The First Eshelman Plant

In April of 1842, my great-great-grandfather John Eshelman started selling grist mill products to his friends and neighbors in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. His family came to Lancaster from Switzerland in 1732. For early millers like Eshelman who became the nation's first feed manufacturers, the hours were long and the profits were small.

In the nineteenth century, the tolling system was the standard way for the millers and farmers to do business. The miller took a "toll" of one measure of flour from each bag ground; this was his pay for grinding the grain. Farmers used their own bags, which were homemade, generally from linen. To get more grinding for the "one measure per bag," farmers made their bags bigger, until, one early miller said, "they became so large they could hardly be gotten in through the mill door." Millers soon got wise to this nonsense and started charging by weight rather than the bag. When they started making the bags themselves, voila! The modern feed bag was born. We'll get back to this later.

John Eshelman's son, John W. Eshelman, took over the company at age nineteen, at the height of the Civil War. Nonetheless, he steered the company towards animal feed, growth and prosperity through "the Golden Age of Animal Husbandry" (1866-1886) and the "Scientific Age of Agriculture" which followed around 1890, and the world's first egg-laying contest, which started in Storrs, CT in 1911.

In 1919, Eshelman formed a partnership with four of his five sons. What happened to the fifth? He invented an ingenious sewing machine and started his own business manufacturing feed bags with his son (there's those feed bags again) the same year.

Eshelman Red RoseIn 1921, the company built its second mill in York, Pennsylvania and adopted the name Red Rose Feeds for its products, honoring Lancaster's English namesake, the Red Rose City of Lancashire. Five other mills followed through the mid-1960's. By then my father, his brother Howard and his cousin Herb were running the company. He married my mother, herself the daughter of rival York feed manufacturer Owings Brothers (makers of June Bug Feeds). There were other weird coincidences in their relationship. For example, both had a pony, "Sunny," as kids. My father's father sold Sunny to my mother's father after my dad outgrew it.

John W. Eshelman & Sons thrived, selling all across the Eastern seaboard and in exotic places like Cyprus, Lebanon, Spain and Jamaica. My father traveled a lot, much of the time with a guy named George Nieto (who I thought of later as a kind of feed business version of Hunter Thompson's sidekick, the Samoan lawyer). He'd boast that his animal feed was good enough for people, since my brother Thad ate the Eshelman dog nuggets. Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Riva Ridge ate Red Rose Feed, and every horse track in the East fed it.

Eshelman Red RoseThen, in 1974, shortly after the Dow crossed the 1000 mark, my father and his colleagues sold the company and the Eshelman name was retired a few years later. They figured it was probably better to sell then than to turn the company over to the slackers who dominated my generation of Eshelmans at the time. However, I was interested in the business. I developed a complicated board game based on shipping feed around the East. I posted railway calendars on the wall in the basement. I loved the smell of the mill. I knew what a double-yolker was. I was thirteen. I barely got over it.

So, back to the feed bags and how this apparel company got started. Despite the sale of the company, my family and I have always remained nostalgic for all things Eshelman Red Rose. Remnants of the company abound, from the core of the mill which still stands as the Lancaster Center for the Blind, and a huge mural on the wall of a barn on the Old Strasburg Pike to little things like "Cattle Crossing" signs, patches, old booklets and a sampler in my dad's office that reads "New Techniques with an Old Time Touch." I kept this radical coat, a floor-length duster with the Eshelman Red Rose logo embroidered on the back as big as a dinner plate, to ski in, until it wore out. In recent years, people have begun selling the actual feed bags from the 50's and 60's at sales, auctions and online. This was the last era during which they were made from cotton cloth and burlap rather than from rather uncollectible paper.

So, years went by. From time to time I thought, how could I pay homage to this family history for something more than cocktail party conversation? Finally, after my parents' 50th wedding anniversary, my sister Anne (a proper designer and artist) - and I have both revived and adapted some of the old designs, as well as different logo treatments, to give today's consumers the sense of wearing an actual feed bag‹without the prickling and itching and dryness that comes from actually wearing a feed bag. So when you are wearing an Eshelman Red Rose shirt or hat or other garment, you are wearing 164 years of history.

--Henry Eshelman

site design by amt studios