The banana conflicts (Part-2) : Sam, the banana man

United fruit company2

Greens, Turnings and Ripes. Click on collage to enlarge

Let’s get back to the bananas, shall we?

You might have noticed that bananas have to be transported while they are still unripe or green, as otherwise by the time they are actually purchased by the consumer at the supermarket, they will be worthless. The other two avatars that a banana goes through are first, as a turning and finally as a ripe. A ripe is what you have inside your fridge, ready to eat but you have to consume it quickly or else it will turn into a pathetic gooey mass.

Bananas ripen for all sorts of reasons. Squeeze a 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 seven 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 Boston Fruit 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 had to be 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 an 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.

To his customers, the small traders and grocery store owners to whom he sold his ripes, the youth came to be known as ‘Sam, the banana man’.

Sam

The bananas that did not past muster were dumped 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. The $150 and 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 so. 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. While 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.

Sam Zemurray went on to become one of America’s richest 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. The young Jewish man who came to America from Bessarabia, in Western Russia in 1892 at age 14 with nothing but his brains and ambition, had made it.

Life Magazine once did an in-depth of Zemurray, in which it wrote – ‘Sam, the banana man, who once used railroads as pushcarts’.

(Hang on, there is more on United Fruit Company, up close and personal, in Part-3 of this series…..)

2 thoughts on “The banana conflicts (Part-2) : Sam, the banana man”

  1. Gary Robinson said:

    Hmm, Achyut, the subliminal picture involving a banana and two eggs didn’t escape my dirty minded attention. However these articles are great! You are great at combining fascinating narrative with historical fact. Umm could you maybe write an article about melons with some baobabs tossed in…:) 🙂 🙂

    Like

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