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How many gum balls can one company produce in 100 years?

For Ford Gum & Machine Co., in Akron, the answer is 50 billion.

One hundred years ago, Ford S. Mason, a traveling roofing salesman, decided to lease 102 vending machines and sold gum balls for a penny each. A few years later, he used his father’s design to create the Ford-patented iconic gum-ball machine. But Mason knew the key to longevity for his company was in the gum itself. He decided to go beyond machines and start manufacturing gum balls, too.

“If he didn’t make that decision, we wouldn’t still be here today,” said George Stege, the company’s president.

Now Ford Gum, which once had its head- quarters in Lockport, is the only U.S. gumball manufacturer and has over 160 distributors nationwide.

Saturday, the Akron-based company is celebrating its 100-year stretch at a picnic for employees, invited friends and public officials. Akron Mayor Carl E. Patterson, State Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer and Erie County Legislator Edward A. Rath III are scheduled to speak at the event.

In front of the company’s facility, an honorary street sign that reads “Ford Gum Way” will be installed – the first honor of its kind issued in Akron, according to a Ford Gum spokesman.

For Stege, who has been with the company more than 30 years, the 100-year milestone is a career highlight.

“Overall, the company has been able to adapt to a changing environment,” Stege explained. He added that Ford Gum has had to view itself as “more than just a penny gum-ball company” in order to survive.

In 1948 the Lockport plant was producing 187,500 gum balls per hour and using 10,000 pounds of sugar a day.

If you put the company’s current output “in terms of penny gum-ball production” they’d be producing over 5 million gum balls per day, Stege said.

But the products now made by the company stretch beyond their roots as a penny gum ball and gum-ball machine manufacturer.

Stege said their purchase of Big League Chew from Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. in 2010 “changed the company dramatically.” It boosted their employment from 100 to 150 people and brought back production of the baseball-targeted gum to the United States from Mexico. The company also manufacturers Smarties gum.

Back in the 1950s, Ronald Reagan radio spots and newspaper ads encouraged Americans to “chew for charity,” as the company’s 1-cent ‘Ford’ stamped gum balls’ profits would help support organizations like the Lions Club.

The company still supports charity-sponsored machines today. But their products appear on store shelves, not just in glass bulbs.

Starting in the 1970s, the company went through a series of ownerships before becoming privately owned again in 1997. Its marriage with Carousel, a bulk vending company, allowed Ford Gum to venture into retail sales, where much of its focus remains.

Ford Gum’s private label production offers manufacturing capabilities for other companies that want gum to help dental health, whiten teeth, boost energy, aid dieters and to help smokers quit.

Stege feels the company’s 100-year mark is evidence of the company’s adaptability and he’s proud to be a part of something that will last more than a century.

email: sdinatale@buffnews.com