Gilbert Carl Swanson was the son of Carl. A. Swanson, a Swedish immigrant. Gilbert was sent to Fayetteville from Omaha, Nebraska, to manage his family’s Jerpe Dairy Products Corporation plant. Jerpe Commission Co. began as a partnership in 1886 between Carl A. Swanson, John Jerpe and Frank Ellison. The business, Jerpe Commission Co., specialized in butter production and poultry. 



After the death of one of the partners, Carl A. Swanson bought out the other partner in 1928. This company served as one of the largest providers of poultry and eggs to soldiers during World War II. After the war, the name of the company changed to C. A. Swanson and Sons.

The brothers were hard workers and innovative thinkers. They saw that times were changing and women were entering the workforce. That was the impetus for the creation of a line of frozen convenience foods. The chicken pot pie was introduced in 1951. After Carl Swanson died October 9, 1949, his sons Gilbert and Clark introduced Swanson TV dinners and went from selling 5,000 dinners in the first year to 10,000,000 dinners the next year. Carl A. Swanson is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, south edge of Section 24.

Gilbert C. Swanson (January 7, 1906 – 1968) was chairman of C. A. Swanson & Sons frozen food company.

In 1953, they overestimated the demand they would have for frozen turkey at Thanksgiving. They had some left over – “some” meaning 260 tons (520,000 pounds) of it. They only had 10 refrigerated rail cars to store it in, 52,000 pounds in each. The train cars had to be kept moving from Nebraska to the east coast and back again to generate the refrigeration. Or at least that was the story for decades.

It was told by a Gerry Thomas, born February 17, 1922, in Seward, Nebraska. A salesman, Gerry Thomas had seen the single compartment aluminum trays that Pan Am Airways were testing to heat passengers’ food in, with the idea of introducing hot meals on flights. Thomas said that he figured out a tray with three compartments, so that each food could be cooked in its own compartment. He suggested that the marketing of the frozen dinner be tied in with having dinner while watching TV. He gave his ideas to Clark Swanson, who assembled a team of sales and marketing people to work on the idea.

Around 2002, Betty Cronin (born c 1928), a bacteriologist who would later work on the introduction of the fried chicken line, said that the Swanson brothers had come up with the ideas themselves. In any event, the marketing idea was to sell them as a meal to have while watching TV. The boxes the frozen meal trays were packaged in were designed to look like wood-grain television sets, complete with graphic representations of television volume and channel dials on them. Where the TV screen was on the package, there was a picture of the meal inside.

The meals went on sale as TV dinners at the start of 1954 for 98 cents each. Customers got turkey, buttered peas, sweet potato and cornbread stuffing. At the time, there were 33 million TV sets in America. Television programming was only available three or four hours a day then, so, if you had a set, you watched it during those hours. Since most of the programming was on late afternoon and early evening, that’s when people gathered around their sets. The Swanson’s idea was to create a portable meal that people could carry into their living rooms to eat. The Swanson TV dinner was the first widely available frozen dinner.

Swanson authorized a first run of 5,000 frozen dinners, but, within 10 months, they had already sold 10 million of them. By the end of 1954, they sold over 25 million of them.

A year later, the company dropped its successful butter and margarine business to concentrate on a poultry-based line of canned and frozen products. In April, 1955, Swanson’s 4,000 employees and 20 plants were acquired by the Campbell Soup Company.

In 1958, Gilbert and Clarke bought Paxton and Gallagher Wholesale Grocery. The Swanson brothers renamed the company the Butternut Foods Co. The company expanded and then merged with Duncan Coffee Co. of Houston. Subsequently, that business merged into the Coca Cola Company.

Roberta (Bo) Epperson Fulbright was born April 2, 1911. She and her twin sister Helen Stratton were the last two children of Jay and Roberta Waugh Fulbright. They joined four other children including James William Fulbright (called Bill), later president of the University of Arkansas, who also had a distinguished 30-year career in the U. S. Senate.

The twins attended the University of Arkansas and were members of the Pi Beta Phi sorority. Bo served for a time as manager of the Fulbright-owned radio station KUOA.

On March 16, 1936, she married Gilbert Carl Swanson. The newlyweds moved into their newly furnished home in the Fayetteville Oak Park addition. In the 1930s, a son, Gilbert Carl (Gibby), was born. They moved to Omaha in 1939 to return to the family’s business headquarters. They had three more children, Jay, Patsy and Helen Carla.

Following World War II, Fayetteville’s economy boomed and its population doubled. The public library’s cramped quarters in the City Administration Building were strained to the limit, and the decision was made to build. In 1959, Gilbert Swanson donated two lots at 21 E. Dickson in Fayetteville, then valued at $35,000, if the library board agreed to name the building for his mother-in-law, Roberta Waugh Fulbright (publisher of the Northwest Arkansas Times) and his wife Bo. Building dedication was June 4, 1962.
 

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The Clinton House Museum and its collections interpret the lives of President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton during the time they lived in Fayetteville and occupied the home at 930 W. Clinton Drive. With its range of programs, exhibits, and special events, the Museum promotes the legacy of the Clintons' commitment to public service and civic engagement for international, national, and local visitors as well as preserves the historic home and its role in Fayetteville, Arkansas history. 

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