Longmont’s Agricultural History: The Empson Cannery

Longmont, Colorado has a history steeped in agriculture that played a major role in the settlement of the community. From the first flour mills built in 1872 to the Great Western Sugar Company built in 1903, Longmont became a manufacturer of many food products. One of Longmont’s largest successes was the Empson Cannery built by John H. Empson in the late 1800s. Empson came to Colorado with a dream which he fulfilled in Longmont.

John Howard Empson and his daughter, Lida, came to Colorado in 1880 from Cincinnati, Ohio first opening a candy store in Denver in 1883. After spending a year in the mountains due to health reasons (most likely tuberculosis), Empson was determined to open a canning factory in order to distribute Colorado’s farm products, so he moved to Longmont to follow his dreams.

John H. Empson (1849-1926)

Empson moved to Longmont in 1887 and opened his first cannery under the name “J. Empson and Daughter.” Fire destroyed this first cannery in 1891, but it was rebuilt and expanded over the years. During the 1890s, Empson bought area farms for vegetable production, and he began to take a great interest in farming. As he learned more about agriculture, he became more and more successful.

Empson Cannery Workers, 1910

Empson opened additional canning factories in Greeley, Loveland and Fort Lupton, and he had vegetable and fruit receiving stations in Berthoud, Johnstown, Ault, Hygiene and Mead. He even patented a pea-shelling machine and a pea viner for separating peas from their pods and vines. By 1905, Empson had 600 employees and 2,000 acres of his main crop, peas.

Shelling peas inside the Kuner-Empson Cannery, 1946

Empson was a prominent man in Northern Colorado known as a master of public relations. He held “Pea Parties”, and he sponsored Longmont’s Pumpkin Pie Days, donating many of the pumpkins needed for the celebration. Emspon was also a world traveler collecting artifacts on his trips, many of which are in the Longmont Museum’s collection today. When he sold the Longmont Cannery to five, prominent, local businessman in 1920, it was for a reported one million dollars, and at the time, the Cannery was thought to be the largest pea cannery in the world.

Five men sit on pumpkins outside the Kuner-Empson Cannery, 1930.

In 1927, the Empson Packing Company merged with the Kuner Pickle Company of Brighton, Colorado and became the Kuner-Empson Company. They were sold again in 1960 to Stokely-VanCamp, and the canning business closed its doors in 1970. Today, the Empson Cannery has been renovated and is an apartment complex located on the southwest corner of 3rd Avenue and Martin Street just east of Longmont’s Main Street.

The Empson Cannery, 1910-1930
All photos courtesy of the Longmont Museum & Cultural Center. Cover photo: Longs Peak and Empson Cannery, 1907.