December 1990

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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Human Cyclone, Lewis W. Kleckler

Spontaneous change was about the rarest thing that could happen to a hundred-year-old farm town, and none was anticipated in Dundee when Lew Kleckler arrived in the early 1930s. He slipped into town as a motor oil salesman, found lodgings with spinster Una Jessup, who in a short time he married.

This tall slender, pipe-smoking, handsome man in his late thirties, wearing oversize glasses and a large felt hat, was also a compulsive entrepreneur, driven to create or conquer empires, supported with a world-class ego.

Dundee, quietly sleeping its way through the great depression, was totally unprepared for this enigmatic human cyclone who would leave important marks that exist today. By 1936 Lew had added to his oil sales a coal business, starting with a small fleet of trucks driven by local youths hauling coal from Pennsylvania to Dundee and other small towns. This he expanded to form the Dundee Grape Juice Company that set up a processing plant and contracted to buy grapes from the local growers.

Townspeople looked up just in time to see that he had also acquired the Harpending Hotel, the Beekman Theater, an airplane, a pair of elegant riding horses,— and the office of Mayor of Dundee. In the airy downstairs rooms of the theater, his wife Una graciously catered for receptions and luncheons. A 1944 newsclipping relates that the flamboyant Lew, ever seeking the spectacular, brought "Rubinoff and His Violin" of radio fame, with his wife, to Dundee for a concert at the Presbyterian Church—quite a coup! The Rubinoffs stayed at the Harpending Hotel. Lew had brought a bit of culture to the town. He would startle the conservatives with other such promotions.

A 1946 letter sent to "FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS OF YATES COUNTY" under the letterhead of the Dundee Grape Juice Company, reveals something of Lew's creativity in the first paragraph:

On April 1, 1946, the Dundee Grape Juice Company was incorporated under the laws of the State of New York with a capitalization of $500,000. The assets of the corporation include the new Dundee plant, the Middlesex plant, and the Penn Yan plant, all fully equipped and in operation, or ready for operation, and trucks, tractor trailers, and other machinery. In addition, included are the contracts with the Dundee Grape Grower's Cooperative Association and the Valley Grape Grower's Association of Middlesex. The valuable goodwill of the Dundee Grape Juice Company, now owned by the corporation, is not listed as an asset. In other words, all guesswork has been eliminated in estimating the honest, down-to-earth value of the corporation's properties. And by actual appraisal, the assets of the corporation are valued at $400,000.

The letter was signed Lewis W. Kleckler, President, and listed four other officers; Albert H. Lare, Vice president; Earl Middaugh, 2nd Vice president, Karl Schmoker, Secretary, and Una J. Kleckler, Treasurer. The letter goes on for two pages as a remarkable prospectus for the sale of common and preferrred stock, revealing the genious of a super salesman.

The venture was undercapitalized, and Lew found himself in and out of court, often acting as his own attorney, answering suits brought by unpaid and irritated grape growers as well as other creditors. Somewhere along the line Lew took a new wife, and townsfolk speculated that the ex Mrs. Kleckler could no longer abide the stress of the fast lane. In the end the wrong luck overcame cleverness and a charming personality, and in 1949 the Wolcott family of Elmira purchased Dundee Grape Juice which then expanded into a national food-processing operation. In fourteen years Seneca acquired S. S. Pierce of Boston, Massachusetts, for even further growth. For years the headquarters remained in Dundee.

The last I heard of Lew Kleckler, he was operating a used car lot in another small town. It would be interesting to see how that town coped with a human cyclone.

© 1990, Edwin N. Harris
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