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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Aleta "Ma" Brown of Alpine Township

by Cindy Laug


Ma, as Aleta was often called, liked the wholesale fruit business and was good at it. She was quoted as saying “Jack (my husband) didn’t want to continue to work, he wanted to retire but I wanted to continue, so I took over in 1960.” She made that decision by choice, not necessity.

The Brown’s, with 6 area growers, formed “Jack Brown Produce Inc.,” a grower-owned packing and marketing corporation. The packing house was built in 1960 in the heart of the Peach Ridge area, NW of Grand Rapids. The company, a centralized sales and packing agency, completely changed apple marketing for many West Michigan fruit growers. Most apples from the Brown's went to Detroit and Flint. As the business grew larger they added Winnipeg, Canada, which was a great sale area. Ma had a good business sense and stayed one step ahead. She served as president of the corporation from 1960 to 1989.

John Schaefer Jr., current president of Jack Brown Produce, said, “She battled her way into a man’s world, and she was accepted as an equal. Her customers and growers came to have a lot of respect for her. She expected only the best, and she sold service. If she told the Kroger man the apples would be there at 7:03, by God, they’d be there precisely at 7:03. And she expected no less from her growers and suppliers. Ma Brown provided a way for growers to market their fresh fruit more widely after it became impossible for individual growers to serve the large grocery chains. The firm was started with 6 growers and now sells produce for over 60 growers.”

Phil Schwallier, district horticulture agent, stated, “Mrs. Brown had excellent business savvy. She was known for her tough standards and sharp tongue.” One farmer was quoted in the Grand Rapids Press, “She really knew her business . . . but she was hell to work for."

Ginny Ebers, a local Sparta orchardist and comrade, remembers going to dinner with Ma Brown.  “It was late when we headed home and she asked me to pull over. She pulled out a flashlight and headed through the ditch into the orchard of Mike Baers. ‘Why these apples are ready for picking, I need to get a hold of him first thing tomorrow.’ Apples were such a big part of her life!” laughed Ebers.

Ginny and Ma shared a lot as both were women in the male dominated fruit industry.

Shortly after Ginny’s husband died leaving her to take over the orchards, Ma stopped over and said encouragingly, “Ginny, you can do this and don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t.” Ebers remarked, “She was tough on the outside but her heart was as big as a bushel basket.”

Yes, Mrs. Brown was known to be demanding, rough, and crusty but did a great job for the Ridge industry. Outside the hectic fruit business Ma enjoyed her passion--her rose garden. She was also an animal lover and supporter of the Kent County Humane Society. She worked in the business she loved until 1989, but with declining health retired at the age of 87. She passed away in 1991 at the age of 89 and was buried at Alpine’s Pine Grove Cemetery.

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