Potato chips were made the Albert Lea way

Published 8:43 am Friday, August 15, 2008

Through the years a really diverse array of products have been made in Albert Lea. These products include glasswashers, gas stoves and lanterns, iron castings, flour, dairy products galore, cupolas, poultry foods, bottled pop (soft drinks), beer, barn equipment, brooms, horse harnesses and even cigars. Now, thanks to historical researcher Kevin Savick, I can add still another familiar product to this partial list. It’s potato chips.

Credit for making the first commercial batches of local potato chips may go to Manville Olson, a local grocer. A news item Kevin found in the Dec. 21, 1921, Tribune said Manville had given a huge box of fresh potato chips to the newspaper’s staff. This pre-Christmas treat was an excellent way to get some free publicity.

This news item said, “Manville has invented a potato paring machine. All he has to do is dump a half bushel of tubers into a motor driven receptacle and the machine turns out the potatoes pared and washed in first class shape. The potatoes are then sent into a slicer, also invented by Manville. When they come out of this machine, they are washed the second time, drained and thrown into the hot grease where they quickly turn brown and brought into the store, freshly salted and crispy, ready for the customer.”

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By mid-1922, this potato chip maker was operating under the name of Manville Food Products Co. and located in the 300 block of South Washington Avenue. He was packaging the chips in five and ten cent containers and selling the taste treats though Albert Lea’s Western Grocer Company.

In 1923 another local firm, Larson Food Co., owned by M.W. Larson was making and selling potato chips. This firm was located in the basement at 130 W. Main St. The brand name was “Magalea” which was used for the chips, plus fruit cakes, mince meats, horseradish mustard and horseradish.

Both of these firms had some problems with their chips. In that era most potato chips were sold in bulk. The stores sold the chips by the pound out of barrels or large tin containers. As a result, the chips had a tendency to get damp and stale all too soon.

Those containers used by Manville Olson could have been paper bags or boxes. The present airtight and sealed bags weren’t developed until the 1930s. By this time Albert Lea’s first two makers of potato chips had faded away.

The city’s third-known maker of potato chips started operations about 1933. Two listings of local firms found by Kevin shows there was an Albert Lea Potato Chip Co. in early 1935. And one of those listings also had the name of Meves Products Co. in parenthesis. This indicated the local potato chip maker operated with two names.

A further check with the 1935 city directory shows a listing for the Meves Products Co., potato chip manufacturers, located at 145 W. Clark St.

This firm was owned by Alf (short for Alfred) F. Meves and his wife, Ingine. (That’s her name as listed in the directory.) They lived not far away in the Rex Apartments, 103 N. Washington Ave.

Another news item Kevin found in the March 24, 1938, issue of the Tribune said the Meves Products Co., which had been in Albert Lea for five years, would be relocating to Minneapolis by the end of the month. This was evidently the end of commercial “tater chip” making in the city.

As a bonus for our readers, and to close off this column, here’s a tasty “tater chip” recipe.

Take two slices of white or wheat bread and generously spread on mayonnaise, ketchup or butter on both slices. As many potato chips as possible are heaped on one of the slices. Then the second slice is placed on top and pushed down as hard as possible to crush all the chips. The result is crispy treat. Yum, yum.

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.