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Kind of a Big Dill: The History of the W.D. Huffman Pickle Company of Indianapolis

The northwest corner of the intersection where St. Clair Street crosses the Central Canal near downtown is occupied by a massive crater. Part of a new development for one thing or another, likely a mixed-use development, the property underwent its transformation back in 2017-2018, from what had been a level lot with an office/light industrial building on the property. Once the property was cleared and the pit had been constructed, presumably for the foundation of the new building, things ground to halt. The lot today appears below.

Prior to this, the property had various uses, including as the home of the W.D. Huffman Co. The innocuously named company was also known as the Huffman Pickle Company, and its operations on property continued for roughly 30 years.

Indianapolis pickle factory history
Credit: IUPUI Sanborn Collection, 1915 Sanborn #15

Like many posts on this blog, I ran across the pickle company while skimming a Sanborn map (above) as part of research for another topic way back in May. A mental note was made to explore the Huffman pickles in more detail at a later date. The company was operated by its namesake, William D. Huffman, who began working in the food products business in the late 1880’s. The company provided several products at various times during its life, most notably pickles, but also catsup, vinegar, jellies, ciders, and canned/preserved vegetables. Similar operations were also based out of Indianapolis, including the Van Camp Packing Co., and the F.M. Archdeacon Factory, both located near the canal and Military Park.

In the 1889 City Directory, Huffman was noted to be in the cider business based on Dunlop Street on the southside of the city, a few blocks south of Morris Street. In 1897 Huffman was still based on the southside, and primarily in the vinegar business. By 1905, Huffman had moved the company to the St. Clair site, fronting the canal on the west with the several tracks of the Big Four railroad running along the eastern side of the factory. Huffman also appears to have been involved with a similar company, the Indianapolis Canning Company, at least in the early 1900's. In 1902, he was listed as the president, which was located across the street from the pickle facotry on St. Clair. Huffman's wife, Laura, also worked at the W.D. Huffman Company, and was for a time, a secretary at the canning company.

Huffman would frequently advertise in local newspapers seeking product for his company to process (see below). Presumably, the farmers the company sourced for this work would realize that pickles were not actually grown.

Indianapolis New, February 14, 1899

The pickle and food product business were not without their pitfalls, and the Huffman Company attracted attention of state and local authorities on several occasions for shorting shipments and for impure products. In 1909 Huffman was arrested on a warrant issued from the State Board of Health for misbranding food. The incident in question was related to a syrup produced by Huffman which was labeled as 50% cane sugar and 50% maple sugar. A chemical analysis by the state found only a trace of maple. The State Board of Health’s Monthly Bulletin made many references to Huffman as part of food industry purity checks. The September 1909 bulletin included the ‘illegal’ syrup test results mentioned above.

Indianapolis history manufacture pickles food products
Indiana State Board of Health September 1909 Bulletin

Following his arrest, Huffman had to pay an appeal bond at court, but the clerk’s office would not accept checks for this purpose. Huffman was placed on a wagon bound for the county workhouse when his attorney appeared and signed the appropriate paperwork just as the wagon was pulling away.

This was the start of a rough couple of years for the Huffman company. In late 1909 and in 1910 the company was raided on multiple occasions by the US Marshall on charges of impure vinegar. In these cases, it appears the vinegar was actually shipped in from a company in Chicago and confiscated from Huffman. State Board of Health inspections continued. In the October 1910 Bulletin, Huffman was reviewed for its catsup, distilled vinegar and cider vinegar. All were determined to be “legal.” Despite this, a raid on November 7, 1910, confiscated product which Huffman had ordered to replace a shipment previously confiscated by the US Marshals.

In 1913 the company attracted the attention of Isidor Wulfson, the famed inspector of weights and measures for Indianapolis. Wulfson had a reputation for going after industries which were trying to cheat or short consumers, especially the ice and coal industry. In the fall of 1913 Earl Cramer, a vendor at the city market, alleged that the Huffman Co. sold him a keg which was supposed to contain 2,500 pickles. Apparently, Cramer was concerned about the number of pickles, because he emptied the keg and made a hand count which revealed it only held 1,830, a deficit of 670 pickles.

Wulfson did his own count, confirmed the short amount, and set off to confront Huffman at his home. Upon his arrival, Wulfson found that Huffman was not there. The Star reported that Wulfson inquired about whether Huffman would be home the following day, but he was told no, that the family had planned a trip to Michigan City and would be departing the next day. Wulfson declined to leave his name and instead went to the police station to obtain a warrant for Huffman’s arrest. However, Wulfson requested that it not be executed until after Huffman and his family had returned from their trip.

Indianapolis Star, September 6, 1913

Said Wulfson, “I would not have those children know their papa had been arrested when they were starting out on a picnic. Not on your life. They would have thought the crime was something awful and would have been sorry.” Wulfson concluded by noting that the crime “is pretty bad though- 670 pickles is some pickles.” A few days later on August 20, and after his return from vacation, Huffman was arrested by Indianapolis police. In early September, Wulfson took W. D. Huffman to court but failed to garner a conviction for the shortage of pickles.

The adverse publicity does not seem to have hindered Huffman, as the company continued to operate. In November of 1913, it was reported that Huffman was employing 60 workers in the packing of “pickles, catsup, apple butter, jams, jellies and other like products.” The company was filling one car, presumably a train car, with product each day. City business directories began to include the slogan “Huffman’s Sweet Pickles have that 'Want More' Taste” in entries for the company.

The company continued to operate through World War I, and into the 1920’s, and was often mentioned in advertisements as being carried at various local grocery stores. For example, in 1921 a Piggly Wiggly advertisement in the News advertised “Huffman’s Sweet Pickles,” for 18 cents, likely per quart, as a ‘Lenten Suggestion’ at the store’s 11 Indianapolis locations. Advertisements for the company’s products also seem to increase in the 1920’s.

Indianapolis history sweet pickles
Indianapolis News, January 23, 1925
Indianapolis Star, October 5, 1929

Huffman died at his home at 2226 Central Ave. on August 14, 1926, at the age of 72. He was buried in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Following his death, Laura Huffman took over operations and would later incorporate the company in June of 1929. She had been involved with the business for some time, with the 1920 census noting her as the assistant manager of the St. Clair Street pickle factory. The announcement of the incorporation reported that the company planned an “extensive program of expansion and development of its business.” What appears to be a re-incorporation was completed in 1932, although after that date, references to the company fade away from local sources.

Laura Huffman died in 1942, and her obituary contained no mention of her, or her husband’s, involvement with the Huffman Pickle Company. Strangely, her obituary, and her husband's, make no mention of the children whose feelings were a concern of Isidor Wulfson when he came to arrest Huffman back in 1913. The census records also show the couple never having any children. Further, in 1913, the couple lived at 2226 Central, although the address in the 1920 census was on Capitol. Later, after William’s death, Laura was noted to be residing at the Central Avenue address, and then at 2630 College Avenue. Her death certificate indicates her burial at Holy Cross Cemetery.


Indianapolis City Directories: 1889, 1897, 1905, 1906, 1917

United States Census Records: 1910, 1920

Indianapolis Star: November 8, 1910, August 18, 1913, September 6, 1913, November 20, 1913, April 13, 1914, April 20, 1914, August 16, 1926, June 11, 1929, June 22, 1932

Indianapolis News: February 14, 1899, May 12, 1909, August 18, 1913, August 21, 1913, March 11, 1921, March 11, 1921, January 23, 1925, October 12, 1942

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