NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Ford Gum and Machine Company | Lifestyles |

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NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Ford Gum and Machine Company | Lifestyles |

Workers at the Ford Gum factory inside the old Congregational Church at Niagara and Church streets, Lockport, 1958.

This Ford gumball machine is in the Niagara County Historical Society collection.

Workers at the Ford Gum factory inside the old Congregational Church at Niagara and Church streets, Lockport, 1958.

This Ford gumball machine is in the Niagara County Historical Society collection.

Over the years, the history of Ford Gum has been written in many other publications so this is just an overview of the company. Some Niagara Discoveries readers enjoy learning more about places and events that occurred during their lifetime, as well as those that happened before they were born.

Many Lockportians of an older generation have remarked that they fondly remember, as children, walking by the Ford Gum Ball factory on Church Street and having the workers throw gumballs out the windows to them. This occurred toward the end of the company’s production in Lockport. In order to get to that part of the story, we have look back to the beginning of the business.

The Ford Vending Machine Company was founded in 1913 by Ford S. Mason, an itinerant roofing materials salesman. Mason was born in Wyoming County in 1893. Possibly because of the nature of his job, he tended to move around a lot but generally lived in the western Southern Tier. While living in Allegany County in 1913, and not having much work in the winter months, Mason leased 102 gum vending machines and devised a route in Western New York to set up gumball machines in stores. He realized two things right away: that the gumball machines being used were unreliable, and that the gumballs themselves were of poor quality. After a few years of working both his summer and winter jobs, he decided to devote all his time to the production of superior machines and gumballs.

Gum is produced with a sap from the sapodilla tree, which grows in South America, called “chicle.” Mason used the chicle as a base for his gum but also included 13 “secret ingredients” to add flavor and consistency. His father, Wallace Mason, a Baptist minister, supported his son’s efforts and assisted him with inventing and patenting a new gumball machine.

Where Mason’s original factory was is unclear as he lived in different locations between 1915 and 1925. With production increasing after the end of World War I, the company incorporated in 1923. Two years later, Mason was living with his family in East Aurora. Needing a bigger facility to keep up with the demand, Mason moved his business to the recently closed First Congregational Church at the northwest corner of Niagara and Church streets in Lockport and opened a factory. The former stone church had been built in 1857 and provided the necessary space for the machines used to make the gumballs.

Business was good for the first years in Lockport, but the Great Depression caused the factory to go bankrupt in 1933. A year later Mason resurrected the business with a new name, the Ford Gum and Machine Company. In 1939, Mason was approached by a women’s charitable organization in Columbus, Ohio, which had an idea for fundraising for a new children’s hospital. The organization partnered with Ford Gum to raise the money. The company agreed to share 20% of its profits from select distributors with the organization. This was the start of the Ford Gum affiliation with charitable organizations such as the Kiwanis and Lions clubs.

World War II created new challenges for the company with shortages of men, metals and other materials. Gumball production continued at a reduced rate and gumball machine manufacturing stopped completely during the war. The machine making division of the company switched over to producing parts that were supplied to Harrison Radiator for use in the war effort.

After the war, the company had plans to expand. A new plant was opened in Puerto Rico but the Lockport factory was still producing thousands of gumballs a day. The Lockport plant continued to operate at the former church throughout the 1950s but the U.S. FDA demanded that Mason find a larger facility. In 1960, with no room for expansion in Lockport, the company moved to Akron.

One of Ford Gum’s lasting legacies is that the company developed the process for glazing and stamping gumballs with letters and they later shared the secret with the M&M Company.

Mason retired in 1970 and sold his company to Automatic Service Co., a large vending machine distributor in Atlanta. Fifteen years later, it was bought by Leaf Inc. and Carousel Industries, which owned it until 1996 when it was acquired by the Hershey Company. In 1997, Ford Gum was purchased back by the management, making it an independent business once again. Ford Gum is still in operation in Akron and produces the Big League Chewing Gum brand of bubble gum. Mason died in Florida in 1989 at the age of 95 (his father had lived to be 100).

The Niagara History Center has several artifacts related to the Ford Gum Company. These pieces include gumball machines, advertising materials and a weather meter. A Ford Gumball machine is on exhibit in the Kandt House at the History Center campus at 215 Niagara St., Lockport.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.

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NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Ford Gum and Machine Company | Lifestyles |

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