Seabrook, Charles Courtney

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Seabrook, Charles Courtney

(b. 15 January 1909 in Bridgeton, New Jersey; d. 4 October 2003 in Woods-town, New Jersey), frozen food packager who was instrumental in building the frozen food industry in the twentieth century.

Seabrook was born in the family farmhouse; he was the second of the three sons of Charles Franklin (“C. F.”) Seabrook and Norma Dale (Ivans) Seabrook. He was named after his father although he was called Courtney. Seabrook grew up on the family farm, which raised produce that was sold locally. This farmstead grew from a truck farm to a cannery and eventually into an innovative vegetable freezing and packaging company. The extensive growth of the Seabrook farm began with the installation of elevated pipes for irrigation, which greatly increased the production of vegetables. Seabrook’s father continued to expand his business interests. He owned a Packard dealership in Bridgeton, ran a contracting company, and helped to develop farm machinery using vehicle technology used in trench warfare during World War I. This project was the beginning of the international company known as Caterpillar.

As a boy Seabrook worked in the fields picking vegetables. While in high school he worked for his father’s contracting company. On this job he helped build the foundations for the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the city of Philadelphia’s exhibition site celebrating the 150th birthday of the United States. He also worked at the family-owned Koster Nursery, where he developed his lifelong love of horticulture.

Seabrook remembered walking two miles to a three-room schoolhouse in Deerfield, New Jersey, that was heated with a potbelly stove. His father believed that education was essential and organized the local vegetable farmers to petition the state for a new school, which was built on land donated by the Seabrook family. Seabrook graduated from Bridgeton High School in 1927 and joined his older brother at Mercersburg Academy, a college preparatory school in Pennsylvania. Seabrook had an aptitude for mathematics, having completed three years of study in one year. A year later he entered Lehigh University.

In 1929 the Seabrook contracting company and farm collapsed with the world economy, and Seabrook had to raise his tuition himself. Determined to continue his education, he went directly to the president of Lehigh, who was familiar with the family because the university had planted the unique Koster blue spruce on campus. It did not hurt that Seabrook was a top student. The president worked out an arrangement whereby Seabrook worked as a short-order cook from four to seven o’clock in the morning for $3 per week. Half of that money would go for tuition. Seabrook’s wrestling coach put him in touch with another student wrestler, and they shared a room over a store for $3 per month, which included clean sheets once a month.

Seabrook graduated from Lehigh in 1932 with a BS in civil engineering, but he did not pursue an engineering career. Instead, he went to work full time as vice president of Koster Nursery in Deerfield. In 1934 he married Mae Dilks, and they had three children.

In the late 1930s Seabrook met Clarence Birdseye, who was interested in developing a process for freezing vegetables for mass marketing. Birdseye was employed by the Hudson Bay Trading Company in Canada and got his idea from observing how the northern peoples stored food during the winter. By this time electric refrigeration had become available. Seabrook and Birdseye collaborated to establish a business that packaged and froze fresh vegetables for shipment throughout the United States. The first packaging plant was constructed in Sainte-Martine, Quebec, Canada. Each week Seabrook traveled twelve hours by train from Philadelphia to Canada. When Great Britain entered the World War II, there was suddenly a huge demand for frozen vegetables. Seabrook and Birdseye increased their efforts to meet this demand.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor brought a change to the Seabrook family. Seabrook’s brother went overseas with the army quartermaster corps to build vegetable processing plants to help supply the army. Seabrook was asked to help the Department of Agriculture’s newly organized War Food Administration develop processes and packaging for mass troop feeding. This work led to the development of food-grade plastics and the technology of flexible packaging containers. The steel previously needed for food containers was diverted to other military needs. The work also put Seabrook on the leading edge of the vegetable processing business. During the war the plastics industry was in its infancy. Seabrook worked with the DuPont company on many prototypes, but until after the war no packaging material was devised that could be both frozen and heated without coming apart. In 1953 this research resulted in Mylar, a polyester film used in an innovative line of boil-in-the-bag frozen products.

After the war Seabrook headed the sales department of Seabrook Farms. One of his marketing and sales strategies was to host food and wine tastings for food writers and gourmets from the United States and France. He also became president of the National Frozen Food Association. In this capacity Seabrook worked with many producers and General Foods to expand the demand and market for frozen foods. In the early 1950s progress was slow because of the lack of freezer cases in stores as the result of the use of the nation’s steel supply in the war effort. By the end of the 1950s sufficient refrigerated display space had led to increased demand for frozen food and to Seabrook’s success.

In 1955 Seabrook went to work for Standard Packaging Corporation of Clifton, New Jersey, as an executive developing and marketing plastic film for the food industry. He retired in 1974 and went back to his first love, horticulture, raising commercial nursery stock on his Linneaus Farm outside of Daretown, New Jersey. Seabrook’s wife died in September 1976. He then married Margaret Huber, and they made their home in Woods-town. She died in 1997. Seabrook died in the Friends Home at Woodstown. He is buried at Deerfield Presbyterian Church.

Charles Harrison, Growing a Global Village: Making History at Seabrook Farms (2003), describes the community that developed at Seabrook Farms after World War II. J. M. Seabrook, The Henry Ford of Agriculture: Charles F. Seabrook 1881–1964 and Seabrook Farms 1893–1959 (1995), is a history of Seabrook family and the transformation of the farm into a food processing plant. John Seabrook, “The Spinach King,” New Yorker (20–27 Feb. 1995), describes the Seabrook family and farm and includes interviews with Japanese Americans who lived in the community. An obituary is in the New York Times (10 Oct. 2003).

Joan Goodbody