Throughout much of its history Memphis has played a major role in the production of food for the United States and the world.
One of the most important edible products manufactured in the Bluff City was hydrogenated vegetable oil, also called shortening, used in baking and cooking. In May 1930, Herbert Humphreys and S. L. Kopald founded Humko Company to produce, in the words of Commercial Appeal reporter Neil Sanders, “a basic food ingredient of uniform quality at a fair price.”
Leasing an industrial plant in North Memphis, Humko employed 70 women who produced a simple, non-hydrogenated shortening called Dainty Cooking Fat. Four years later they purchased the plant at 1702 Thomas St. where they constructed a $60,000 modern hydrogen gas facility.
According to Kopald, “Hydrogen is used as a purifying and solidifying agency for vegetable oils. It removes odor of the oils and prevents the oils from early rancidity.”
Increasing their workforce, Humko manufactured hydrogenated oils for margarine and by 1938 the company was a major supplier to some of the largest margarine companies in the United States. Humko also secured contracts with the Army and Navy to provide vegetable shortening for the military.
Their relationship with the U.S. government gave Humko an advantage when the United States began a national defense program and later entered the Second World War.
The company enlarged its facilities in April 1941 with new offices and an expanded chemical plant. Costing $30,000, additional equipment and machinery increased the plant’s capacity and new air-conditioned offices were constructed for more clerical staff.
These efforts paid off in November when the company received an $89,000 government contract to produce hydrogen gas for the Army beginning in February 1942.
Humko was chosen to produce the gas because a barrage balloon training station was built 140 miles northwest of Memphis near Paris, Tennessee. An additional $75,000 worth of equipment paid for by the government was added to the Thomas facility so that 54,000,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas could be produced daily.
Once produced, the gas was shipped to Paris by railroad in tank wagons and cylinders. High-grade shortening was also manufactured for the War Food Administration which presented Humko with the ‘A’ Award for their contribution in feeding the armed forces.
After the war Humko shortening was used in cakes, crackers, doughnuts, pastries, popcorn and potato chips while a separate plant was built at 3018 Bell Ave. to use shortening by-product for the manufacture of candles, cosmetics, crayons, shaving cream and tires.
In September 1952, Humko merged with the National Dairy Products Corporation, which also owned Kraft Foods. Despite this, the Humko operation remained in Memphis where a 250,000 square foot packaging plant and warehouse was added to the Thomas Street location in 1956.
In 1969, Humko became a part of Kraft and in 1977 it merged with Sheffield Chemical and became simply known as Kraft. Seventeen years later the Humko name was revived when Associated British Foods bought Kraft and rechristened the Memphis works AC Humko Corporation.
In 2008, AC Humko and ArcherDaniels-Midland created a joint venture called Stratas, which maintains its corporate headquarters and research and development center in the Memphis area.
According to Commercial Appeal reporter Patrick Lantrip, “Three out of every five meals and snacks consumed in the United States” contain ingredients created in Memphis
In manufacturing “a basic food ingredient of uniform quality at a fair price,” Humko established Memphis as an important producer of edible oils and shortenings, which continues to feed much of our nation.
G. Wayne Dowdy is senior manager of the History Department, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library