BARE: Dynamic woman built a canning empire

Published: Sunday, May. 26, 2013 - 10:29 pm

A reader's suggestion inspired this column. He (or she) asked to "hear the history of another great mover" in Stanislaus County history.

It may be recalled that a recent column was about the movers and shakers in the early days. The cited example was the story of Robert and Oramil McHenry, father and son who both were notable movers. However, since then, there have been significant others.

One was a dynamic woman who began her life in poverty. Yet, by the time she was in her early 20s, she was rapidly becoming a successful business tycoon. Her name was Myrttle Erlich, later changed to Tillie Lewis, and her story is fascinating.

Born in New York in 1901, by age 12 she was working in a wholesale grocery. But it was her marriage to a wholesale grocer, who imported pomodoro tomatoes from Italy, that changed the course of her life. It also led to her move to California.

Convinced that those popular Italian tomatoes could grow equally well in California's similar mild climate, and despite advice to the contrary from experts at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and skeptical tomato growers who told her that it couldn't be done, she persuaded area farmers to try planting the pomodoros. Her idea proved to be correct. The Italian tomatoes flourished and, in 1935 (during the Great Depression), she opened her first tomato cannery in Stockton.

About this time, she went into partnership with Italian tomato exporter Florindo del Gaizo, naming the new business Flotill Products Inc., which was a combination of their first names. When Gaizo died in 1937, Lewis bought out his share of the business, making her the sole owner of what became Flotill Foods. The move was a success.

In 1941, she opened her Modesto cannery on Ninth Street, where a few of its remains are still visible.

As well as canning tomatoes, Lewis' Flotill business started canning other fruits and vegetables, frozen juices and baby foods. During the Korean War, Flotill was the largest supplier of Army C-rations in the country.

In 1951, Tillie Lewis was named "Business Woman of the Year" by The Associated Press. In 1971, it was announced that sales of her company were more than $90 million a year. She continued to live well, having built mansions in Stockton and in Palm Springs.

Lewis died in 1977 from a stroke suffered soon after she had delivered a speech in Stockton on how women could succeed in business if they would try.

Described by her biographer, Kyle Tobin Williams, as being "brazen, dazzling and brilliant," her employees shared a sense of loyalty and affection for her long after she died. Also mentioned by the press was that she expanded her business into a $100 million agricultural empire that included fruits, vegetable and soft drinks and employed thousands from Stockton to Merced.

In Modesto, the vestiges of the cannery she opened now constitute the Tillie Lewis Business Park at 301 Ninth St. Of special interest is the 100-foot tall water tower with its Tillie Lewis logo.

Bare is the author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. Send comments or questions to

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