October 2015 Business History: Car-Freshner

An international icon

The CarFreshner corporation building at the Jefferson County Corporate Park.

The CarFreshner corporation building at the Jefferson County Corporate Park.

Car-Freshner’s ‘Little Trees’ a global brand

By Lorna Oppedisano, NNY Business Swiss chemist Julius Samann forever changed the landscape of manufacturing in the north country when he created the formula to transfer scent to a tree-shaped car deodorizer in 1953.

Since that fateful day, Car-Freshner Corp. has grown from that one-man operation to a company of more than 500 employees, about 300 of them based in Watertown, making millions of products sold worldwide.

The company was incorporated in March 1954 with a capitalization of $100,000. The business headquarters was located at 312 Gale St. Mr. Samann sat on the original board of directors, along with president John W. Pappa and secretary-treasurer Attorney Richard F. Schwerzmann.

In the spring of 1954, the corporation expanded its headquarters to 446 Cross St., along with the Gale Street location. The new property was home to production and office space, and the original housed a warehouse and production plant.

By 1956, the Times reported in a piece entitled, “Car Freshner outlook good” that the company had grown to employ 50 people producing not only the trees, but also flowers, bathing beauties and a small boy named Peter Pine.

Car-Freshner opened offices at 161 Stone St. in 1960. Nine years later, it moved them again to the firm’s factory at 938 Water St.

In 1976, cofounder of Car-Freshner Mr. Pappa returned from Potsdam to Watertown to take over the administrative management of the company. Mr. Pappa, graduate of both Watertown High School and St. Lawrence University and veteran of the Air Force, was a former employee of the Watertown Daily Times mail room and editorial department. From 1951 to 1968, he served as treasurer of Northern Haulers Corp. In October 1968, he joined Elliot Hardwood Co. in Potsdam as the controller.

By the time Mr. Pappa took the position in 1976, the company employed 60 people and distributed products worldwide.

The company moved again in the last 1970’s. In August 1976, the Times reported that Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency signed a purchase offer of $90,000 for the former silk mill building at 203 N. Hamilton St. The JCIDA planned to renovate the property at the cost of about $30,000, and then rent it to Car-Freshner on a long-term lease. At the time, the firm employed 50 people.

In February 1978, management shifted again. Richard O. Flechtner, former executive secretary of the Watertown Foundation, joined Car-Freshner in December 1977 and took the job as office manager in a few months later. The afore-mentioned Mr. Schwerzmann served as president of the corporation.

That same year, Car-Freshner saw the first of many courtroom struggles to protect its product. It was eventually decided that Harvey Stevens of New York City has infringed on the company’s trademark by marketing a scented auto freshener in the shape of a tree called “Little Charlie.” Mr. Stevens had argued that the shape and name had become so common that they had entered public domain.

By the end of 1983, the company employed 70 people and produced about 35 million scented trees each year.

In 1986, Car-Freshner was inching toward further expansion. The company needed more space for its 20 newly hired employees, new machinery and recently-added night shift.

The firm first expressed interest in the downtown Sears building, but the property was eventually sold to the county for $600,000. Car-Freshner was looking for at least 50,000 to 60,000-square-feet of space, and began to examine other options, including moving out of the county to Canton, Ogdensburg or Gouverneur or out of the state entirely.

By the early 1990’s, a new 16,000- square-foot warehouse was added to the North Hamilton Street manufacturing plant. The company still utilized the property on Water Street for printing. By this time, Car-Freshner had begun operating a manufacturing plant in Berlin, N.H., as well, which employed 60 people. The Watertown plant had a staff of 100, and produced about 50 to 60 percent of the fresheners. The company shipped more than 50 million air fresheners a year.

In 1991, the company moved printing operations from the Water Street site to a 30,000-square-foot building on a 14-acre site of the Jefferson County Industrial Park, and it wasn’t long until it expanded on the property. The following year, Car-Freshner bought the former Phillips Cable building, a 60,000-square-foot structure. Between the location at the park, and the headquarters on North Hamilton Street, the firm employed 200 people.

Car-Freshner expanded its holdings in 1997 with the purchase of Just for Kicks, the company most well-known for producing Silly String.

By 1999, Car-Freshner had doubled the size of its Watertown warehouses, and also opened manufacturing plants in Iowa and New Jersey. It employed about 450 people, 225 of whom worked in Watertown.

The company’s growth and accomplishments did not go unnoticed by the community. In 2007, the firm received the Business of the Year award from the Greater Watertown-North Country Chamber of Commerce. In 2009, company president Jody R.A. LaLone was recognized with
the Athena Award.

After 25 years with the company, Mrs. LaLone resigned in May 2014. She had served as president for about 12 years. Now leading the company is attorney Daniel Samann, grandson of the Car-Freshener’s inventor.

Business history is a monthly feature from the archives of the Watertown Daily Times. Visit
watertowndailytimes.com to access digital archives since 1988, or stop by the Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown to research materials in our library that date back to the 1800s.