Let’s get back to the bananas, shall we?
You might have noticed that bananas on the supermarket shelf are either green or green, turning yellowish. This is because they have to be transported while they are still unripe or green, as otherwise by the time they are on the shelf, they will be overripe and worthless. Most of the wholesale business is therefore carried out with green bananas, otherwise known as greens.
The other two avatars that a banana goes through by the time you sink your teeth into it are first, as a turning (when it is yellowish ) and finally as a ripe. A ripe is what you have inside your fridge, ready to eat but you have to gobble it quickly or else it will turn into a pathetic gooey mass. Not a problem with me since I love bananas. A ripe doesn’t stand a chance in my fridge.
Bananas ripen for all sorts of reasons. Squeeze a green banana too hard and it will turn within days, instead of weeks. Ditto, if it is nicked or dented. And then ripening is contagious. A ripe banana will cause those around it to ripen and soon you have a whole shipload ruined while it is still on the high seas, chugging along west of the Azores, still weeks before it can dock at Marseilles.
In the late 1800s, before refrigeration came along, as high as 15% of a shipment ended up as ripes by the time the ships were unloading at the wharf in the US. A ripe is perfectly okay if you intend to eat it within the next couple of days but the distribution system in place those days was a slow one. Freight trains traveled at a crawling pace and loading and unloading was labor intensive, nearly always done by hand, by work details of Chinese or Mexican migrants.
Big banana companies like United Fruit Co. did not like to waste their time with bananas that would be mush by the time they reached the supermarket shelves and so the ripes were discarded right there at the quay, before they were loaded into the railroad boxcars for destinations across the US. It didn’t bother Minor Keith and his gang. The banana business was booming. Americans had fallen in love with this cheap, delicious fruit-flower. He could afford to let go of 15% of his load.
Here is where a penniless but enterprising young man named Sam Zemurray stepped in, to build one of the US’s largest businesses brick by brick, starting by picking up those ripes that had been discarded at the quayside. He believed that, if he could somehow devise a transportation and distribution method that could deliver those ripes right up to the consumer within three to four days, he would have a business. And he set about doing exactly that.
Born Schmuel Zmurri in present-day Moldova, Zemurray initially worked at his uncle’s business at Selma, Alabama, before launching his banana ripes business. Gradually, in time, his customers – those small traders and grocery store owners to whom he sold his ripes, he would come to be known as ‘Sam, the banana man’.
The bananas that did not pass muster were dumped by Minor Keith’s men on the side of the rail yard, where they were further divided into turnings and ripes. At the end of the day, the turnings were sold at a discount to local store owners and peddlers.
The ripes, nobody touched and Sam recognized a product where others saw only trash. He was the son of a poor Russian farmer, for whom food had once been scarce enough to make even a freckled banana seem precious.
After the ship had been unloaded, the trains had carried off the green bananas and the merchants and peddlers had taken away the turnings, Sam bought all the ripes lying around, from the company agent, for $150. He knew that he would have to sell his boxcar load of ripes within three days, maybe five max, or else they would be worthless and he would be ruined. $150 in the early 1900s was a ton of money to lose.
But Zemurray believed he could make it. As far as he was concerned, ripes were considered trash only because Boston Fruit and similar firms thought they were trash. They were not quick enough with their distribution system. Sam’s calculation was based upon an arrogance – I can hustle where others are satisfied with the easy pickings of the trade.
Zemurray’s first cargo consisted of a few thousand bananas. He did not spend all his money but retained a small balance, which he used to rent a railroad boxcar. he had just enough time to get to the main market at Selma.
Those days usually a fruit merchant liked to buy himself a berth in the caboose (a car on a freight train, that has bunk beds for the the crew and one or two passengers, usually attached to the rear of the train). But since he had spent all his cash on the freight charge, Zemurray traveled in the boxcar with his bananas, the door open, his long lanky legs hanging out and the great American prairies rolling by.
As the train chugged west, maddeningly slow, Zemurray sat in the doorway and fretted about his consignment. In the country, the train had the speed of a mule that was on a lazy trot. As it approached the little towns along the way, it slowed to a walking pace and inside town, it stopped completely for hours, waiting for cargo. All the while, Zemurray paced the railroad bed, hands on his hips, muttering.
In a Mississippi railway siding, where the redbrick buildings, cattle feed stores and tin smiths crowded close to the tracks, a brakeman, taking pity on Sam suggested that if he could just get word ahead to the towns along the line, the grocery owners would meet him at the platforms and buy the bananas right off the boxcars.
During the next delay, Zemurray went into a Western Union office and spoke to a telegraph operator. Having no money, Sam offered a deal – if the man radioed every operator ahead, asking them to spread the word to local merchants – dirt cheap bananas coming through for merchants and peddlers – Sam would share a percentage of his sales.
When the Illinois Central arrived in the next town, the customers were waiting. Zemurray talked terms through the boxcar door, a tower of ripes at his back. Ten for eight. Thirteen for ten. He broke off a bunch, handed it over and put the money in his pocket. The whistle blew and the train rolled on. He sold his last bunch of bananas in Selma and went home with $190. In six days, Sam Zemurray had earned $40.
Zemurray had stumbled upon a niche – ripes, overlooked by the big boys in the trade. All the while that the big fruit companies were busy with their railroads and ships to distribute the greens, the world of ripes had been wide open. Zemurray set out again and again, on his boxcar retailing trips, coming back with his pockets full each time. He had $100000 in his bank account by the time he was 21 and his first million just a few years on.
Sam Zemurray went on to become one of America’s richest and most powerful men who, in the 1930s through 50s, owned and lorded over whole Central American and Caribbean nations as he sat at the helm of United Fruit Company, engineering coup-de-tats wherever the local governments failed to do his bidding. In 1953, when the democratically elected government in Guatemala wanted to expropriate and redistribute among the peasants the hundreds of thousands of acres of land that the United Fruit Company had gotten free, Zemurray orchestrated a PR campaign to besmirch the Guatemalan President, Jacobo Arbenz, while the CIA began training right-wing guerrillas to stage a military coup. Arbenz was ultimately replaced by a more pliable leader who reversed the expropriation.
The Sam Zemurray story is an interesting truth that repeats itself so often. It is the story of a destitute who got a bright idea, capitalized on it and got rich and powerful and ultimately, instead of using his financial might to help other destitutes, became a part of the same corrupt system.
Life Magazine once did an in-depth of Zemurray, in which it wrote – ”Sam, the banana man, the tycoon who once used the railroads as pushcarts.”