Old Grimes Canning Factory
Everything comes back to corn, doesn’t it? (Corn-related Altoona history, to be specific.)

It certainly seems that way, especially with our recent “Treasures of Altoona” feature highlighting a groundbreaking agricultural innovation that came to fruition here 100 years ago. And of course, CORNival, Altoona’s community-wide festival held in celebration of it.

Good news: there’s more where that came from.

While there aren’t any corn cob-shaped statues honoring the Old Grimes Canning Factory that stood here more than a century ago, its history is just as rich…and just as “corny.” A tale of growth, perseverance and ultimately tragedy—we’ll fill you in on the building’s journey from cradle to grave.

Much of the information in this article was derived from the book “Rising to New Heights, 150 Years of Altoona History”, written by Altoona’s own Alex Payne. Read it to learn more about the Old Grimes Canning Factory and the history of our vibrant community!

Setting the Stage

Picture Altoona in the early 1900s, just after the turn of the century. As is the case today, even back then it offered residents a unique balance of small-town charm and big-city amenities.

The place was buzzing with electricity day and night, thanks to the nifty high-tension wires powering the newly constructed interurban railway. Built in 1902, this electric train (known affectionately as the “Toonerville Trolley”) shuttled passengers back and forth between Des Moines and Colfax, Iowa. And get this: it only took about 20 minutes to reach the stop in Des Moines from the one in Altoona. That’s not bad, even by today’s standards!

Altoona’s connectivity, combined with its proximity to Des Moines, helped attract more and more people as the years went by. It started evolving from a small, rural town into a suburban environment, with residents raising their families here and commuting to Des Moines for work. At the same time, it started to emerge as an advantageous place for new or expanding businesses.

With ample land, advanced electric infrastructure and a growing local workforce—Altoona was the perfect spot to build a small factory.

Enter the Old Grimes Canning Factory

old grimes canning factory

In early 1917, influential figures in the Altoona area came together and formed a committee to make the proposed factory a reality. They started reaching out to local farmers, allocating land for the construction of a brand-new production and warehousing facility for the Grimes Canning and Preserving Company based in (you guessed it) Grimes, Iowa.

Initial Challenges

Construction of the Old Grimes Canning Factory wrapped up in August 1917, at which point crews began installing machinery. It was almost time to fire everything up and get the factory going. However, they were about to hit a huge roadblock, one that would hamper the long-term success of the facility and prevent it from expanding in the future.

The issue? Not enough water. Though they had drilled a 300-foot well specifically for the construction of this facility, it failed to produce the 30,000+ gallons they would need to keep the factory running each day.

To help remedy the situation, Grimes Canning and Preserving Company laid down a temporary water line to the well located at the intersection of 1st and Main Street in Olde Town Altoona, while they drilled additional wells near the factory. But still, they needed more. Remember our old friend, the interurban? The company ended up having to utilize it to haul water from Des Moines via tanker cars.

Persevering & Getting to Work

old grimes cans
Regardless of all the challenges it faced, the Old Grimes Canning Factory was able to begin producing its flagship product, “Old Grimes” (later renamed “Mrs. Grimes”) sweet corn fairly quickly. By 1919, they had established contracts with local farmers to grow roughly 1,400 acres of it.

Each sweet corn harvest season (and subsequent canning season) brought significant financial gains to both individual farmers and the local economy. Sweet corn’s impressive yield of around four tons per acre, valued at eight dollars per ton, not only surpassed the earnings potential of field corn but also injected a significant boost of revenue into the community—especially when you account for the Old Grimes Canning Factory’s economic activity.

Here’s a quick look at how it got from shuck to shelf.

  • It all started with prepping the produce. Bushels of corn arrived at the warehouse portion of the building, aptly named the “shucking shed.”
  • The shucked corn was then sent down the line to the processing room, where the silk was removed and the kernels were cut from the cob.
  • Finally, the kernels were mixed with sugar and cornstarch syrup, and the finished product was canned at a rate of 100 to 120 cans per minute!

The factory typically fired up its operations during the last week of August (State Fair week) and continued canning for roughly six weeks after that. Production continued well into the 1930s and for several years the next decade. By the end of the 1940s, canning operations had ceased altogether, but the warehouse portion of the facility was still being utilized for the storage of local crops.

Unfortunately, that was about to change.

The End of an Era

old grimes canning factory

A devastating fire on April 3, 1952 (Easter Sunday) dealt irrecoverable damage to the Old Grimes Canning Factory’s warehouse. Not only that, there was another fire earlier that day that partially destroyed a beloved Altoona landmark. Here’s how it all unfolded, according to “Rising to New Heights, 150 Years of Altoona History” by Alex Payne.

At 7:30 a.m., the Altoona and Mitchellville firemen were called to the late Frank Thornton home across from Haines Park. The large, two-story house had a roof fire that destroyed the upper half of the house before it was extinguished.

…The firemen had just put away their equipment when at 10:30 p.m. the same evening, the siren sounded again. This time it was the warehouse of the canning factory.

The blaze absolutely ravaged the building and all 68,000 bushels of corn inside of it. Fire crews had to stay at the scene well into Monday night, watering down the scorched heaps of corn to prevent them from igniting again or causing further damage. When the ashes had finally settled, damage from the fire was evaluated at roughly $25,000 for the warehouse building itself and $163,000 for the corn. Calling it a tragedy would be an understatement.

Unfortunately for the Old Grimes Canning Factory, there was no coming back from this. As Alex Payne put it, “The fire marked the end of an industry that was financially successful for the original owners, the farmers, and the townspeople.”

The factory building, which was luckily spared from the flames, remained intact for many years. However, strong winds in the summer of 2017 caused significant damage to the western portion of it, ultimately causing it to be demolished.

But even after all of that, part of the building still stands today! It’s a testament to perseverance, reminding us that even in the face of adversity, we can find the strength to keep pushing and find success.

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