Though the status of Suffolk as the nation’s leading producer of peanuts has waned in the last half century, the role the popular legume played in the city’s history is beyond question.
Suffolk was first hailed as “The Peanut Capital of the World” on the strength of Italian immigrant Amedeo Obici setting up shop downtown in 1913. His enterprise consisted of six employees, two large roasters and some crude machinery; it was named Planters Nut and Chocolate Company.
It all started when, during his brief tenures as a bellhop and fruit stand vendor in Scranton, Pa., Obici noticed peanuts were a snack food favored by his customers. He invested in a peanut roaster, dubbed himself “The Peanut Specialist” and peddled his wares by horse and wagon.
In 1906 he briefly partnered with Mario Peruzzi, who had developed an efficient method of blanching whole roasted peanuts. He subsequently moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where he incorporated Planters. He settled permanently in Suffolk, where his company, now owned by Kraft Foods, has been an industrial mainstay for more than a century. It remains one of the 10 largest employers in the city.
In 1916 Planters held a contest to design a logo. A local grade school student, 11-year-old Antonio Gentile, submitted a drawing of Mr. Peanut to win the contest. His original design was tweaked by a commercial artist and has undergone several revisions throughout the years, but still stands as one of the most recognizable brand icons in the world.
Young Mr. Gentile won $5 for the contest, according to Kevin Sary, supervisor for the city’s tourism office. “And when he graduated from high school, Mr. Obici paid his way through medical school.”
The legendary Planters company wasn’t the first successful peanut-related business in town, though. That honor goes to the Suffolk Peanut Company, established in 1897.
Nowadays peanut farm acreage is a fraction of what it was in the industry’s prime, though the decrease is offset somewhat by more efficient farming techniques. The old Planters’ factory was demolished in the 1990s and replaced with a newer, more compact facility.
Obici’s dairy farm is now a golf course. His original homestead underwent extensive renovation four years ago, Sary said. “It’s now a special events venue. We kept the original flooring, and the stained glass windows are still intact.”
“There is still a huge presence of peanuts and our peanut heritage in Suffolk,” he noted. Mr. Peanut statues dot the city, and visitors can take educational tours of Planters and learn about the history of peanuts.
The Planters Peanut Center opened in 1967, offering tours and a variety of peanut products. In addition, Suffolk sports several gift shops and other outlets featuring peanuts and peanut items such as magnets.
“One of our peanut museums is operated by the historical society, and we have an HO scale model of 1907 Suffolk and a portion of a peanut farm,” he added. Other currently operating peanut companies include Producers, Golden and Birdsong.
Sary’s department works with the nonprofit Suffolk Festivals Inc. to stage the four-day Suffolk Peanut Fest every October. The festival outgrew its downtown venue several years ago and now draws more than 100,000 visitors annually to a 50-acre site adjacent to Suffolk Executive Airport.
But the sprawling 430-square-mile municipality, the largest in Virginia, is about more than just peanuts. “We still have an agricultural heritage,” said Sary, citing crops like cotton and corn. “The Lipton Tea Company has been here since the 1950s, and we have several warehouses for companies like Target, QVC and several in the medical field.”
The city’s location is fortuitous, enticing visitors with its proximity to the oceanfront and ports.
“We’re a short drive from Williamsburg, and we have much Civil War history here. A lot of visitors have done the beach and want to explore other sites.” He described Suffolk as an ideal tourist destination, featuring “smalltown charm with big-city amenities.”