Bush’s Beans Visitor Center offers links to the past

The Bush’s Beans Visitor Center in the Chesnut Hill community of Jefferson County offers a rare look into the history of one of East Tennessee’s most iconic brands.

It is located inside the original A.J. Bush and Company general store, founded in 1897. Bush’s Beans has been in business for 109 years, although it actually started as a tomato cannery. Fruits and vegetables, which were locally grown, were soon added. Yes, beans were some of the early products.

In 1934, the development of pork and beans instantly became one of the most popular products. It later became one of the foods shipped to soldiers overseas during World War II.

As quicker and easier recipes and heat-to-eat foods became the rage, it fit in perfectly with Bush’s Beans line of products. The business grew from local to regional to one that is now globally recognized.

George Owenby, the facilities manager, has been with the company for 44 years. He explained some of how the company and process have changed.

“The people haven’t changed, but the roads and the automation have changed,” he said. “When I first started, it was a lot more hands-on. The beans used to come in 100-pound sacks. Now, they’re in 40,000-pound trucks. It’s a lot less hands-on.”

One of the biggest changes with the Bush’s Beans is the number of flavors available to today’s customers. The first baked beans were offered in 1969, developed at the company’s Wisconsin facility. The baked beans were offered in different flavors in the 1990s and in 1994, A.J. Bush’s grandson, Jay, starred in the company’s first national television commercial.

There are now 99 different flavors offered with the product lines reflecting the tastes of New Orleans, Jamaica, other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America, Owenby still is a traditionalist, who likes the product which truly made Bush’s Beans a national brand.

“The original Baked is still my favorite,” he said. “They don’t change a lot.”

The visitors center tells the story of the bean from the field through the canning process to the table. But, it also tells about the Bush family and even has some of the archives like the family Bible, a homemade quilt and the original office chair used by A.J. Bush.

Equipment used in the process from an earlier era are also on display. It’s a reminder of where they’ve come from and one reason why Owenby has stayed with the company more than four decades. He sees Bush’s, even in these modern times, as a company that remains true to its heritage.

“There’s a hospitality, a brotherhood and a family here,” he said. “When one person gets sick, we all chip in. You don’t find that at many places today.”