Our name derives from our entrepreneurial founder, J. Grant Sprague (1867-1954), and the generations of Prince Edward County Sprague families that came before and after him. In 1925, Grant built our first cannery in the village of Mountain View, Ontario, naming it J.G. Sprague & Sons Canning Co., and we have been canning in the Bay of Quinte region ever since.
Grant was a descendant of one of the original pioneer families to settle in Prince Edward County ("the County") in the years following the American Revolution. His great-grandparents, Samuel Sprague and Catherine Smith, were "Late Loyalists" who moved to the County from Long Island, New York, in 1812 (or perhaps 1810) following the initial Loyalist migration to the area.
Samuel was a skilled ship carpenter by trade and worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard before moving with his family to Upper Canada. After arriving in the County, Samuel used the oak trees harvested on his property to construct schooners. He also made trips down the Saint Lawrence River to Montreal to sell square-oak timber harvested from his lot, which was plentiful at that time. In 1816, while returning from Montreal on one of these trips, Samuel, then age 46, was said to have contracted typhoid fever and died near Cornwall. His family never recovered the $1,000 he was carrying from the sale of his timber.
One of Samuel and Catherine's sons, Hallet Sprague (Grant's grandfather), was six years old when he moved to the County with his family. Hallet married Mary Allison (widow to his deceased brother Samuel) and settled on Big Island, across the marsh from his parents’ homestead. Big Island is located on the North shore of the County, in the Bay of Quinte.
Hallet was a farmer and member of the first council of the Township of Sophiasburgh after it received delegated authority to tax and pass by-laws. Hallet and Mary prospered later in life as farmers during the Barley Days, which lasted roughly between 1860 and 1890 in the County. They farmed barley and hops which they shipped to the US. These crops were in high demand by American beer brewers.
Hallet and his son, John Allison Sprague, built a "hop house" for drying and storing hops, which still stands today on the corner of Sprague Road and South Big Island Road, on Big Island, Demorestville.
Grant was born to John Allison Sprague and Ellen A. Badgley in 1867 on Big Island. He was the oldest of two children - his sister Nellie tragically died at age 18. Grant's father, John Allison, worked as a weighmaster and shipper for many years during the height of the Barley Days. He would oversee the shipments of grain on schooners to Oswego, New York. Prior to the McKinley Tariff, imposed in 1890, barley could be sold at $1 per bushel. After the tariff, the price dropped to $0.45 per bushel, effectively ending the Barley Days. John A. would go on to become a prominent politician in the County, serving as captain of the local militia, councilor of Sophiasburgh Township, and later Reeve, an MPP (Liberal-Reformer, 1886–1894) and Justice of the Peace. When he died in 1907, The Globe headline read, "Death of Mr. J.A. Sprague: President of the Picton Cheese Board Suddenly Called."
In 1889, Grant married Emily Maude Doney. They had four children over 20 years, each born five years apart. Their youngest was Jay, born in 1907. Grant was noted in Pioneer Life on the Bay of Quinte, published in 1900, as a "clever electrician and successful businessman, to whom is entrusted the actual management of the Sprague Telephone Company." The 1930 Prince Edward County Yearbook shows Grant as a canner, grocer, postmaster, and owner of the Sprague Telephone Company.
Grant was involved in several businesses over the course of his working life. Prior to canning, Grant and his father founded Sprague Telephone Company (later Sprague Telephone System) in 1898. Sprague Telephone provided the first affordable telephone service to the County, starting first in Sophiasburgh, then expanding into Ameliasburgh and Hillier. Grant and his father saw a business opportunity for an independent telephone business due to Bell's failure to provide affordable telephone service to the rural County. When it started, Sprague Telephone offered services to businesses and households for $10 per year, when Bell's subscription cost $20 per year. Sprague Telephone was later acquired by the Bell in 1954.
Our cannery was by no means the County's first; we weren't even the first cannery in the village of Mountain View. When we started in 1925, the Canadian canning industry was booming, and the County was already home to many canneries of various sizes. The original idea for canning in the County is attributed to a local resident, George Dunning. In 1879, Dunning, a plant nursery salesman, was introduced to the possibilities of commercial canning at the Philidelphia Food Exposition. He returned to the County excited about the business potential of canning at home. He partnered with Wellington Boulter, and the two started experimenting with canning at Boulter’s farm, located on the north shore of the County, across the marsh from Big Island. In 1882, Boulter opened the first commercially successful cannery in Canada at the corner of West Mary St. and Spring St. in Picton. By 1915, there were approximately 50 canneries in operation. These canneries mostly canned fresh, locally harvested fruits and vegetables for preservation, distribution, and sale across Canadian, American, and European markets.
In 1903, Boulter was among 11 leading Canadian canners from across Ontario to amalgamate to form Canadian Consolidated Canning Companies Limited, which leveraged its size to drive down prices paid for cans and produce, to the detriment of farmers. Although Canadian Canners came to dominate the market, independent canneries were still able to flourish in these early days based on ongoing strong market demand for canned goods: see An Uncertain Harvest: Hard Work, Big Business and Changing Times in Prince Edward County, Ontario, January 1, 1991, Peter Lockyer.
The Sprague cannery started off processing local tomatoes and pumpkin, but we later expanded product offerings to tomato juice, tomato puree, corn, and raspberries. During the 1920s and 30s, the canned goods from the Mountain View plant were shipped via boat from Belleville and Picton to Montreal, Toronto, and Western Canada. Grant decided to situate the canning factory in Mountain View to take advantage of the soon-to-be constructed Highway 62, which was planned to run through the village. During the early years, a dance was held upstairs in the factory at the end of the canning season. Corn starch was spread over the floorboards to enhance the dancing surface and music was provided by a nickelodeon and the evening ended with an abundant lunch. These stories from the early days remind us that the County canneries were not only places of work, but also social hubs for members of the community.
After a couple of years of operating the cannery, Grant Sprague handed the operation over to his youngest child, Jay. Jay married Mildred Way and operated the cannery for 40 years. In the 1930-40s, the business expanded distribution in the local market by selling Sprague canned goods to small local grocery stores.
In the 1950s-60s the canning industry continued to consolidate heavily into a small number of large corporations, including household names such as H.J. Heinz and Campbell Soups. This era also saw the introduction of frozen food, which shrunk consumer demand for canned food considerably. These, among other factors, caused the County canning industry to all but collapse at the beginning of the 1960s.
Following Jay's sudden death in 1967, Jay's 32-year-old son Roger Sprague and wife Dana took over the operation. Roger and Dana incorporated the business for the first time and adopted our current name, Sprague Foods Limited. In the late 1960s, we built our second cannery beside the old factory in Mountain View. By the 1970s, serious market pressures spurred us to innovate new product lines to stay in business. We started canning beans and, by the 1980s, we started making our first canned soups. In 1996, we moved into our third and current cannery, located in Belleville.
In 2009, Rick Sprague, Grant's great-grandson, became the fourth generation president. Rick has steered the business toward a focus on healthy foods with natural ingredients.
Rick is a talented food scientist and chef who is always expanding his culinary horizons, incorporating emerging food trends into new products. Rick believes that the success of the business is due, in part, to a strong emphasis on innovation in the area of food science and technology and the culinary arts.
We are proud to keep the canning tradition alive in the Bay of Quinte Region, where the Spragues have lived and worked as farmers, tradesmen, and entrepreneurs since 1812. From Pioneer Life on the Bay of Quinte, published 1900:
Important places of honour and trust in the social, commercial and political life of Prince Edward have been held by the Spragues for almost a century. Samuel Sprague married Catharine Smith, and as his children grew up they married and acquired homes for themselves.
Of the 75 historical canneries that once operated in Prince Edward County, we are the only one that survives. Since our beginnings in 1925, we have been a proud employer of generations of local employees. Without their hard work and dedication, we would not be where we are today.