Bush Brothers and Company: Getting It Right!

These days a lot of large, industrial companies take it on the chin for their lack of concern over ecologic and community issues.  Bush Brothers & Company, headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee, with processing plants in Chestnut Hill, Tennessee, and Augusta, Wisconsin, is not one of those.  But that’s not surprising given the values and community concern of the company’s founder.

A History of Bush Brothers & Company

In 1867 Andrew Jackson “A.J.” Bush was born in the community of Chestnut Hill Tennessee, where he lived for most of his life, leaving only to receive a college education at nearby Carson-Newman College. 

 In 1891 A.J. married Sallie and they rapidly produced 6 children; four boys and two girls.  Both A.J. and Sallie had a deep interest in their community and love for their family.  In addition to being a mother of 6, Sallie acted as a midwife and nursemaid as well as training young girls the fine art of proper household management.  A.J. had been a school teacher since graduating college, and was elected to the local school board.

 A.J. was always looking for ways to help his community and had developed an interest in the trade business.  He decided to serve both interests by creating the A.J. Bush & Company General Store, which provided a convenient location for local residents to barter for goods that were not locally produced, as well as a training ground and legacy for his children to insure they would have a livelihood when grown.

 But A.J. wanted to do more for his community; its residents needed jobs.  He decided to open a hosiery factory; such a factory would provide many good jobs and hosiery was something that sold well.  As he worked on the building, word of his plans made their way to the Stokely Brothers Tomato Cannery in Newport Tennessee, and they approached A.J. with an offer: if he would provide the building and staff, they would provide the canning equipment to open a cannery instead of a hosiery factory.  In 1904 A.J. Bush partnered with Stokely Brothers and the cannery was opened, providing needed jobs to Bush family members and the tiny community of Chestnut Hill.  In 1908 A.J. bought out the Stokely Brothers’ interest of the partnership and formed a new partnership with his two eldest sons, Fred and Claude as Bush Brothers & Company.  The General Store continued to serve the community well as mercantile and social center, a place were locals would gather around the wood fired stove to exchange tall tales.

 The cannery was prosperous and the first decade saw many improvements: the cans were no longer soldered and filled by hand, one can at a time, once steam powered seamers and fillers were installed.  A.J. improved his distribution system as well, upgrading from mule drawn wagons heading to Newport’s railway to working with distributors in Knoxville, Asheville and Greenville S.C.

 The onset of World War I gave Bush Brothers & Company another economic boost as the government’s demand for canned food supplies increased.  Even though the tomato cannery went to working around the clock every day except Sunday, 85% of the company’s product was set aside for use by the government.

 The end of the war, however, meant a drastic decrease in demand for canned goods in general including tomatoes.  Many canneries went out of business and Bush Brothers struggled, but survived.  A.J. incorporated the cannery in 1922 and turned the management of it over to his sons so that he could concentrate on managing the General Store.  In 1928 a second cannery was built in Oak Grove Tennessee.

 The new company added green beans and blackberries to their tomato line of canned goods and developed the Chestnut Hill, Clinch River, English Mountain and Clinton labels which were carried by stores throughout the region.  By 1930 Bush Brothers & Company produced and distributed a wide variety of canned products to markets all across the southeast.

 The Great Depression of the 1930’s provided another challenge to Bush Brothers & Co. as they sought to find affordable products to offer an economically challenged country.  Hominy, Sauerkraut and Pork and Beans were some of the products that filled that bill nicely.

 War time needs again caused Bush Bothers to increase production as World War II approached.  At the same time, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) created Douglas Lake to power a hydroelectric dam to meet the country’s need for electricity.  This flooded a lot of prime farm land, including the fields Bush Brothers used to produce most of their crop, and claimed Bush Brother’s Oak Grove plant, impeding the company’s ability to meet production demands.  But in 1944 Bush Brothers acquired the Blytheville Canning Company in Blytheville, Arkansas and was able to increase production once again.

 In 1947, Bush Brothers’ board of directors decided to sell under a new identity; Bush’s Best.  The double-B logo they developed would become a well known trademark all across the southeast for the next 50 years.

 In the early 1990’s Bush Brothers decided to focus on their line of Bush’s Best Baked Beans as a core product. They touted the secret family recipe, which was originally developed by Kathleen Bush and was truly her secret family recipe. 

 To make the company more accessible to the talented marketers they would employ, it was decided to move the company headquarters from Chestnut Hill to Knoxville.  This move was completed in 1992.

 The television commercial that was taking shape would revolve around a company spokesman who would explain why their product “tastes so darn good”.  Auditions were held for this spokesperson position and several of the Bush family members tried out, but it was the 29 year old manager of the company’s Shiocton, Wisconsin plant, Jay Bush, who won the role.  The commercial began airing regionally in 1993, and went national in 1994.  The result was to triple Bush’s Best’s market share and become the nation’s leading brand. In 1995 “Duke” the talking Golden Retriever came on board as Jay’s sidekick and the, somewhat less than trustworthy, guardian of the secret family recipe. 

 All through it’s history Bush Brothers & Company has grown through innovation and a dedication to the guiding principles of A.J. and Sallie Bush through a balanced equation of value to their consumers, service to their customers, opportunity to their team of employees, enhanced value to their owners, stability to their suppliers, and responsible citizenship to the communities where they have plants.

Responsible Community Citizenship

 One aspect of their mission statement; responsible citizenship, deserves a closer look as the world turns its eyes to issues of ecology and maintaining a “green” footprint.

 It takes massive amounts of water to clean and process a raw agricultural product like the Northern White Beans used by Bush in their baked bean products, as well as cleaning the equipment and facility.  How they deal with the waste water says a good deal about the company.

 At Bush Brothers & Company all waste water is recovered and piped to an on-site processing facility where all the solid material, primarily bean pulp and skins, is filtered out of the water and sent to another area where this material is converted to methane which will be used to fuel boilers that provide steam heat to the plant.  The remaining water is further cleaned and piped out and used to irrigate surrounding pasture land.  Water not absorbed by the plant life filters back down through the soil to rejoin the water table in a pure and natural state.  The entire process produces very little waste or pollution, a model of ecologic efficiency.  They also use high efficiency lighting and have motion sensors in the lighting circuits to switch off lights in areas that are not in use.

Serious About Sanitation

 In 2003 Bush Brothers completed a 160 million dollar renovation and expansion project at the Chestnut Hill plant that not only tripled their production but included a 38,000 square foot office building that provides administrative space, training areas for new employees and locker rooms and showers for employee sanitation procedures before entering the plant.

 This plant utilizes the latest in cooking technologies. Its nine-story hydrostatic cookers enable Bush Brothers to produce products more efficiently while the Allpax retorts enable a wide variety of product selection and packaging options; all directly supporting an R & D effort in new product development.

 Food safety and employee safety are top priorities one at Bush Brothers.  Max Fultz, Community Relations and Visitor Center Manager, states, “For five consecutive years we have received the Industrial Safety Merit Award from the Tennessee Safety Council for having safety rates below the national average and both of our plants are Safe Quality Food Certified.  Which means Bush Brothers & Company has met food safety and quality standards accepted by an increasing number of retailers, manufacturers and food service companies worldwide.”

Consumer Friendly

Bush Brothers & Company has opened a very nice visitor’s center in Chestnut Hill.  This visitor’s center features a general store, cafe, museum including small movie theater where a presentation on the history and a virtual tour of the plant showing how the product is made is offered  throughout the day.  The General Store is packed with items ranging from old fashioned candy to Bush Brothers memorabilia, T-shirts packed into Bush Beans cans and assorted items featuring Duke’s image.

“It is an honor to tell our story in the very spot where A.J. Bush started his first company-his general store,” said Max Fultz, Community Relations and Visitor Center Manager at the grand opening in June 2010. “We are delighted with the wonderful response we have received so far and can’t wait to see more smiling faces on our guests as they enjoy the center and share in a piece of our history.”

The hours of operation for Bush’s General Merchandise are Monday – Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and the telephone number is (865) 509-3077.  The address for the visitor center is 3901 Hwy 411, Dandridge, TN.

The hours of operation for Bush’s Story (museum) are Monday – Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

The hours of operation for Bush’s Family Café are Monday – Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and the telephone number is (865) 509-3485. 

If you are planning a vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, plan to make the short trip from the Sevierville / Gatlinburg area to Chestnut Hill on Hwy 411 and tour the new visitor center.  Plan to spend a half day on this so you have time to take in all that the museum has to offer.

  • Published on Feb 24, 2011
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