In this issue, Tom Cruickshank’s article “Cheese Please” was the perfect segue into the world of Belleville’s iconic Hawkins Cheezies.
At one time, Willard Trice Hawkins owned one of the largest snack food companies in the United States, but in the late 1940s, bankruptcy forced him to retreat to his last remaining asset north of the border – a small manufacturing plant in Tweed – where he and his partner James Marker (pictured) refocused their efforts on producing Hawkins Cheezies.
While James “Jim” Marker had spent most of his working life in the food industry, he started out as a farmer in Dayton, Ohio. And as everyone knows, no farmer is simply a farmer. Marker faced a litany of challenges every day, not the least of which was cattle feed spoilage. In response to the problem, he devised a mechanical extruder that processed and pressed cornmeal into cylinders or puffs that were resistant to rot. When Marker moved on from farming to the snack food industry, his invention caught the attention of W.T. Hawkins.
Together the two men worked on a process that fried the extruded cornmeal and then coated it with real cheddar cheese. The result? A cheesy snack food that tempted the taste buds of baby boomers – and generations to come.
Cheezie lovers don’t hesitate to tell you the difference between Hawkins Cheezies and regular cheese puffs: Hawkins Cheezies taste like real cheese.
The Tweed plant burnt down in 1956 and the company relocated to a Belleville industrial park, where it has had an unobtrusive presence ever since. But while the plant itself is unassuming, the distinctive packaging of a Cheezie bag is anything but. Cheezie lovers across Canada recognize the familiar red and white stripes set against the orange bag – and its contents – as their favourite brand because of its unfaltering quality and its crunchy cheese taste.
Jim Marker remained Vice-President of Hawkins Cheezies until he died in 2012 at the age of 90. The company is still run by a W.T. Hawkins descendant – his grandson, Kent.
Hawkins Cheezies ad courtesy of Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County