The Jell-O Museum in LeRoy, New York, offers a flavorful stop and is only one hour away from Buffalo.
By Tom and Joanne O’Toole
The village of LeRoy, New York, boasts tree-lined streets, classic Victorian homes, and the distinction of being the birthplace of America’s most famous dessert.
It’s easy to find your way around “” and to “” this small town, which is 60 minutes east of the Buffalo/Niagara region. Simply travel along Interstate 90, the New York State Thruway; take exit 47; and travel south a few miles.
Our first stop was a coffee shop on Main Street where excellent pastries are served. As chance would have it, a couple of senior gents in the shop had worked for Jell-O before the operation was moved elsewhere, and we had an engaging conversation.
A few blocks east, at 23 E. Main, is the LeRoy House. This venerable home is situated in front of the Jell-O Museum. Go down the driveway on the east side to the back of the house to park, or park on the street and walk down the “Jell-O Brick Road” (a red brick walkway inlaid with sponsors’ names) to the museum/gallery, which is located in a stone annex.
The museum has been in this location since 1997, the 100th anniversary of the invention of Jell-O. Although small, the gallery is laced with objects that trace the invention, production, and promotion of Jell-O gelatin dessert. The exhibits include recipe books, molds, collectibles, and 20 original oil paintings that were commissioned to advertise the product many years ago.
Noted artists of the day such as Rose O’Neill, Maxfield Parrish, Coles Phillips, Linn Ball, Angus MacDonnall, and Norman Rockwell produced charming illustrations that made Jell-O a household word.
It all started in 1897 when a carpenter named Pearle Wait was mixing up a cough remedy and laxative tea. He experimented with gelatin and created a fruit-flavored dessert that his wife, May, named Jell-O. Wait lacked the know-how and the money to market his concoction, so in September 1899 he sold the rights to the formula to another LeRoy resident, Orator F. Woodward, for $450. Woodward was the owner of the Genesee Pure Food Company.
At first, Jell-O sales were slow and disheartening. But the product was headed for success. By 1902 sales grew to $250,000, and by 1909 they topped $1 million. Four years later, that figure doubled. From then on, the jiggly stuff was big, big business.
Jell-O soon could be found in almost every household in North America. The product’s success was phenomenal. Recipe books were a big promotional item, and in the early days nearly 15 million of them were distributed each year.
Advertisements also helped to make Jell-O popular. A 4-year-old girl named Elizabeth King was introduced in 1904 as the Jell-O Girl. For many years “” until the 1940s “” she appeared in advertising and on Jell-O boxes. In her right hand she held a teakettle, and in her left a package of the product.
The Genesee Pure Food Company was reorganized as the Jell-O Company in 1923. In 1925 the Jell-O Company was sold to the Postum Cereal Company Inc., and became the first subsidiary of a merger that brought more than $64 million to Jell-O stockholders and resulted in the creation of the General Foods Corporation.
In 1934 General Foods, a pioneer in radio advertising, signed Jack Benny to be the spokesman for Jell-O. Soon all the world could spell “J-E-L-L-O.” Visitors to the museum hear vintage recordings of Jack Benny’s voice as he talks about the dessert.
Until 1964, Jell-O was made right in LeRoy; today it is manufactured by Kraft/General Foods in Dover, Delaware. And although the original four Jell-O flavors were orange, lemon, raspberry, and strawberry, today hungry customers can choose from more than 20 flavors.
The most significant item inside the museum is the original contract selling the rights to Jell-O. In addition, many other items help trace the 100-plus-year history of America’s favorite dessert: the marvelous paintings mentioned earlier; advertising through the decades; packaging; salesmen’s samples; old photos; and displays. Jell-O truly is part of Americana.
Jell-O trivia is abundant. Perhaps the strangest fact of all is that technicians at St. Jerome Hospital in Batavia, New York, recently tested a bowl of lime Jell-O with an EEG machine, thereby confirming an earlier test that showed that a bowl of wiggly Jell-O produces waves identical to those in the brains of adult men and women.
The Jell-O Gallery Gift Shop offers an array of Jell-O merchandise, and all items are licensed through the company. LeRoy is the only place in the world where these products are sold.
After your tour, be sure to browse through the LeRoy House, the previously noted 19th-century home that stands in front of the Jell-O museum building and is home to the LeRoy Historical Society. Built in 1822, it contains three floors open to the public, full of historically furnished rooms.
Other nearby attractions
Between LeRoy and the Buffalo area are two attractions you also may wish to visit. In the town of Batavia (exit 48 off the New York State Thruway) is a significant historic site, where 3 million acres of land in western New York were surveyed and sold. The Holland Land Office Museum contains a fine collection of artifacts from the 1800s, including textiles, maps, Civil War objects, and a Victorian parlor. Past temporary exhibits have focused on baby boomers, local immigration, 20th-century toys, and sensational area crimes. The current temporary exhibit, as of early 2003, was “The Korean War, 1950-1953.” Phone (585) 343-4727 for more information or visit www.hollandlandoffice.com.
If you’re traveling with children, you may be interested to know that Six Flags Darien Lake amusement park is located in Darien Center, between Buffalo and LeRoy (approximately 25 miles west of LeRoy). This theme park offers a 1,200-plus-site campground; numerous rides, including a roller coaster that travels more than 70 mph; shows and attractions; a water park; and much more. Phone (585) 599-4641 (park), (585) 599-2211(campground), or visit www.sixflags.com/darienlake/ for more information.
The Jell-O Museum is open year-round Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and also on Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Sunday from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. between May and October. Adult admission is $3; $1.50 for children ages 6 to 11. For more information, contact:
23 E. Main St.
LeRoy, NY 14482
For more information about attractions and campgrounds in the area, contact:
Genesee County Chamber of Commerce
210 E. Main St.
Batavia, NY 14020