If you are a dog owner and appreciate the ease of feeding your pets with nutritious dry dog food, you owe a bit of gratitude to a forgotten Upstate New Yorker.
In 1928, Clarence Gaines of Sherburne, N.Y. revolutionized the dog food industry when he developed a “complete dog meal product” and struck it rich when his product was used by during an expedition to the South Pole.
If you remember “Gaines Burgers,” the individually wrapped dog food patties sold in supermarkets in the 1970s and ’80s, they were named after him.
“Quite often, I’m introduced as ‘Gaines, the dog food man,’” he joked in a phone interview with the Post-Standard in 1981.
He was born in 1897.
His father, Thomas, operated a feed store in the village.
Clarence worked along side his dad, and was interested in “tinkering with ways of improving animal nutrition.”
As a hobby, Clarence raised pointers. He had 20 of them, plus five children, in 1927.
Feeding them and his growing family was a problem. Plus, he was dissatisfied with the dog foods then on the market.
“They were eating me out of house and home and not doing any good either,” he once said.
Using his own dogs as “guines pigs,” Gaines began working on his own dry dog food formula.
“With the advice of a dog food expert at Michigan State University,” the “Madison County Leader and Observer” wrote in 1943, “he finally developed a mixture that made his own dogs literally flourish with health and energy.”
What set his food apart was that Gaines was the first to put vitamins, then a “new commodity,” into his. Gaines also added a “healthy shot of milk and soybean meal” which made his product a food that could be fed to dogs all year long.
“There were other companies making dog food,” Gaines recalled in 1981. “But I had a new product, a new formula that a dog could live on for all his life. All the others had to really spruce up their act.”
His fledgling company received a boost in 1939, when it was selected to feed the sled dogs of the United States Antarctic Expedition headed by Admiral Richard Byrd.
During Byrd’s previous expeditions to the South Pole, his dogs had subsisted on reindeer and seal meat.
On Nov. 2, 1939 the Sherburne News reported:
“Success in polar exploration and the lives of the men are dependent on the condition of the sled dogs. The food was chosen with as much care as the fuel for the airplanes. It must have plenty of vitamins, not only to protect the dog living near the South Pole but also while he is traveling across the equator. Nearly 200 dogs would be taken on this expedition. The order for food for this many dogs was secured entirely on the merits of the food itself as the vitamin requirements were the principal factor motivating the purchase along with the food being agreeable to the dogs themselves.”
Eighty men worked day and night at the Gaines Dog Food plant in Sherburne for five days to fill the government’s order of 70,000 pounds of food for the expedition.
Many locals stood proudly along the Cherry Valley Turnpike to witness the passage of Admiral Byrd’s Snow-Cruiser, loaded with Gaines Dog Food, on its way to Boston.
For weeks Americans read and watched news accounts of the explorer’s dogs living on nothing but Gaines’ dog food.
“The dogs thrived in 60 degrees below temperatures and on an 86-day snow-blasted ordeal,” the New Berlin Gazette wrote in 1943. “Some of these Antarctic dogs and their offspring are in U.S. war service today.”
“They let us advertise it in a way that was very beneficial to the company,” Gaines said later.
In 1943, just 15 years after perfecting his formula, Gaines Dog Food was purchased by General Foods for an undisclosed sum, thought to be in seven figures.
“They came to me,” Gaines said. “You could see that it was perfect for them. My family at that time was too young to carry on the business, so we simply made a good deal for both sides and that was all there was to it.”
With his business sold, Gaines turned his attention to his other love, horse racing.
In 1944, Gaines established Gainesway Farm in Lexington, Kentucky and it would become a leading horse-breeding farm. The stable’s horses have won nearly every important stake race in American, including back-to-back Hambletonian races in 1966 and 1967.
Classicalway, bred and owned by Gaines, was named Horse of the Year in the United States, and was named European Horse of the Year a year later.
Back in Upstate New York, Gaines was a founder of Vernon Downs, a charter regent at Le Moyne College and donated land near the Sherburne Public Library for a village park in memory of his father.
He died on Dec. 31, 1985 at Winter Park, Florida. He was 88 years old.
In 1981, he told the Post-Standard the most important thing he learned in business.
“If you’ve got something that actually has merit, they’ll listen to you. It may take some time, but keep trying. They’ll eventually listen to you.”
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