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Mathison, Stemilt history of hard work and compassion

Tom Mathison founded Stemilt Growers in 1964. The company’s legendary founder died on Dec. 8, 2008 at the age of 82. (Photos courtesy of Stemilt Growers Inc.)

The fruit of the Mathison family’s labors will always fall close to the tree. The fifth-generation agricultural family, which founded and continues to spearhead the operations of Stemilt Growers Inc., has left an indelible mark in the fertile soil of Washington’s Wenatchee Valley.

The family’s progenitor, Thomas Cyle Mathison, was an infant when his family immigrated to Nova Scotia from Scotland. By the time he was 12, Mr. Mathison signed on as a cabin boy and sailed around South America’s Cape Horn on the way to California. He would eventually marry Helen Atwood, and by 1890 the couple set out for Washington. Their son, Chris, was born along the way, and later on they welcomed a daughter, Estelle, into their family.

The Mathisons put down roots on Stemilt Hill in 1893 and began the arduous task of making a living on a subsistence farm. The original homestead was 80 acres, and the operation was comprised of a small orchard, cows, horses and alfalfa. When the railroad came through Wenatchee in 1909, the Mathisons acquired additional property and planted their first 15 acres of cherries.

Though the family worked most every day on the farm, they took breaks for family moments and to attend church. Shown here are Bob, Tom and Kyle Mathison during one of those moments.

Life was not easy. In 1908, Helen Mathison died and Chris Mathison took on the task of running the family farm. By the winter of 1922, Thomas Cyle had succumbed to pneumonia.

Chris Mathison, described as a man of indomitable spirit, married Adelaide Sherwood in 1914. The couple had two children prior to the birth of their twins, Thomas Kyle and Helen, on June 23, 1926.

Years later, Thomas Kyle Mathison — the legendary founder of Stemilt Growers, known to all as TK — would joke that he began life stashed in a shoe box by a midwife and placed in an open oven to stay warm.

In 1945, Mr. Mathison received his draft notice and reported to the U.S. Army. He was deployed to the Pacific Front and assigned to the 43rd Infantry division and the 172nd Infantry regiment.

At the end of World War II, Mr. Mathison seized upon one of his first entrepreneurial opportunities. He and two friends created the Starlight Café, which served military personnel helping to rebuild Japan.

Returning home, the 21-year-old Mr. Mathison could not have anticipated how devastating an unnaturally warm winter day would become.

Tom Mathison (left) and his older brother, Ray, on the family farm.

On Feb. 16, 1947, as Mr. Mathison and his father worked feverishly to shore up a dam, the structure collapsed and his father drowned.

That spring, he took up management of the farm. Two years later, he met Frances Lorraine Goldy. The couple married at Calvary Church on March 8, 1950. In August, 1951, their first child, Robert Carl, was born. Kyle Douglas was born in 1952, and Judith Lavonne rounded out the family in 1953.

“The low point for our family came in 1959,” said Kyle Mathison, Stemilt’s vice president of research and development. “My mom told my dad that he needed to go to Alcoa to get a job and feed this family. She said, ‘We can’t make it on what you’re making with these cherries.’ My dad didn’t go to Alcoa. He went to the markets to see how his cherries arrived, came back and knew what he had to do — pack his own fruit. He went in it alone. That was the real turning point for our family. In 1962, we received $36 a box from Hunts Point Market in New York. The buyer came out from New York and said he just had to come see where these cherries that shine like rubies came from. It was a huge change from 1959 and really enabled my dad to build Stemilt into what it is today.”

It wasn’t a tough decision for Mr. Mathison — sell the cow and focus on fruit. In 1964, Stemilt Growers was born.

Insights into family life and the ways in which Stemilt Growers is inextricably bound to the Mathison family are not hard to come by. Bob Mathison, chairman of the board and managing member of TKM Orchards, was asked what it was like growing up Mathison.

“It was hard work from a very young age,” he said. “I would get up at 8 a.m. and change sprinklers until noon, and did that seven days a week during the summer. In junior high, I would sweep the floors at the packingshed after school. More work on Saturdays. It didn’t hurt me a bit.”

And he learned the ways of the business world at an early age. “We asked my dad before our first year working in the orchard how much he was going to pay us,” he continued. “He said he would pay us a quarter an hour. At the end of the summer, we asked him when we would get paid, and he said we forgot to turn in our time sheets so we wouldn’t be getting paid. We didn’t make the same mistakes the next year.”

Kyle Mathison has fond memories. “When I was three or four years old, I would go to my Grandma AJ’s house across the street to help her bake cookies to take to the workers in the orchard,” he said. “I would get a penny every time I helped her. By age five, I had graduated to passing out the cookies while grandma passed out coffee to the workers. On just my second or third day on the job, Grandma AJ called me into the office and stated: ‘Kyle, you call me grandma. And even though I am your grandma, I’m not anyone else’s grandma out here. You are here to work and because of that should call me boss lady or AJ’,” Kyle Mathison recalled.

He and his wife, Jan, are the owners of Stemilt Creek Winery and named one of their wines Boss Lady to honor Grandma AJ.

“Another memory was right before I started school,” he continued. “My brother, sister and I were all responsible for picking one box of cherries per day. We worked alongside my mom every day. It was such hard work, even though we were picking the small trees.”

Bob Mathison said his father cut quite a figure. “If he was inside the house and had eaten, he was the nicest guy in the world,” he said. “As soon as he was out in the orchard, he was a different person. He was all business and was very demanding. He was the one that made things go.”

“In 1964 to 1968 and several years in the 1950s, we had no cherries because of bad weather, winter kill, you name it. It was a tough go,” Bob Mathison continued. “People were worried about getting laid off. But TK never let them go. He kept them working. The hard go was the catalyst that started Stemilt and allowed us to grow.”

In June, 2005, the mantle of Stemilt president was passed from TK to Kyle Mathison’s son, West.

“I wasn’t surprised, but definitely very humbled by the choice,” West Mathison said. “Filling his shoes was very humbling. I was definitely highly motivated to succeed in my new role.”

Thomas Kyle Mathison died Dec. 8, 2008, at the age of 82. But his ears probably perked up when West Mathison added, “Letting him down was not an option.”

West Mathison began his association with the family business when he was six years old and raking brush in the orchard. “I also had the job of making cookies and coffee to take to the workers in the orchard during break,” he added.

Mr. Mathison earned his bachelor’s degree in international business from the University of Puget Sound in 2000 and returned to Stemilt as a project manager in 2002.

West Mathison’s younger brother, Tate, earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Pacific Lutheran University in 2002 and joined the Stemilt team in 2007 as domestic sales team leader. When asked what it’s like to work with his brother, he replied, “Working with West is very easy because I’ve worked with him my whole life. As the oldest, West was in charge from an early age. West and I have a lot of mutual respect for each other both in the business and within our family life.”

The Mathison clan was asked about important life lessons passed along to them. “One thing that really has always stayed with me is that the sense of entitlement just doesn’t exist in our family,” Tate Mathison stated. “Growing up, you always looked at the business as something you could be a part of, not something that you were entitled to or going to get rich off of. From generation to generation, no one feels entitled to anything but hard work.”

Kyle Mathison, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Washington State University in 1976, said, “For me, sustainability is an extension of my soul. That’s who I am and who I want to continue to be. This came from my father — he felt the same way. We know that in the long run we’re just stewards of the land for a short time. Every day, my dad believed that it was his job to be a good steward of the land, trees and water. That ideal continued enough where we started writing it down and developed the Responsible Choice program in 1989. Responsible Choice is like the golden rule at Stemilt — are we being good stewards every day?”

As a major employer, Stemilt Growers supports its community and the tree fruit industry with a number of philanthropic programs.

“We recently donated $50,000 to Hospitality Heights to help build four new shelters for families in need,” West Mathison said. “These families are usually in transition after a crisis, and our donation covered the cost of one house. We also partner with the Wenatchee Valley Literacy Council to help our employees and other people in the community with their language skills. The idea here is that by improving English skills, there will be more opportunity for these people in their jobs. We also are very involved with the Washington Apple Education Foundation, which oversees a number of scholarships for our industry. This helps students in rural communities like ours have an opportunity to attend college.”

Of the many things TK brought to the table, teamwork stands out. “TK really created a culture at Stemilt that revolved around teamwork rather than him as the leader,” West Mathison commented. “This approach allowed for a successful transition. The Mathison family couldn’t be more proud of the team running Stemilt today. We are very blessed to be in this business.”

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