Red Dot Potato Chips

Sep 30, 2020

Many people of fond memories of Red Dot potato chips. While Red Dot was headquartered in southern Wisconsin, the company did have significant ties to the Northwoods. Historian Gary Entz has the story.

Potato chips are a beloved snack food that has been around for a long time. Legend has it that the potato chip was invented at Saratoga Springs in New York, but while the snack was popularized there in the nineteenth century, the story surrounding its discovery is largely a myth. Origins aside, by the middle of the twentieth century there were about 250 regional potato chip manufacturers in the United States, but only four big ones. These included Blue Bell on the West Coast, Morton in Dallas, Lays in Atlanta, and Fred Meyer’s Red Dot in Wisconsin.

Frederick J. Meyer was born in West Salem in 1910. While in college at the University of Wisconsin Madison he met and married Kathryn Rossman of Marshfield. Fred was earning a degree in chemistry and Kaye in commerce. It was a perfect match. While still students, the two started a snack food wholesale business to support their studies. By the time the duo graduated in 1932 they had a thriving business in selling packaged goods to Madison area grocers.

Fred and Kaye soon realized that potato chips were among their best sellers, so Fred put his chemistry degree to work. In 1938 the couple purchased a continuous potato chip making machine and entered the manufacturing side of the business as Red Dot Foods. Red Dot made and sold pretzels, popcorn, cookies, pork rinds, and nuts, but the company was always most closely identified with potato chips and Fred Meyer’s distinctive chip recipe.

So, what was the Northwoods connection with Red Dot? There were two links. When Fred and Kaye Meyer first started packaging and selling chips in 1938, they used glassine bags instead of metal cans, which were more common at the time. The number one manufacturer of glassine bags, of course, was the Rhinelander Paper Mill. By the 1940s Red Dot sold its chips in metal containers like other chip manufacturers, but there was one more Northwoods connection.

In 1942 Meyer purchased over 4000 acres for a farm near Sugar Camp in Oneida County. The land he obtained was the location of the old Robbins logging village. He grew a variety of crops and livestock, but the primary purpose of the Red Dot farm was to selectively breed potatoes to find the perfect spud for chipping. The company also built a chip factory on Rhinelander’s north side. Among the major potato chip manufactures of the era, Red Dot was the only one to grow its own potatoes and invest in long-term agricultural research to improve productivity and crop quality.

By the end of the 1950s Red Dot was at the peak of its popularity. It was a multi-million-dollar snack manufacturer in the United States and dominated the upper Midwest market. However, for reasons not entirely clear, in 1961 Meyer agreed to a merger with Lays of Atlanta. Four days after the merger, Meyer committed suicide.

Without Meyer at the helm, the Red Dot brand faded fast. It was marginalized under Lays then the label sold off to other companies. It was discontinued in 1973.