Amedeo Obici: The Italian American Peanut King

“Everyone has a nickel.”

That realization was what led Amedeo Obici to create a lasting empire.

Obici came to the United States from Oderzo, Italy, in 1889 at the age of 10. Originally planning to go to Scranton, Pennsylvania to join relatives, a mix-up en route from Brooklyn led him to Wilkes-Barre, where he was introduced to the Musantes, an Italian family who owned a fruit store. There, the young Obici worked in the store, strengthening his business acumen and his command of the English language.

As he learned the craft of selling fruit from the Musante family, Obici made a key business observation, which he is quoted as saying in an Associated Newspapers article from 1929: “I noticed that everyone in this country always has a nickel.

This observation eventually led Obici to try his hand at selling hot roasted peanuts for five cents a bag in downtown Wilkes-Barre. By 1907, sales had been going well enough that Obici, his brother, Frank, and Mario Peruzzi, an Italian immigrant to nearby Hazelton who had developed his own method of blanching whole roasted peanuts, joined forces to file the articles of incorporation for the Planters Nut Company.

The team paid $25 rent for two floors of a factory in downtown Wilkes-Barre, eventually taking over a four-story building the next year. Within two years, business expanded to include confectionary items and the company was renamed the Planters Nut and Chocolate Company. By 1913, Obici had moved production to Suffolk, Virginia., which was the “Peanut Capital of the World.” He retained his offices in Wilkes-Barre, and the company’s corporate headquarters were located there until 1961.

“Planters was interesting in that it grew why many other industries in Wilkes-Barre faltered,” said Mark J. Riccetti, Jr., director of operations and programs at the Luzerne County Historical Society. “At the dawn of the 1900s, Wilkes-Barre was very ‘heavy industry,’ featuring mining, mills and factories, such as the Matheson Automobile plant. Through the teens and into the Depression these declined rapidly; however, Planters exploded, building their plants in Roanoke, San Francisco and Toronto and becoming an American staple, so much so that its peanuts were issued to Americans in WWI. In many ways, Planters was the last holdout of Wilkes-Barre’s 19th-century industrial past as the city, and particularity the downtown, rapidly changed into a commercial district.”

By 1916, Planters Nut and Chocolate Company decided to run a contest for a trademark. A young Italian American resident of Suffolk, Antonio Gentile, won the contest with his drawing of “Mr. Peanut.” The beloved company mascot debuted in 1918. Never one to forget his roots, Obici paid for Gentile’s schooling, as well as that of his brothers and sisters.

Obici and his wife, Louisa, the daughter of the Musante family who took him in upon arrival from Italy, moved from Pennsylvania to Virginia in 1924. Their legacy is still felt today, as their property, Bay Point Farm, is now owned by the City of Suffolk, and houses the Sleepy Hole Golf Course. Their home has also been restored and renovated and serves as event space. The entire Bay Point Farm complex is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Planters property in Wilkes-Barre has changed hands several times over the years. The original distribution facility was razed in 2006 and the main building, located on Wilkes-Barre’s Main St., now sits vacant. A marker was placed in front of the building by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission in 2007. Currently, the Wilkes-Barre Preservation Society is working to salvage the building for community use.

“Amedeo Obici is absolutely the epitome of the American Dream,” Riccetti said. “He is 100 percent the ideal that many Italians, including my great-grandfather, held in their hearts when they made the trip to America. He truly was one of Wilkes-Barre’s greatest men.”

Amedeo Obici died in Wilkes-Barre in 1947. Before his death, he set aside money to establish a hospital in his late wife Louise’s name in Suffolk, as well as another hospital in his hometown of Odzero, Italy.

In a memorial tribute published in the Scranton Times shortly after his death, Obici was described as “ a shining example of an immigrant boy who found a golden opportunity in America and took advantage of it… It was no easy task for Mr. Obici to reach the high spot he did in the business life of the nation. His income did not always exceed his outgo. But he had faith in America and this faith helped him to carry on in the tough-going days.”

This article originally appeared on The Italian American Podcast.

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