Joe M. Steele
(1905 – 1976)
Steele Canning Company and Springdale Canning Company
Beaver Water District
While Beaver Lake and its abundant water supplies are often taken for granted today, water has been critical to the economic development of Northwest Arkansas. In the 1950s, the need for a reliable source of water was recognized. Trailblazer Joe M. Steele led the charge to secure a water source for residents and industry in Benton and Washington counties.
Steele was born on April 1, 1905, to James Cooper and Sarah Anna Hudson Steele in Elm Springs, Arkansas. When he was four, the family moved to a farm south of Tontitown. He attended Springdale High School and set his sights on the University of Arkansas. Canning tomatoes to pay for his education, he studied engineering from 1924 to 1926 before leaving to devote more time to his business.
His first full-time canning operation – Steele Canning Company – was started near a large spring on the family farm. Starting with tomatoes, the operation soon expanded to include spinach, lima beans, green beans, field peas, and sweet potatoes. With the operations thriving, in the early 1930s, Steele Canning relocated to Springdale. In 1927, Steele married Nancy “Nannie” Lee Webster, and they had two daughters - Nancy Jo and Marjorie Lee. The canned vegetable brands Nancy Jo and Marjorie Lee were created to honor them. In 1938, Steele married Gretchen Gilliland Broyles, who had a young son, Phillip Wayne.
Steele and his cousin Luther Johnson bought the Springdale Canning Company in 1937. By this point, Steele owned or co-owned five canneries, as well as hatcheries, poultry farms and feed mills. That year, Steele Canning shipped the first trainload – 28 cars – of canned foods ever shipped in the United States. In 1938, Steele purchased a trainload of fertilizer – another railroad first – for local farms and his agricultural suppliers. During World War II, 70 percent of Steele’s canned products were diverted to the armed forces. In recognition of its role in the war effort, Steele Canning Company received an Achievement “A” Food for Freedom Award in 1945.
When Johnson passed away in 1954, the poultry division was sold to entrepreneur John W. Tyson. Steele retained the canning companies and purchased Johnson’s interest in First State Bank.
By the early 1960s, with seven plants and over 50 products, Steele Canning was the largest cannery in Arkansas. After Phillip joined Steele Canning in 1957, the father/son duo embraced several innovative marketing initiatives including sponsoring the Beatles 1964 tour with Wagon Master Beans and increasing in-store spinach sales with the addition of Popeye on its label in 1965.
In 1972, the company was operating 16 plants, making it one of the largest canning companies in the nation. Due to health concerns, Steele sold Steele Canning Company to Pioneer Food Industries. He then created Steele Enterprises and focused on his banking interests in First State Bank.
While Steele’s first operation was located near a spring, as production and the area’s population grew, so did the need for water. In 1922, Springdale’s water system served about 50 people. By 1950, the population had grown to nearly 6,000 people, and the original water source could no longer support the community. Nearby Fayetteville, Rogers and Bentonville were experiencing similar water challenges.
During dry summers, Steele’s canneries were sometimes asked to close or shift production to other plants due to water shortages. In 1959, Beaver Water District was organized, a first for Arkansas, with Steele as a founding board member. The following year, the four cities joined forces to pay for water storage in the proposed Beaver Reservoir. Having signed contracts with the U.S. Corps of Engineers to underwrite initial water allocations, in 1963, the district was required to pay a $700,000 matching fee to secure federal funding to underwrite construction for the new water plant.
In Boston recuperating after eye surgery, Steele received word of the immediate need for the funds. Calling First State Bank, he personally guaranteed the loan, allowing the project to move forward. Initially built and operated by the Springdale Water and Sewer Department of which Steele was chairman, it was later turned over to the district as other cities came online. In honor of his longtime work and financial support, the Beaver Water District named the treatment facility the Joe M. Steele Water Plant.
Steele served on Springdale’s City Council, Water and Sewer Commission and Industrial Park Commission, Memorial Hospital board of trustees and Rotary Club. On the Chamber of Commerce, he chaired the Industrial Committee for 20 years and was chair of the West-Ark Area Boy Scout Council. He was appointed to the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, State Police Commission and State Fair and Livestock Show Association board. A member of the Ozark Canners and Freezers Association, Steele was the National Canners Association director for 20 years. He was also on the First United Methodist Church board and finance committee chairman.