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WHAT'S NEW ?


Ralph McNeill retires after 50 years of faithful service
1/1/1997



Elmsdale - Ralph McNeill has filled countless potato bags, dumped just as many and carted them through warehouses, trucks, rail cars and even basement storage bins.

He has also helped plant thousands of acres of the tubers, trucked sets to the field and spuds to market, and combined granaries full of grain. In between, he has repaired and made field-ready pieces of farm machinery too numerous to count.

Those are just some of the memories Ralph McNeill is taking into retirement with him. There are lots more memories, too, which is understandable, considering McNeill was employed with the same progressive farm operation for 50 years.

McNeill went to work for McKenna and Griffin in 1947. Earlier that year Wilfred Griffin had taught school on the O'Brien Road in Elmsdale, McNeill was one of his students. When Griffin formed a business partnership with Ronald McKenna, who had started the farm operation, McNeill was hired on as one of the farm workers.

Although the business continued to be known as McKenna and Griffin until 1969, when it became known as WP Griffin Inc., Griffin became the sole owner during the 1950s.
WP Griffin Inc. will honor their long-serving and valued employee with a retirement party this Saturday, September 6, at the Elmsdale Community Centre. McNeill and his family, and all of Griffins' staff and their spouses will be treated to a dinner in McNeill's honor. Then, at 9:00 p.m., an open house in his honor open to the public, will be held at the Elmsdale Community Centre, followed at 9:30 p.m. by a dance.

During his 50 years of employment with the Elmsdale farm operation and potato packing warehouse, McNeill has witnessed major changes in the way the work is done.

Before the dawning of belts and rollers, and computerized weighing, there were bags of potatoes to be shuffled around, countless bags. "Nothing was easy then", McNeill recalls. "It was all labor work".

When he started with McKenna and Griffin, the company bought and sold potatoes and lambs and supplied farmers with lime and fertilizer. On warmer winter days, farmers would haul their potatoes to their gate by horse and sleigh to be loaded onto Griffins truck and then taken to Bloomfield Station to be graded and loaded onto rail cars. McNeill said it would take up to two days to pack a car with 3,600 10- pound bags, whereas the modern day plant can match that production in about two hours.
Everything went into bags, McNeill stressed, even culls. "We never thought of using a belt", he said.
So, with all those bags to toss around, one would probably do okay at arm wrestling, right? "At that time I was good", he admitted sheepishly.

There was even a spell in the 1950s when the company's new truck was used to haul asphalt during the summer season and for general trucking, including potatoes, during the rest of the year. McNeill was often at the controls.

But potatoes soon became the mainstay of the operation. When Griffin became the sole owner in the '50s, he started out by growing six acres of potatoes, getting them out with a 1950 or 1951 grey Ferguson tractor and a digger-picker. The next year he grew 12 acres and the next year 24. McNeill recalls that the potato acreage just kept doubling from one year to the next for a while. There was a period, he said, when they'd be lucky if they had two tractors to handle to crop. There was also a John Deere planter which he attended to every spring for many years to get the crop in.

Throughout it all, the business continued to serve as a packing warehouse for area farmers, a role it continues to fill today, including the addition of a wash plant operation.

And, by contrast, WP Griffin Inc. grows considerably more potatoes than it once did. This year it has approximately 1,000 acres in production. McNeill helped put them in the ground this spring and then retired.

McNeill recalls one working day when; he and his co-workers piled potato bags right to the ceiling in a warehouse. When they returned the following day the floor had given way and their bags of potatoes were in the basement. On another occasion, in 1960, the warehouse crew left to help fight a forest fire in Portage. While they were away, the warehouse they had been fixing up burned.

WP Griffin Inc was the first warehouse, at least in the western part of the province, to fill paper 10 pound bags. McNeill said they used a board to pull potatoes into the bag and then the trick was to get the bags to stand on the scales to be weighed. The computerized baggers the operation now uses fills 10 pound bags to within a five gram tolerance.

Working in warehouses, McNeill noted, was once fairly dirty work but he said a crew could work there now in white shirts and ties.
Although he didn't reveal what his wages were like prior to retirement, McNeill said he recalls receiving 40 cents an hour. While that might not seem like much, he points out he and wife Theresa "raised 11 kids on that". And he worked long hours just to make ends meet.

McNeill's family would later become involved in the operation. Kevin still works on the farm and Leonard, who was once a foreman there, still works there part time. Sons Joe and Allan also worked on the farm and daughters Elaine and Marie worked at the Griffins home. Then three years ago his wife Theresa started working at the warehouse in the spring and fall. Like her husband, she retired following this year's cropping.

McNeill's first co-workers were Basil Griffin, Everett Arsenault and Claude McKenna. Today, the company has an average payroll of 25, employing as many as 50 people at peak periods.

"I liked the farming part, the planting and the cultivating. I really liked out on the farm", McNeill said when asked what he liked best about working with WP Griffin Inc. He said he enjoyed his 50 years of employment with Griffins, indicating they were great employers. The company is now run by the sons of the late Wilfred Griffin. John is general manager and Peter is farm operations manager. Their mother, Marie, maintains an interest in the operation.

McNeill also grew a few potatoes on his own, up to six acres. He borrowed a tractor from Griffins and the children helped with the digging. Once all the bills associated with the crop were paid, he said, he had just enough left over each year to cover the family's back to school shopping, which he described as a big help. Now that he's retired, McNeill plans to continue his woodworking hobby. He also has a large garden and he suggests his wife planted more flowers than usual this year, for the two of them to look after together.

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By Eric MacCarthy
Western Bureau Manager
Journal Pioneer

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