Nov
18

The Farm that Put Plainville on the Map



Steve McMahon 11/18/08More articles
Drive west out of Baldwinsville on Route 370 and you can go pretty far without ever having to stop. In fact, the tiny hamlets of Plainville, Meridian, Cato and Victory are the only spots where you even have to slow down. Eventually, Route 370 collides with Route 104 just west of the Cayuga County line.

Closer to home, you may want to slow down going through Plainville and not just for the caution light at the four corners. The good folks of Plainville have a lot to be proud – the Christian Church, rural school, Octagon House and Whig Hall are all well-maintained structures whose beauty and history add a great deal of character to this place. These local landmarks make Plainville special, but so, too, does the farm that put Plainville on the map. In fact, things get pretty busy this time of year just south of town on the road to Jack’s Reef.

The Thanksgiving holiday has a long history in America. Back in 1863, Abraham Lincoln publicly proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving to correspond with the landing of the Mayflower. It was actually written by Secretary of State and Auburn native, William Seward. It proclaimed that while the civil war tore men from their farms north and south, blessings and bounties continued to abound. In fact, these blessings “are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come; which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart, which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.” Nearly 150 years later, these same words ring true. But, the history of Plainville goes back much further than this.

In 1806 William Wilson chose to settle on a spot that sits atop the north end of a high, narrow peninsula just east of the Cayuga County line. This ridge is bounded on the east by a northward bend in the Seneca River and on the west by a northern bulge in the river known as Cross Lake. The spot was first known as Wilson’s Corners and later as Plainville. In 1835, a man named William Ward purchased 72 acres near Plainville, which by this time included a blacksmith, dry goods store, a church and two taverns. William and his wife, Hannah, raised four children and a variety of crops including corn, oats, wheat, hay and potatoes. They also raised cows, horses, hogs and sheep, but no “turkeys,” which according to one source were much harder to raise back then. After many days of secret observation, one might “find a wild turkey’s nest in the woods, and when she had laid eight or 10 eggs, remove them from the nest and take them to the farm to put them under a setting chicken for hatching.” This was harder than it sounds, as the bird was much scarcer in those days. In fact, until a sighting near Hinmansville last year during a trip to Fulton, my 99 year-old grandmother had never seen the elusive wild turkey in its native habitat.

William Ward’s great granddaughter, Metta Ward, married a local man by the name of Harry Bitz, and they eventually inherited the farm from her parents. Their experiment with turkeys began as quirk of fate in November of 1923. Harry Bitz and his father-in-law, Will Ward (William’s grandson), were selling potatoes at the old Northside Farmers’ Market at the intersection of Pearl and Oswego streets in Syracuse. A north-country farmer found himself with some unsold inventory at the end of the day in the form of eight turkeys. Unwilling to transport the birds back over miles of snowy roads, he was keen to cut a deal. Harry and Will bought the turkeys, fattened them up and sold them at Christmas for a tidy profit. By the late 1930s, Harry and Metta Bitz were raising about 6,000 turkeys per year, but it was just part of the mix. They and many other farmers were raising cash crops like tobacco and small dairy herds, along with their turkeys.

It wasn’t until their son, Bob returned from Cornell University in 1952 that the Bitz family began to focus their farm on turkeys. Bob was a big part of this new focus, adding modern concepts like specialized production and vertical integration, ultimately including feed on the front-end and restaurants on the back-end. In 1953, he married Janice Abbott (of Abbott Farms in Cold Springs), and they had three children, Cynthia, Mark and Bruce. After graduating from Baker High School in 1977, Mark went on to earn degrees from Purdue and Cornell Universities, taking time along the way to travel in Eastern Europe and teach in Poland, where he met his wife, Leokadia.

Like his father before him, Mark Bitz brought a new focus to the family farm in 1985, leading to its current unique selling proposition, natural and organic turkeys. When Bob turned his attention to the restaurants in 1989, he also turned over the presidency to Mark. Despite an adverse climate in terms of economics, politics and weather, Mark grew the business to 600,000 turkeys by 2006, more than 90 percent of all turkeys grown in New York State. Unfortunately, like so many of today’s entrepreneurs in New York State, he decided that the best opportunity for the business was to either relocate or sell, choosing the latter in 2007.

Since selling the farm to the Haine Celestial Group, Mark has refocused his efforts on other priorities. They include livestock feed and organic crop businesses, CNY Feeds and CNY Crops; the restaurant in Cicero (now known as Plainville’s Natures Fare); and his attempt to influence for positive political change in New York State.
His 2006 book, “Creating a Prosperous New York State,” should be required reading for every student, parent and politician in the state, especially in light of our current financial situation.

I had the good fortune a few weeks ago to spend some time separately with Bob in his 1835 farmhouse in Plainville, and with Mark in his new office near Memphis in the town of Van Buren. Although I interviewed them several days and miles apart, their answers were remarkably similar. According to both men, the most rewarding aspect of the business was the relationships they had with people.

“We always tried to put out the best product we could, and tried to make the customer happy,” said Bob. “And we always tried to treat our employees like we would want to be treated.”

Mark added, “one of my greatest joys was working with such an extraordinary group of people.”

Bob attributes the farm’s success to “Mark’s going to no antibiotics and all-natural products. There was a great deal of interest and it really boomed. He started those efforts around 1995. He was on the cutting edge, but I thought he was crazy. It went very well.”

Mark later agreed.

“Dad thought I was nuts,” he said. “He believed that it was possible to raise turkeys without anti-biotics on a small scale, but that it was not ‘scalable’ to a larger organization. We started out with the ‘toms’ first, and then decided to move the whole farm into it. We lost a lot of birds and money with the first outbreak of disease, but then we changed our husbandry practices by giving the birds more room and more time between flocks.”

He noted that there was no market until about the year 2000, when innovative chains like Wegman’s and Whole Foods carried Plainville turkeys and caused the entire industry to take the trend toward natural and organic poultry a bit more seriously.

I also asked both men what one piece of advice they would give to someone seeking to start a small business today. Bob emphasized that “you must keep up with the times and innovate, and cannot fall behind. You’ve got to maintain a positive cash flow, whether you’re making yogurt or growing cabbage. It’s the same for any small business.”

Mark added that you have to “think through a business plan and think about what good or service you can provide that’s unique or better. Don’t do what’s already being done, do something better. Plant your business in ‘fertile ground,’ geographically, financially and operationally. And, whatever plan you write, just know that the time and capital required will always be greater than what you think it will be.”

Mark also stated very sincerely that “my dad was wonderful. He recognized that we were both strong-willed and wanted to paint our own portraits of the business.”

Mark believes that his father’s decision in 1989 to let him run the business “allowed Plainville Farms to go in new directions and helped our relationship, too.”

Bob and Mark Bitz are the fifth and sixth generations of their family to make Plainville, and our larger community, such a special place to live and work. It seems that out there in Plainville, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

In two weeks, read the first article in a series, “Lysander Goes to School.” Looking Backward will appear in the Messenger every other week, as long as there are stories to tell. If you have questions about this story or suggestions for future ones, including any local historical images or information, please contact me via e-mail at Bvillehistory@earthlink.net.


CATEGORY: General Society
EDITION: Baldwinsville Messenger


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