The Kuner-Empson Cannery at Third and Martin Streets in Longmont canned vegetables from farms on the northern Front Range from 1892 to 1970. Originally built by industrialist John H. Empson in 1889, the cannery was one of the first major industrial sites in Longmont and was for a time the city’s largest employers, helping to establish it as a major agricultural hub along the Front Range. In the 1980s, the cannery’s warehouse buildings were redeveloped into apartments and were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Kuner and Empson
The Kuner-Empson Company had its roots in two Denver business families. In 1864 John Kuner opened a “kitchen cannery” in Denver, canning pickles and peas. Sometime in the 1880s, John sold the company to his brother Max, who had recently arrived from St. Louis. Max changed the name to the Kuner Pickle Company and developed it into one of Colorado’s premier industrial enterprises. In 1889 he opened another pickling plant in Greeley.
Meanwhile, in 1883 Cincinnati confectioner John Howard Empson moved to Colorado to improve his poor health—likely he suffered from tuberculosis. He opened a candy store in Denver, but Empson saw a greater opportunity in canning vegetables from Colorado’s many farms and orchards. In 1886 he moved to Longmont, but his health was still poor, so he spent a year in Estes Park. Enos Mills, who would become one of the founders of Rocky Mountain National Park, helped Empson recover enough of his health so the budding industrialist could return to Longmont. In 1889, with a $1,000 investment from local residents, Empson opened a cannery at Third Avenue and Martin Street.
By that time, the Longmont area had developed a reputation for its produce, thanks in large part to a robust irrigation network built by the town’s founders. Empson did brisk business canning local peas, beans, corn, pumpkins, and other vegetables. The cannery immediately became one of Longmont’s most important businesses, providing hundreds of jobs and contributing to the local community. Empson, for instance, canned many of the area’s famously large pumpkins; in 1899 he helped sponsor Longmont’s inaugural Pumpkin Pie Day, providing money for floats and postcards, and passing out samples of his canned pumpkin pie filling.
Empson’s first cannery burned down in 1891, but by then his business was a mainstay of the community, so the citizens of Longmont helped him rebuild. In addition to the rebuilt cannery, Empson’s new complex featured a massive warehouse consisting of three red brick buildings completed between 1907 and 1912. Altogether the warehouse buildings provided some 60,000 square feet of storage space.
The fire turned out to be just a small hiccup in Empson’s business career, as he spent most of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries expanding his canning business into a small empire on the Front Range. Having already purchased the nearby Fort Lupton cannery in 1889, Empson began buying up local vegetable farms, acquiring 350 acres by 1891. Around the same time, he developed a sweeter, smaller version of his peas, his primary crop. In 1895 he received a patent for a pea-sheller machine, and in 1897 he patented a machine called a “viner,” which separated peas from pods and vines. By 1903 Empson’s Longmont cannery employed 400 people and processed vegetables from more than 2,500 company acres. In 1907 he opened canneries in Greeley and Fort Collins.
In 1920 Empson sold the Empson Packing Company, by then valued at $1 million, to a group of Longmont investors. At the time, the elderly Empson stated that the deal was the largest business transaction in Colorado history. Empson died in 1926, and a year later the Kuner Pickle Company bought the Empson Packing Company, creating the Kuner-Empson Company.
The newly merged company was run by Karl Kuner Mayer, grandson of Max Kuner. At the time of the merger, the company had canneries in Brighton, Fort Lupton, Greeley, Loveland, and Longmont. The company also operated packing plants across the state, even as far as Grand Junction on the Western Slope. Thomas Potter, a manager at the former Empson Company, stayed on as superintendent of the Greeley, Loveland, and Longmont plants. The merger freed up capital to make improvements at the company’s canneries, including new canning and pea-hulling machinery.
The Kuner-Empson Company operated the Longmont cannery for the next several decades, until old equipment and an outdated sewer system forced its closure in 1970. The cannery was condemned and demolished in 1983, but the warehouse buildings remained. In the 1980s, a partnership led by Longmont developer Roger Pomainville acquired the property and renovated the old brick warehouse buildings into apartments. The buildings were remodeled in a similar style as the old brick warehouses in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood, many of which were being redone at the same time. Renovators left some of the artifacts of the old cannery, such as a bronze pea-crushing cauldron, in the hallways. In 1983 the buildings were designated a Longmont Landmark, and a year later they were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the Kuner-Empson Cannery warehouse buildings are home to apartments managed by the Thistle Company, an affordable housing company based in Boulder. The apartments’ income cap, designed to offer working-class individuals and families affordable housing in Boulder County, continues the cannery’s tradition of providing for Longmont’s working class.