1927.
Photo: Manatee Historic Archive
PALMETTO -- There were certain things that my grandmother made that were the best things I had ever tasted -- her orange juice, her fudge, but also her sandwiches. My mother tried to mimic them, but we could never get it just right.
One reason I loved her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so much was because she used Palmalito guava jelly from the Palmetto Canning Company. The delicious jelly is sold in grocery stores nationwide, but it’s produced right here in little, old Palmetto.
John Greenlaw founded Palmetto Canning in 1927. At first, the plant only produced guava jelly. After World War II, John Greenlaw Jr. diversified the operation into the canning of tomatoes and other produce. About 1950, after a downturn in the tomato industry, Greenlaw decided to return the company to its core business: guava jelly. Today, the company that initially only produced canned goods, packages all its products in glass or plastic.
In a 2009 interview with the Manatee County Historical Society, Greenlaw told the history of how his company came to be. He said his mother always made enough guava jelly to last a year from the fruit while it was ripe.
Greenlaw said the area jelly-making business started long before his family ever migrated from New Jersey to Manatee County. The first person to profit on guava jelly was the Smith family, of Siesta Key. In 1908, the Smith matriarch started guava jelly making business, but the remote location became an obstacle, since caps, glass and sugar had to be shipped to her from Tampa via freight schooner. The boat ran up and down the coast; it not only delivered her supplies, but also shipped her products.
A look inside the factory.
Photo: Manatte County Historical Archive
In 1912, Mrs. Smith, Mr. Smith and their two sons Carl and Furman, moved their business to Loop Road in Palma Sola. In the center of that Loop were hundreds and hundreds of guava trees, but planted more on five acres of land they purchased. They eventually branched out into orange marmalade and other fruit varieties. Carl ran the business once his parents died.
In the 1930's, Carl Smith became an activist against all the new laws and taxes and regulations coming in at that time including Social Security and eight-hour work days. He was vocal about not wanting anyone telling him how much to pay people or how long they could work. His fury ended up getting him into trouble, and after he fought with a federal employee, Smith spent a year in prison.
He asked Greenlaw if he’d keep the business going in his absence. While Carl was stil in jail, he continued to help Greenlaw purchase goods for the jelly-making business.
“To this day I don’t know why he did it, because he was a dyed-in-the-wool Confederate,” Greenlaw said in the historical society interview. “He was born here and raised here, and I was down from New Jersey, a Yankee! The combination just doesn’t sound like it would mix! But that’s the way he was and I was always thankful for it because it helped me a lot.”
Greenlaw was no stranger to the preserving business. His own family had moved down to Florida in the 1920's. However, when his father had trouble finding work, he bought a little preserving stand in Palmetto and canned guavas. It was a little concrete building with pots and a stove and some tables.
Greenlaw senior expanded the business into other fruits and vegetables, like tomatoes, grapefruit, grapefruit sections, turnip greens, Spanish beans, whatever grew here … they canned it. However, the operation only lasted three years.
Greenlaw Jr. had a chance to revive the family business after Carl returned from jail. He asked Greenlaw if he wanted to buy the Palma Sola plant.
“Well, sure,” he said. “I’d be glad to! But I don’t know, I’m not all broken out with money.”
“Well, how about $2,000 bucks?” Carl asked.
“Gosh, just the one piece of machinery is worth that!” was the reply.
After securing a bank loan, Greenlaw purchased a building in Palmetto and Palmetto Cannning Company was back in business with equipment from Carl's business.
But soon Uncle Sam came calling and John had to serve in World War II. He called his mother, who was stil living in New Jersey and asked her to come down and run the plant.
“John, I’ve never even been in an office! I’ve never worked in my life! How am I gonna run a plant?” she said.
“I don’t know, but you’re the only one,” John said. She did well. In fact, when John came back from the service his mother continued to work there every day.
However, the jelly business depleted after the war ended. Because of rationing, locals had been hoarding jelly under their beds, in the backs of cupboards and even in nylon stockings!
Greenlaw had to resort to loading up his truck and acting as a traveling salesman to offload his supply. That’s when he met with what he called “the big people” at Winn-Dixie, IGA and Publix. But because the guava jelly business wasn’t a huge operation, the marketing directors wouldn’t consider his product.
An assembly line in at Palmetto Canning Company
Photo: Manatee County Historic Archives
So finally, one day he went in, set the jar down and said to the marketing manager “Charlie, I’ve done everything I can to sell you this product. It’s good and if you had it on the shelf it would sell just fine. You tell me what I have to do!”
“Well, there was a dog food manufacturer in last week and he offered me a case free with every case I bought.”
“Okay, how many do you want?”
“I’ll take 600 cases of two-pounds and 100 cases of 24 ounce.”
Greenlaw had never seen an order this big in his whole life. But he didn't flinch when it came to the Publix manager. He said okay, and walked out of the office. However, he had to come up with the money to fulfill it one way or another. He took the order to the bank and secured another loan, thinking this business of giving away free jelly would put him in the poorhouse. Later he'd call the decision "the best money he ever gave away."
Today, you can still get the Palmalito guava jelly in area stores, and I always buy my jelly from Palmetto Canning Company. I have some in my fridge now, in fact. Every now and then, when I'm perusing the aisles at Publix or Winn Dixie, I'll look for it. I've found it as far north at Jacksonville and as far south as Naples, and it still amazes me every time I see it, that something from my hometown has had such a lasting impact, on my family's table and countless tables across the state.
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