What Starts Small in Lancaster County Often Grows…

By Clinton Martin

When you drive through Lancaster County, you will see many farms, with a few areas of heavy industry sprinkled in.  Particularly notable is the small town of New Holland.  As you drive down Route 23, you pass by (or rather under) the Lancaster Labs complex, which houses one of the country’s largest contract laboratories.  While it is now part of an international conglomerate corporation, employing 45,000 people worldwide, it was started by a visionary Lancaster County resident, Earl Hess, in 1961 – with just three employees in a lab smaller than a single family home.

Further down the road in New Holland, you pass by a gigantic cheese factory, which is today part of Savencia Cheese Company (based in France.)  The factory was founded in the 1930’s by a group of Amish dairy farmers seeking a way to process the milk they were collecting.  Not long after opening the factory, they hired local dairy expert Meyer Zausner to help them build up the business.  He oversaw exponential growth, and the company came be to known as Zausner Foods.  Growing and merging with various entities along the way, the company now produces many varieties of cheese foods, employing over 400 people.

And lastly, a stone’s throw from the cheese factory is Tyson Chicken, a state-of-the-art chicken processing facility.  This mega-factory traces its roots back to Lancaster County entrepreneurs.  In 1937, Victor and Edith Weaver packed 17 dressed chickens into the trunk of their car, and drove to a suburban Philadelphia farmers market.  Having sold them, they returned home to Blue Ball (the neighboring town to New Holland) with a little bit of cash in their hands, and an idea in their head.  They had a vision for growing their backyard company, and within a few months, they were processing 200 chickens a week.  By the end of 1937, they had hired two employees to help with the work.  

By the 1960’s, Victor Weaver’s Chicken had become the dominant force in the poultry business, at least in the northeast US, with 60% of regional market share.  Chicken cold cuts for the grocery case and fried chicken in the freezer aisle were some of the company’s innovations.  

The fact that Lancaster County has a Spanish-speaking population is almost entirely attributable to Victor Weaver as well, in that he personally recruited a work force from Puerto Rico as a way to address a labor shortage during the growing years of his company.  When laborers from the US Territory would arrive in New Holland, he provided them with English lessons, and cultural awareness classes to help them fit in with their new community.  He also founded a Spanish-speaking Mennonite church to further welcome his new workforce.  

The Weavers were active members of their own Mennonite church, but were also very visible in the community at large by their many philanthropic efforts.  Victor and Edith had become very wealthy from the poultry business, and were intentional about using their wealth for the betterment of the community around them.  

Victor was one of 12 original board members for Philhaven Hospital (now part of Wellspan Health.) The local Mennonite conferences had combined their efforts 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 of that era to fester in “insane asylums.”  

The company grew to a point, but basically plateaued with a north-eastern distribution network.  Some of their products, with tag lines like “Step Aside Southern Fried” didn’t sell too well south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  A takeover by a National brand was practically inevitable, and thus at the end of the 1980s, Victor Weaver’s Chicken was absorbed by Tyson.

As you explore Lancaster County, and patronize small family-owned businesses, who knows – maybe you’ll return in 20 years to find the little shack you bought a pie and a bushel of corn out of has grown to be the area’s Next Big Thing.  It has all happened before!