Did you know that in early 1934 there was a small potato chip manufacturing plant in Saint Paul? My family owned and ran it. I was about four or five years old at the time. We lived at 1276 North Snelling Avenue, across from the main gate of the fairgrounds.
My great-aunt Esther, who was my mother’s aunt, and her husband Fred Henry Bigler started the company. The Fred H. Bigler Potato Chip Company was located at 213 Bates Avenue on the East Side of Saint Paul. It was a small operation, in a one-story building. There was a large open space that contained the processing operation.
Along the wall on the left side of the room was an assembly line. Here the potatoes, which were purchased from local farmers, were processed and prepared for frying. Esther handled the cutting and peeling process with great speed and dexterity. She had worked as a restaurant cook during the early part of her life, in 1916 and 1918, and later as a waitress at Davidson’s Cafeteria and other restaurants. Thus, her background suited her well for preparing the potatoes for frying. The cut-up potatoes were placed in a huge, round vat that was used as a holding tank for the chips before they were fried. Fred, her husband, then fried the potatoes.
The chips were transferred to a huge net suspended on hooks from the ceiling. The net took up most of the space in the center of the room. This was the drying rack. As the chips dried, they were moved along the rack, ending at the far end of the net. After that, the potatoes were salted, removed from the net, and packed in silver gallon tins. A label was then slapped on the side of the tin, and they were sealed. My dad, Frank Nentwig, went there often to help pack the chips. The packed tins were stored on the right side of the room, ready to be sold.
My parents, Frank and Irma Nentwig, formed the sales and marketing team. Dad packed as many tins as he could into our black 1938 Chevrolet, and then he, my mother, my brother (who was three years older than me), and I would visit various bars and taverns. Dad would talk to the bar owners, selling potato chips, while my mother, brother, and I sat quietly in a booth eating chips and drinking real root beer. Although the chips were served to customers in bars, as far as I know the Fred H. Bigler Potato Chip Company did not sell its product directly to the public. The business was a success. After my great-uncle Fred died in 1941, Esther continued to manage the business for a couple years until it was sold to the Old Dutch Potato Chip Company.
I loved going to the potato chip factory with my mother and dad. I always had lots of freshly made potato chips to eat. And, to this day, I still love potato chips. But, today’s chips can’t compare in the least to those I had back in my childhood.
Eileen R. Hansen is a retired adult services librarian and manager who worked thirty years for the Hennepin County Library. She spent her early years, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, living on Snelling Avenue in a house that was next to the fire station. When she was about to enter fourth grade, her family moved to Cherokee Avenue on the upper West Side of Saint Paul. She lived there until 1958, when she married and moved to New Hope, Minnesota.